To Fill Empty Offices, Arlington Must Focus on Transportation Options

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Resting on the status quo of existing transportation options is no longer a winning strategy for places that want to attract new businesses.

Workers want to have transportation options at their fingertips, while developers are looking to locate in transportation hubs that will help attract both companies and their workers. As a report from Smart Growth America concluded this year, companies are looking more and more often for walkable sites with access to transit.

And at a recent Washington Business Journal panel on Arlington’s economy and development, speakers from the development and business worlds said they see transportation and land use as key parts of the plan to address economic-development issues in the region.

Currently, according to statistics from real-estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, Arlington County is saddled with an office vacancy rate of 24 percent. While Arlington Economic Development estimates the number is closer to 20 percent, it is nevertheless quite high – the national rate is 15 percent, and for Washington D.C., 10 percent. AED Director Victor Hoskins has pledged to lower the county’s vacancy rate to 10 percent in the next six years.

Arlington County has to build further upon its assets, such as existing transportation infrastructure like Metro and the Virginia Rail Express, to attract companies, said Vornado/Charles E. Smith President Mitchell Schear. The county’s walkable street grid offers connections and further active transportation options, which tenants see as attractive.

Cushman & Wakefield’s Jessica Miller noted that in addition to transportation options, livable streetscapes and “24-hour environments” help draw companies and workers, something that developers are aware of and seek to foster in their properties.

1776 co-founder Evan Burfield was more direct about Arlington’s needs. Burfield said that many people in Arlington don’t want to own a car, but, due to the realities of the county’s transportation options, they must.

Additionally, Burfield raised the specter of the workforce’s growing millennial cohort. By 2020, nearly half of the United States’ labor force will have been born after 1980. Numerous studies have indicated that millennials generally prefer public transit, walking, biking, and mixed-use environments compared to driving and low-density sprawl.

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While noting that “Arlington has been bold in transportation historically,” Hoskins suggested that the county should look ahead to future growth and push new transit boundaries in anticipation of that.

Jim Cole, CEO of the Virginia Hospital Center, noted that the current state of greater Washington’s transportation systems act as barriers to Arlington operating as part of a greater region. Another factor, he adds, is the lack of affordable housing.

Lastly, when asked directly about the demise of the long-planned Columbia Pike streetcar, panelists expressed disappointment. Not only would the streetcar have opened opportunities for transit-oriented growth along Columbia Pike, but it would have provided key connections to the southern parts of the county, such as Crystal City.

While the region already benefits from substantial transit networks and the accessibility that they provide for companies and workers, panelists were clear of the need to push for more – and bolder – transportation connections.

See more footage from panelists discussing other development and economic issues at the Washington Business Journal.

Photos: Top, a bicyclist rides the Mt. Vernon Trail outside of Rosslyn (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab/kittner.com). Middle, the Washington Business Journal panel in 1776 Crystal City (photo by author).

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