Arlington, Va.’s Smart Growth Journey: Documentary on D.C. Area TOD

In response to Beata’s post entitled “Just to Be Clear About TOD,” Charlie Schmehl (of Urban Research & Development Corporation in Bethlehem) pointed out:

Within the Middle Atlantic states, some of the most interesting and successful TOD projects are in the Washington DC area near Metro stations. These include Rockville, MD, Shady Grove, MD (including King Farm), Silver Spring MD (including old renovated shopping centers), Arlington VA and Alexandria VA (including the huge complex around the King St. station).

During college, I spent a semester  in Washington, D.C.  Going to work, I took the Orange or Blue Metro Line east from Rosslyn, Va. (just across the Potomac River from Georgetown and immediately north of Arlington National Cemetary) to the Federal Trade Administration (Federal Triangle metro stop and just across the street from the National Museum of American History) and the trip was a very pleasant 20 minutes.

The Rosslyn Metro station anchors one of the great examples of TOD in the DC metro area that Charlie references.  I recently came across a documentary (about 50 min.)

Mixed-Use Development Along Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor

Mixed-Use Development Along Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor

that discusses the history of TOD in the “Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor.”  The video is absolutely worth watching if you are interested in both significant benefits and significant challenges associated with making TOD work.

The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor boasts numerous restaurants retail establishments, many with residential or office space above, but even more impressive is the relatively rapid transition (in a matter of  blocks) from the higher (in terms of density and vertical stories) structures to lower density row/townhomes and then single family homes along tree-lined streets.  It really was a wonderful place to live.  Moreover, the county and its residents recieve benefits beyond the subjective quality of life and amenity benefits of the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor.  According to Philip Langdon of New Urban News:

The corridor, containing 7.6 percent of the county’s land area, generates 33 percent of its property tax revenue. The jump in the value of the corridor’s real estate — now assessed at $9 billion — has helped Arlington obtain an AAA bond rating and set its property tax rate lower than that of any other major jurisdiction in northern Virginia. (Click for full article.)

The success of TOD along the corridor has increased property values significantly.  However, despite the distributional effects created by escalating rents, Arlington County is — at least in principle —  in a better position to deal with those challenges, and others, given the increased revenue generated by the Corridor.

Posted on September 7, 2009, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. When I first moved to DC (1997), the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor (along Wilson and Clarendon Blvds.) was mostly a low-income area, featuring lots of chop shops and parking lots.

    The film implies that the development occured as a direct result of the Metro construction, but the truth is, it took decades for massive change. In the late 90s especially, existing housing and commercial properties were razed to make way for brand-new buildings designed to look old. The “bulls-eye” strategy required developers to build at a certain density within a 1/4 mile or 1/2 mile of each station, prohibiting parking lots in front of buildings and in most cases requiring them to dig parking garages beneath (something you never find in the Lehigh Valley)!

    Transportation is a huge issue in Arlington. You can hardly catch a train in Rosslyn because they’re so full from the blue and orange line stations to the west and south. Route 66 is HOV-2 during rush hour – you can’t legally drive on it if you don’t have a passenger with you (some people cheat by buying a hybrid or a dummy!).

    I was pleased to hear the former Board members address the mistakes they made in planning Rosslyn. The lack of housing and retail serving residents is obvious – it’s a ghost town after 6. Kind of feels like parts of downtown Allentown and Easton. Actually, Crystal City, VA, is the same way – they sort of brush over it in the film – it has a bizarre underground “mall.” I was also impressed by their discussion of the Columbia Pike corridor and affordable housing.

    The public meeting shown at the end was held at a place called Whitlow’s on Wilson – a great affordable burger joint a block off Clarendon Metro station – where our group of friends used to go for half-priced burgers on Mondays. Everyone would take Metro or drive from various points in DC, VA, and MD, to meet there, because it was such an easy place to get in and out of, and a safe place to park and walk at night.

  2. LV Transplant, the thoughtful response is much appreciated.

    I watched the film over the summer, but my recollection was that the film placed considerable emphasis on the decades-long political and planning efforts required to make the current form along the corridor possible. The message that I took away from the film was that effectively implementing TOD is by no means a simple process, but that there are substantial long-term benefits generated by the planning and initial investments.

    1) I agree that traffic in the DC metro area can be an absolute nightmare at rush hour (and occassionally at off-peak hours as well). Rte. 66 from the Beltway into Rosslyn is a good example. Perhaps the Metro alone would not have been a sufficient engine for growth along the corridor, but I find it difficult to imagine the same type of successful development absent the presence of Metro stations and relatively well-coordinated land-use requirements concentrating development around those transit stops. The film highlights the alternate route initially proposed for the Orange Line which would have run right along Rte. 66. The Orange Line with park-and-rides along Rte. 66 would have taken some cars off of 66 (perhaps), but would have created attendant traffic issues around the park and rides (illustrated by some of the Red Line stops in Montgomery County, MD). The key for TOD, as I think the film lays out, is that there must be extensive coordination of land-use controls, transportation planning, and infrastructure investment.

    2) Arlington County still has its share of transportation challenges to be sure, but there would be more, not less, of them absent the County’s Metro service. The trains were plenty full in Rossly heading into DC, but on the few occasions I seem to recall not getting on the first train, another one was along in a matter of minutes. While crowded trains support the argument that more frequent service is needed, they serve – more importantly – as a demonstration of the success of and demand for public transit in the DC metro area.

    3) I agree that Rosslyn lacks some of the amenties that are available at the other stops along the corridor. Walking Clarendon and then walking Rosslyn is like night and day. Rosslyn, with its elevated pedestrian walkways and interior galleria in the high-rise around the Metro stop, is a good example of an over-engineered environment that does not effectively create a welcoming streetscape or a sense of place. Clarendon, as LV Transplant noted, is much more welcoming with retail, restaurants* and office space fronting Wilson and Clarendon Blvds.

    *(Whitlow’s included; Faccia Luna – good italian, great pizza – is another Clarendon restaurant that can actually be experienced in Scranton, Pa., though now under a different name)

  3. I always spent my half an hour to read this blog’s posts daily along with a mug of coffee.

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