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County leaders says Columbia Pike’s future looks ‘bright’ as construction nears completion

Construction and haze along Columbia Pike (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

As a 15-year-long project to rebuild Columbia Pike with wider sidewalks and underground utilities enters its last construction phase, county leaders say they are seeing early signs of a promising future.

On Thursday, the Columbia Pike Partnership held its third annual “State of the Pike,” during which Arlington County’s department heads delivered a comprehensive overview of the Pike’s housing market and local economy via Zoom.

Despite the construction’s impact on walkability and traffic flow, officials noted that the area’s retail, office and multifamily apartment vacancies fall well below the county average. Still, they say, neighborhoods on the Pike still face persistent challenges, such as addressing graffiti and revitalizing a stagnant office market.

For nearly two decades, construction along the Pike has been a constant presence for businesses, residents and commuters alike. The constant construction thrum is not likely to abate until late 2025, according to County Deputy Director of Transportation Hui Wang.

While these improvements have made the Pike more walkable and leafier, some county officials have noted that they have also hurt some businesses. At the same time, other business owners are finding it difficult to secure retail space, notes Arlington Economic Development Deputy Director Kate Ange.

“So, there is strong demand for retail, which means there’s not a lot of space,” she told attendees of the 2024 State of the Pike forum. “And that’s both an opportunity, but also could be a challenge.”

In the first quarter of 2023, the retail vacancy rate along Columbia Pike was approximately 2%, which previous studies of the Pike attributed to the Pike’s legacy businesses — now becoming a threatened breed — leasing older, less expensive storefronts. In contrast, the county’s overall retail vacancy rate was about 5%.

AED snapshot of retail vacancy rates on Columbia Pike compared to Arlington County (via Arlington Economic Development)

Ange highlighted the low retail vacancy rates as a clear sign that the local economy is on the mend post-pandemic, crediting a surge in consumer spending.

The same cannot be said for the office vacancy rate in Arlington, which was at nearly 25% as of last month. Ange acknowledged hybrid and remote work continues to affect commercial office space across the county, and Columbia Pike, which has approximately a 7% office vacancy rate, is no exception.

That being said, she noted that the demand for office space along the Pike is still “high” compared to other commercial districts.

Ange also pointed out a strong demand for multifamily housing along the Pike, which has increased as more affordable housing developments, such as The Terraces and The Trove in Arlington View, have come online.

Additionally, plans are underway to renovate the Barcroft Apartments at the intersection of S. George Mason Drive and S. Four Mile Run Drive, ensuring that hundreds of affordable housing units remain below 60% of the Area Median Income for the next 99 years.

“I would say largely as a result of the Barcroft acquisition, which converted that huge swath of market rate affordable housing to committed affordable, we did see an increase in the overall percentage of committed affordable units along the Pike,” Director of Arlington’s Housing Division Anne Venezia said.

Snapshot of multifamily apartment vacancies along Columbia Pike compared to Arlington County (via Arlington Economic Development)

Arlington County Police Chief Andy Penn, meanwhile, said his department, which is experiencing severe staffing shortages, has also made progress cracking down on crime along the Pike. That includes vehicle thefts and graffiti on vacant buildings.

“But the goal here is that we have made every adjustment, and our staff is working an incredible amount of overtime to make sure that we’re living up to our core services,” Penn said.

Columbia Pike Partnership Deputy Director Amy McWilliams noted that the police department has made five graffiti-related arrests.

“So, good news there,” she said.

Andrew Schneider, the new executive director of the Columbia Pike Partnership, says the Pike has a bright future and a thoughtful plan going forward — adding that he hopes to see increased economic growth, especially as construction wraps up.

“I’d be much more concerned if we were in the situation we see today, with some construction happening — but without a vision or plan for a long-term thriving Pike,” he told ARLnow after the forum.

“And so, I think that’s hard for folks who drive up and down the Pike every day, dealing with the traffic and trying to navigate the existing projects in the Pike,” he continued. “But my optimism is mostly focused on the future. Once we get through this, the Pike is going to be even more dynamic and vibrant, yet retain so many of the things that make it such an interesting and unique place in the county.”

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