Form Based Code Fail: Massive New Single Family Homes Built Steps from Future Streetcar Stops

One of the head-scratching things about life in Arlington is listening to self-described Smart Growth groups fawn over Arlington’s supposed commitment to Smart Growth. Unfortunately, the reality appears to be that Arlington’s politicians* are committed to promoting themselves, their personal Smart Growth-branded business interests, and the interests of those property developers building megaprojects.

When it comes to making the Pike more walkable, urban, and lively, details matter.  The Columbia Pike Form Based Code is supposed to provide for higher-density development than currently exists for real estate parcels close to the Pike.

Yet construction is nearly complete for a truly massive, lot-busting single family home at the corner of S. 11th Street and S. Edgewood St. in Columbia Heights.  The home will face a commercial strip of retail on one side (Asni Supermarket), and across the street on the other side is the lot that is slated to be redeveloped as a mixed retail/22-unit condo complex (that will face S. Walter Reed Drive).  In other words, the lot is behind the Rite Aid, in the heart of Pike Town Center and steps from a planned streetcar stop.  A perfect place for a row of townhouses, a condo or apartment building in a region desperate for more housing.  (Another pair of new single-family homes are going up on S. Glebe Road a block away from another planned Columbia Pike streetcar stop.)  These homes are not consistent with an urban Columbia Pike corridor with continued market-based affordable housing.

The big developments like the Rosenthal site are important, but as developer-driven megaprojects, they are relatively easy to envision as consistent with Pike urbanism.  But the  parcels where smaller scale multi-family housing can be built, they can add up.  They matter, too, if the Pike is to remain a place with some level of continued market-based rentals.

Unfortunately, failures like this add to the impression that the master plan on Columbia Pike isn’t about making a more walkable, urban part of Arlington: it looks like it’s all about what the developers want from the County Board.  The construction of these homes is a failure of the Form Based Code and the Board that enacted it.

* Historical aside: the Smart Growth in Arlington for which the current crop of politicians take credit is largely just filling in the details from a previous brave generation of politicians who did things like fight to put the Orange Line through N. Arlington rather than the I-66 median as originally proposed.  The fact that the existing board compares itself to that generation of leaders is a false and shameful comparison.

* * *

Post-script: It’s important to stress that the criticism here is on the policy makers in the government; the new neighbors presumably followed the law and built the homes they wanted, where they wanted. It isn’t (and shouldn’t be) their responsibility to consider the land use issues if they comply with the law.

Posted in Housing, Neighborhood Update | 1 Comment

The Backwards Notion That Driving Up Real Estate Prices Preserves Affordable Housing

The backers of the Columbia Pike Streetcar have many arguments in favor of the project.  They range from topsy-turvy (the idea that serving only one pair of destinations is a virtue, rather than a significant flaw in a transit system) to the mystical (the “magic” of streetcars “spurs” development).  But a recent claim, in particular, is so logically strained that is bears special mention.

That the CPRO – which gets a third of its funding via an appropriation from the pro-trolley County Board – would back the streetcar for Columbia Pike should not be much of a surprise.  But their recent list of reasons to support the trolley contained this remark about the relationship between the streetcar and affordable housing:

Supports our community’s goal to preserve affordable housing by having the proven potential to create enough real estate value to cross-subsidize committed affordable units.

This remark contains some tortured logic.  At its heart, the idea is that driving up the costs of housing along Columbia Pike corridor will promote affordable housing.  This doesn’t make any sense!  How can making housing more expensive make it more affordable?

The answer seems to be that by raising housing costs the County will earn more tax revenue that it can use to subsidize affordable housing for the poor.  This, too, is a confused notion.  First, the region has a problem with affordable housing close to job centers for the non-wealthy.  This isn’t just the people who work low-wage service jobs (although the problem is certainly worse for them), but it’s a problem for retail managers and secretaries and even many civil servants.  The rent is too damned high for both the poor and the middle class in this region.  (Great post from a Maryland blogger on the topic of housing costs for the young in the DC region here.)

But even if the County views the poor as the only people for which they want to worry about their housing costs (which they apparently do), much of the existing affordable housing stock is “market based” affordable housing – 6,300 units according to this report.  Market based affordable housing is public-policy speak for the idea that landlords set their rents at prices that are lower than other parts of the County (or region).  And if the goal of County policy is to drive up the cost (and thus the value) of real estate, those landlords are going to charge more in rent.  This is stunningly obvious and foreseeable yet wholly ignored by the Board and CPRO.

And think, for a moment, what this comment envisions: Arlington will become a place full of the region’s wealthy, without housing that meets the budgets of the non-wealthy.  In its place, will be a small handful of units that some (deserving) poor people will be able to get as part of ongoing government expenditures.  This is an Arlington of boomer-aged Lexus liberals with a smattering of poor people to alleviate their guilty consciences.  It is not the vibrant communities that line the Pike today.

To be clear, it is a good thing for the Board to encourage developers to include long-term affordable units in their real estate projects.  And the charitable groups working to build affordable housing for Arlington are praiseworthy.  However, the sum of these efforts is not sufficient  to even maintain the existing number of market based units if real estate prices along the Pike continue to climb to levels seen in the rest of the County.

The primary tool at the Board’s disposal to deal with affordable housing is not the choice of what transportation vehicles use Columbia Pike.  It’s even more density than they have already approved.  Unlike the massive new subsidies that Mr. Zimmerman and Mr. Tejada have been hounding the board for, increased density does not even show up in the County budget (at least not directly).

Affordable housing is a very difficult issue for Arlington.  Honest conversations are tough, partly because many local residents want their cute trolleys and oppose new apartment buildings built into their neighborhoods.  And too often affordable housing is seen solely as a concern for the poor, and not also that of the young and middle class.  But the notion that driving up real estate prices is the best means to promote affordable housing truly does not make any sense.

Posted in Housing, Pike Streetcar | 2 Comments

Pike Bus Changes: 16F to Become 16X, New 16Y Stops

WMATA recently announced some changes to the direct-to-DC rush hour Pike Ride bus routes, effective December 30th.  Overall, the changes are fairly minor but they could affect your commute.


Currently, the 16Y serves Columbia Pike, with additional stops in Penrose along S. Courthouse, en route to the western part of downtown DC.  The big change next week is the addition of new stops in North Arlington (Lyon Park), including a new development at Pershing Drive & Arlington Boulevard (opposite Fort Myer).  The schedule is being “adjusted,” which translates into slightly longer commutes (on average) for 16Y users.

“Old” 16Y can be viewed here, and “New” 16Y here.

If this change makes you think about taking the bus to the Blue Line to get to DC, note that Blue Line service for South Arlington is going from bad to worse once the Silver Line opens.  The Washington Post’s Dr. Gridlock has a great explanation of that change.

16X (formerly 16F)

The 16F is being re-branded as the 16X.  This route, which services the Pentagon along with the eastern portion of downtown DC, is only a few years old but shows how a well-designed bus route can attract new riders.

For the portion along the Pike, the change is the addition of a Penrose Square stop at S. Barton and the Pike.  The re-branding however, also means that the bus stops signage need to be changed (which is inconsistent right now).  The DC changes include eliminating the stop at 10th & Independence SW and the southbound stop at 7th & Constitution NW.

One inexplicable thing about the route: it continues to stop at the construction site formerly known as Navy Annex.  The stop at S. Orme should replace Navy Annex, as workers at both Fort Myer and the Sheraton would be better served by that stop, along with a majority of the residents in both Foxcroft Heights and Arlington Views.

Speaking of Arlington Views, the (already part-time) bus stop westbound at S. Rolfe St is out of commission due to the Washington Boulevard bridge project, until further notice.  The ART 74 is your best alternative right now for transit.  Unfortunately, that route runs only at weekday rush hour.

The  new 16X schedule is here and the old 16F is here.

Post-Script: minor changes to ART 42 coming on January 7th can be viewed here.

Posted in Pike Ride/Public transport | Leave a comment

Red Rocks Neapolitan Bistro Coming to Penrose Square

Red Rocks Neapolitan Bistro, a “firebrick pizzeria” with locations in Old Town Alexandria and DC’s Columbia Heights, plans to open a location in Penrose Square this month.Red Rocks

The website of the chain doesn’t have any further details, but the sign in the window (pictured above) suggests that in addition to pizza, the outlet will feature in-house cured meats, small plates, a large beer list and happy hour specials.

The chain gets a lot of positive press.

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Demographic, Attitudinal Changes Are Missing Elements of Trolley Debate

One of the most common arguments in favor of the streetcar is that it’s the best choice to encourage residents to use transit instead of their vehicle for trips along the Pike.  The logic is that because current drivers don’t use the bus, a streetcar (as opposed to an articulated bus) would convince them to take transit.  Here’s streetcar papa Chris Zimmerman in the Washington Post over the summer:

Why would people who are not attracted to ride on a bus be willing to ride on a bigger bus?

Let’s deconstruct this argument with a hypothetical exercise.  Imagine that one morning that you and a friend stood at S. Glebe Rd. and Columbia Pike and handed each and every motorist (eastbound and westbound) a questionnaire with the following multiple-choice question:

Why did you chose to take your trip this morning in your car rather than on public transit?  It is because:

A.  Public transit would take too long to get to my destination.

B.  Public transport does not go to my destination.

C.  I like the freedom of riding in my own car.

D.  Public transport is not reliable for my destination.

E.  I am going to Pentagon City (or Skyline) and I am afraid of the bus or I find the experience of riding on a bus to be uncomfortable.

Now if you stood on that street corner all day, you’re liable to get someone who answers E.  But do you really think that’s going to be a common answer?  Chris Zimmerman seems to think it would be, but that defies common sense.

The problem with Mr. Zimmerman’s reasoning isn’t merely that it’s internally flawed; it’s that it’s asking the wrong question.  The County, largely via the Form Based Code, is on a multi-year process to add density (i.e. people) to the Columbia Pike corridor.  Focusing on getting existing residents out of their cars is the wrong plan.  Rather, the right plan is to recognize that demographic and cultural changes underway in the US and the region represent an opportunity to attract the sort of residents who are already disposed to transit.

Compare Mr. Zimmerman’s quotation with that of a Smart Growth advocate in the District, as quoted in the Washington City Paper:

There are lot of younger people around who wouldn’t have a car if you paid them. So why not take advantage of that?

The Atlantic Cities reports that the average age to get a driver’s license  is down.  So are car sales.  And total number of miles driven.  The Economist reports similar trends.  Car sharing business are growing in leaps and bounds.  Bus ridership is growing nationally and locally.

The problem with Arlington’s elected leaders is that they are Baby Boomers.  The people they know grew up in a car culture, probably belong to that same car culture, and think that buses are unpopular, uncomfortable things for poor people.  If that’s the view of your peers, it’s human nature to think that’s how other people think.  For an ordinary Boomer, it’s understandable.

But citizens should expect that their leaders – especially leaders who are self-proclaimed “Smart Growth” leaders – incorporate major changes in the attitudes of younger Americans into their decision making process.  Instead, we too often get arrogance, condescension, and hubris.

Thus, instead of engaging in an unnecessarily expensive, mostly futile quest to get drivers to give up using their cars, the right future for Columbia Pike is a transit network that is fast, frequent and reliable so it attracts and serves the people who will be moving to the Pike in the coming years, as well as existing residents.

This is Smart Growth for 2012: creating communities along Columbia Pike that have access to high-quality transit to multiple destinations in order to attract the future generations who seek such places.  The planned streetcar is the wrong choice to advance that goal as the true modern Smart Growth choice is increasing bus frequency, capacity and expanded routes that include the Pentagon and DC.

Posted in Pike Ride/Public transport, Pike Streetcar | 2 Comments

Seven Months Late, Incomplete Super Stop Calls Into Question County Capacity to Build Trolley

At the corner of S. Walter Reed Drive and Columbia Pike sits an unfinished, deluxe bus stop.  This project is the showcase premiere for a series of new, upgraded bus stops that are the Columbia Pike Super Stops.  The on-again/off-again construction site has sat as a festering eyesore for visitors to the Columbia Pike Farmers Market since January 2012.  Hidden behind the chain-link fence that surrounds the construction site is a small, blue sign that tells the public that the construction will be completed by “Winter 2012.”  Despite the fact that we are in early November, the website suggests the stop will be done by the end of October.  Missed that deadline, too.

In March, the County claimed that the delay was due to the permitting process (how can the County’s employees and contractors fail to get the proper permits?)  Very little has been offered to explain the delay since then.

What does this say about the County Board’s plan to build a streetcar along Columbia Pike?  Perhaps more than it might seem at first.

First, keep in mind that American governments are notoriously bad at constructing public transportation projects at a reasonable cost compared to other industrialized countries.  Stephen Smith offers some theories why that’s the case here, and while one can quibble over his explanations for this phenomenon, the point remains that American governments are notoriously inefficient at big transport projects.

Second, remember that the Board’s own cost estimates have gone from $110 million to around $250 million since the project has come through the planning process.  This is all before a single bid has been offered by construction firms, before businesses affected by the destruction/reconstruction of the roadway ask for help, and before the contract for the streetcars themselves have been signed.  Expect that number to go up, and delays in the project will only drive up the cost further.

Most importantly, Arlington County has never before built a rail project of any scale (while Arlington officials were involved in the planning for the Metro, the County did not build it).  They have yet to announce that they have even found a person to run the system, to say nothing of constructing it.

The County has no experience in building anything like the planned trolleys, and really has done nothing to inspire confidence that it is up to such a massive, complex, and expensive project.  Building a bus stop (with no street to rip up, no wires to hang, no tracks to lay, no vehicles to buy) has taken seven months longer than expected, and still is not finished.

The Super Stops will be a welcome addition to South Arlington’s transit infrastructure.  But the significant delays in the construction of the showcase station suggests that if the County builds a trolley, residents and businesses are in for a long, delayed, bumpy and expensive ride to completion.

Posted in Pike Ride/Public transport, Pike Streetcar | 3 Comments

9th Street Bike Boulevard Update

From a recent email forwarded by a neighborhood association (lightly edited):

1. Street marking and sign plans are currently under a final review by in house staff. Street markings and signs are behind schedule due to a conflict with the pavement marking contractor. If the contractor is not able to fit the markings in by the fall, in house staff will try to complete the work during the winter. Pavement markings are weather dependent so it may not be possible until the spring.

2.  Staff will still begin designing the remaining features when
survey work is completed this fall. These features include the addition of signals, curbs and medians, ADA compliant ramps and sidewalk re-alignments. Staff will meet with the community again prior to installation of these elements.

3. As discussed at the May meeting, County staff looked into the feasibility of putting a physical barrier at the intersection of 9th St. S. and S. Ivy St. to make 9th St. S. a cul-de-sac. This option was discussed as a method to allow the street to be opened to two way traffic without allowing additional vehicle traffic on to 9th St. S. This option would allow fire trucks and bicycles to pass through but no other traffic in either direction. As you will see on the attached drawing, this option will not work for the community because of the reduction in approximately
5-6 parking spaces to allow large trucks to turn around. The vehicle used in the turning analysis is the maximum size vehicle allowed on the street but not allowed to exit at the end. For example, a UPS or Fed-Ex vehicle, Giant Pea-Pod, or small U-Haul would need to turn around but a fire truck
would be permitted through. This option is also in conflict with policies found in Arlington County’s Master Transportation Plan (MTP),
A key policy in the MTP is to maintain and enhance a grid‐style street network. As part of this policy, Arlington County is studying whether existing one‐way streets should be converted to two‐way traffic and discouraging future conversions of two‐way streets to one‐way. Another important policy in the MTP is to improve connectivity between trails and other major bikeway corridors. Creating a cul-de-sac would not be in line
with either of these policies. Staff will continue to research other
options to discuss with the community once the survey is complete. In the meantime, the pavement markings and signs will move forward with an eastbound detour from S. Ivy St. to 7th St. S. to S. Irving St. around the one way section.

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