Other Places Nipping at Heels of Arlington’s Transit-Oriented Development

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Paul is Mobility Lab's urban-affairs reporter. He specializes in infrastructure planning and writes articles and case studies about Arlington's storied transit-oriented development.
May 27, 2014

12055066043_ca9421f4ee_oArlington, Virginia has long been a national and local leader of transit-oriented development (TOD). It’s been the jurisdictional equivalent of an iPad when the majority of places were still desktop PCs.

Now, many other places are patterning themselves based on the traits Arlington perfected; that is, relatively dense and containing mixed-use, walkable, and bikeable neighborhoods that emphasize transportation choices. Meanwhile, with more localities essentially “doing Arlington,” it is ironic that forces within the county want to retreat from what made Arlington great in the first place.

A recent op-ed in the Washington Post by David Alpert made a strong case that, with respect to the Columbia Pike streetcar, Arlington needs to stay the course. The streetcar will maintain Arlington’s competitiveness at a time when it’s all the more crucial to do so.

Arlington’s journey as a transportation and city-planning innovator began in the 1970s, with the county’s decision to locate its northern-most Orange Line Metrorail stops underneath Wilson Boulevard instead of the more convenient (and cheaper) location above-ground alongside Interstate 66. This choice, controversial at the time, was instrumental in creating the dense, well-connected “urban villages” that are the hallmark of the county and make it a coveted place to live, work, and play today.

More jurisdictions are recognizing the intelligence of Arlington’s decisions, particularly when it comes to transportation options. Fixed rail (or fixed guideway) transit projects are being planned in a number of localities locally. Virginia’s Silver Line Metro expansion, Maryland’s Purple Line, D.C.’s H Street streetcar, and Arlington’s Columbia Pike streetcar are all examples of fixed rail transit projects in our area that promise huge economic payoffs. Nationally as well, fixed rail transit is having a “moment,” with hundreds of regional projects in the pipeline in the United States.

Rather than being an end in itself, transit is recognized as a unique opportunity to revitalize a blighted or car-dominated place, transforming it into a well-connected, dense, walkable, and liveable community. Tysons Corner is one such example. The four new Silver Line stops on the regional Metrorail have become Tysons’ impetus to reinvent itself from a much-maligned example of congestion and urban sprawl into a well-planned, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented group of villages not unlike Arlington This comparison isn’t just convenient or coincidental. Katy Gorman, a spokesperson for the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project, told Mobility Lab that Tysons’ TOD redevelopment is an attempt to “mimic Arlington.”

Tysons (notice even the more urban-sounding recent name change?) isn’t the only place in the D.C. region playing on Arlington’s home turf. Chris Hamilton, bureau chief of Arlington County’s Commuter Services, listed the following places that are now competing “on the Arlington model:” Bethesda, Silver Spring, White Flint, NOMA, Ballpark District, and Tysons.

Livable, well-connected places are “in,” but they have proven again and again to make economic sense as well. The Brookings Institution is among those finding strong correlations between public transit and economic competitiveness. Robert Puentes, senior fellow of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, has recognized the temptation to “rip the wires out of these transit systems.” Puentes has warned against this, stating, “Some people may think that transit systems are easy targets for budget savings/budget slashing, but … this is the wrong time to be doing that.” With respect to the Columbia Pike streetcar, Puentes’ warning seems particularly salient. The streetcar, while admittedly an expensive public works project in the near term, is projected to pay for itself many times over.

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Regarding consumers’ increasing appetite for urban forms of development with good transportation options, the rise of Millennials (that generation of twenty-somethings born roughly between 1983 and 2001) will only exacerbate this trend. Millennials have a well-known preference for transit and walkable urban places. Already, this population cohort has made Arlington its de facto ground zero, presumably due to the county’s transportation options, urban lifestyle, and connectedness.

Real-estate developers want to build in the county as well. Chris Ballard, principle of McWilliams Ballard, recently lauded Arlington’s strengths at an Urban Land Institute seminar on The Changing Condo Market in Washington, D.C. Ballard, regarding the county’s strong economics and unsatisfied demand for high-density residential, said, “We could do Arlington all the time.” Mobility Lab Director Tom Fairchild concurs, saying “Arlington’s experience with transportation is that options are important. Transportation options have reaped an economic bounty for Arlington and provided better access for all residents.”

The people clamoring to both build and live in Arlington are evidence that the county’s model works. Yet transit-oriented development in Arlington is, in some ways, under attack from within. This internal debate comes at a time when everyone from Tysons to Bethesda is nipping at Arlington’s heels, much like how Samsung and Google grow increasingly competitive against Apple. While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it also makes innovation and forward momentum that much more essential.

Arlington has first-mover advantage, but with more of the D.C. region competing by the rules Arlington literally developed, it’s important that Arlington continues to compete. While Arlington’s current generation “product” is excellent, there’s no guarantee that will continue to be the case without constant evolution and some risk taking. Just ask Apple.

Photos by Ron Cogswell and Metal Chris

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Steve Hughes May 28, 2014 at 9:13 AM

Well, I’m not sure I buy the whole Arlington is genius thing, but there’re definitely some interesting ideas and lessons here.

avatar Dave Schutz May 28, 2014 at 9:34 PM

This article makes a number of assertions – I want to unpack them here. Broadly, Goddin is asserting that the County did well in guiding Metro development thirty years ago, and this shows that it ought to double down on the path it then followed, by building the Columbia Pike Trolley.

Put that way, the statement sort of refutes itself, doesn’t it? Arlington, with essentially no competition from other jurisdictions, did extremely well in development due to the building of a subway – clearly the highest quality type of rail transit – thirty years ago. Consequently, now a new and staggeringly expensive surface trolley – which can go no faster than the Pike’s congested auto traffic – will enable 2016 Arlington to attract development away from a number of other jurisdictions, several which have either below-ground or elevated Metro built or in process. Goddin even quotes Chris Hamilton, bureau chief of Arlington County’s Commuter Services, in naming the competition: Bethesda, Silver Spring, White Flint, NOMA, Ballpark District, and Tysons. Columbia Pike, with a poky little trolley which will about match the seven mile per hour average speed of Portland’s trolley will out-compete these jurisdictions because?

Goddin asserts: “Millennials have a well-known preference for transit and walkable urban places. Already, this population cohort has made Arlington its de facto ground zero, presumably due to the county’s transportation options, urban lifestyle, and connectedness.” A counter-assertion: much of Arlington’s 1990s success was a result of young people staying away from the chaos and danger in the District. I live by Clarendon, and have been to and through its night life. It’s zippy, no question. And I’ve been to H Street, on weekend evenings. H Street is more and better, in the ground zero competition.

Goddin said: “Arlington, Virginia has long been a national and local leader of transit-oriented development (TOD). It’s been the jurisdictional equivalent of an iPad when the majority of places were still desktop PCs.” So, since Goddin notes that there are now lots of iPads, why does he think the young and trendy will pick our iPad?

avatar Paul Goddin June 2, 2014 at 2:44 PM

Thank you for your thoughtful post, Dave. With people thinking critically on both sides of the streetcar debate, I have faith that Arlington will come to the decision that best supports its citizenry.

In my mind, the streetcar’s ability to economically stimulate the county and further Arlington’s ability to compete is more a factor of its perceived permanence rather than its speed. In that way the streetcar has a huge advantage over articulated bus, but, as you mention, less of an advantage as compared to Metro. But in short, I don’t think a persuasive argument has been made that the streetcar is not worth the cost. Yes it’s expensive. But yes, it will pay for itself many times over.

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