Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Arlington County and community-city-neighborhood-urban soul

"Heart Full of Soul" by The Yardbirds

Arlington is a suburb and a county, across the Potomac River from Washington, DC.  It's about 26 square miles--pretty small--and has about 220,000 residents and a bunch of conurbations, some somewhat "soulless" like Crystal City and Rosslyn, the national heralded smart growth  example of the"Wilson Boulevard corridor" anchored by four Metrorail stations over a two mile length, many interesting neighborhoods, a well-run innovative government, and an engaged and active population.

Map of the District of Columbia, 1835, showing the original 100 square mile geography of the District.  Arlington County makes up the majority of the secction listed as "Alexandria County" on the map.

Arlington and the City of Alexandria that abuts it were once part of the original 100 square mile "District of Columbia," but were retroceded back to Virginia in 1846 (too bad, if they hadn't , DC would have 1 million residents and we would be a lot less concerned about commercial and residential leakage to the suburbs).

Arlington is home to National Airport, the Pentagon and a lot of government agencies, centered around two major office districts--Crystal City and Rosslyn--convenient to DC and marketed that way against DC.

The Wilson Boulevard corridor is memorable because of how the county decided to locate the Metrorail there, underground, rather than within the media of I-66, and the decision to intensify development in the corridor to complement and leverage the subway service, while simultaneously preserving the residential districts just outside, and north and south of the corridor.

More recently, the County intends to construct streetcar service on Columbia Pike, a revitalization corridor in the county which has engendered vociferous opposition in some quarters, and is intensifying development in the Potomac Yards district west of Crystal City (most of this district is in Alexandria).

Arlington called "soulless."  A couple weeks ago, Senator Kristin Gillabrand caused some controversy when she wrote in her memoir that she moved from Arlington County, Virginia to DC because it lacks soul. Ben Adler  piled on ("Kirsten Gillibrand shouldn’t apologize. Arlington really is ‘soulless’," Post; "How to give a community a soul," Grist Magazine), agreeing that by comparison to DC neighborhoods like Georgetown, it's true, DC has ineffable qualities of "soul" and "character" while Arlington doesn't.

I think that's an ill-considered argument on a number of dimensions.

1.  There is no question that places like the Rosslyn and Crystal City office districts are uncongenial, but Arlington as a place to live and a place to engage is much more than the bad architecture and superblocks of those districts.

2.  Yes, many DC neighborhoods are older and have "better architecture" and aren't focused on automobility, although architectural superiority is a matter of opinion for people who prefer the Colonial Revival style that typifies much of Arlington.
Bloomingdale Rowhouses
DC's Bloomingdale neighborhood, 1st St. NW.

There is no question that DC has many more distinct and older neighborhoods than Arlington, and great swathes of historic rowhouse architecture that Arlington, unlike Alexandria, doesn't realliy have.

3.  Community is the sum of architecture, people and connections and organizations.   There is no question that DC's rowhouse building stock gives the city a very particular visual identity, but if "community" or "soul" is the nexus of the built environment and the people who inhabit it, Arlington is more than the content of its architecture and arguably, DC may add up to less than the content of its architecture and people.

Architectural character isn't enough to build "soul" and DC is losing a great deal of its soul or community as the city de-emphasizes the importance of neighborhood elementary schools--which are the basic building block of neighborhood identity and cause neighbors to meet--and as new residents move into the city in large part out of the attraction to historic architecture but with limited commitment to participation in neighborhood and civic affairs and community building activities.

Civic society and participation can be pretty weak in DC, although neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, Georgetown, and Takoma (although more the Maryland side) stick out for the variety of neighborhood-serving organizations, activities, and sense of community.  Neighborhood elementary schools are an essential building block in most of these places.

Dept. of Parks, Recreation & Cultural Resources Booth, Arlington County FairBy contrast, the Arlington County Fair is also a place where most of the county's government agencies exhibit, and even the County Manager spends some time in County Manager booth, talking with residents and answering their questions.

4.  Both Arlington and DC have some cool commercial districts and night-time destinations, and while the scale of places might be different between the two communities, Arlington holds its own with establishments like Clarendon Ballroom, Iota Cafe, Whitlows, Continental Pool Lounge and the Lost Dog Cafe.

Frankly, I'd rather have a branch of Lost Dog Cafe in Takoma than Republic, the ostensibly seafood restaurant from Jeff Black.

There is incredible vitality and street energy in the Wilson Boulevard corridor, and many great neighborhoods across the count

5.  Not only does Arlington have some awesome neighborhoods, it is also small enough so that many residents get involved in civic activities and pushing forward innovative practices, such as the County's focus on sustainability and energy planning, and a great deal of civic engagement.

For example, I have always been struck by how Arlington County Board members do things like lead community walks, and how the Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment community group leads environmental initiatives and helps push the county forward towards enacting and achieving a more progressive environmental agenda than surrounding jurisdictions.

Conclusion.  There's plenty of reasons to consider living in Arlington--other than the fact that the State of Virginia has some wacked politics and that the political structure is set up to advantage the rural areas over urban areas like Northern Virginia.

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At 11:29 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Clarendon ballroom is about as uncool as you can get. Sorry.

And no Galaxy hut? That is about the last remnant of Arlington lost 90s hipster past.

In terms of architecture, not sure if I would go with Colonial Revival? The best is the bungalows from the 1920s, but a huge majority is bad 1950s track. Even in very suburban cases (Military Rd) the quality is worse than DC or Maryland.

And given the increase in land values, the newer McMansions are very unsightly as well.

The real advantage of Arlington vs DC will be the school systems. I'd agree the quality of government is also better. However, under Zimmerman is was too much of a community dictatorship.

The problem for arlington is that it is a perfectly nice place to live. It is losing out in the office market. Yes, it relied too much on the GSA and proximity to the pentagon.

I would not be surprised to see Monday properties which owns most of Rosslyn go bkrpt. They self financed the new tower, which is absolutely empty for close to a year.

At 11:36 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

there's nothing wrong with being "a nice place to live." (BTW, that was Hyattsville's slogan about 10 years ago...)

And the office market, yes, Arlington is in a bind. As the govt. market shrinks, maybe DC will capture more of it.

And as the corporate market strengthens, with the Silver Line, more of that goes to Fairfax.

So they are caught in the middle.

There probably isn't enough demand to fill the in-city submarkets, Rosslyn, and Crystal City-Potomac Yards.

2. e.g., I've been meaning to write about a couple office to residential conversions that have been written about. One might have been in ArCo, the other is in Wheaton.

It's an indicator to me of the declining demand for space and the shifting around of preferences.

At 11:36 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I like Litteri's better than the Italian Store. Can't list everything...

At 11:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

my beef with Arlington was that it was always the place where woosie butt white people who were petrified of the real city would move to because they were just wimps but wanted something akin to a city area. It still attracts people like this- those who would love to live in DC but will not take that big step. It is also a lot easier to own and to deal with having a private automobile in arlington. basically I agree with the Senator- Arlington is BLAND as hell even though it has some trendy things going for it. It is NOT DC and has no true urban amenities or great national museums of spectacular fame and grandiosity. I think that the best that could ever happen would be for DC to contest that evil slave market oriented and illegitimate constitutional amendment that gave it back to Virginia and take back what was supposed to OURS and make it a part of real DC again. I think this woul dbe less controversial than "statehood" although I am in favor of a non-federally taxed territorial staus for DC.

At 12:33 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

And Hell burger?

I've seen some transition like that in Crystal city. And the new central place has moved from being office to office-condo. The Techshop is a neat idea. But it says something about the aesthetic that the any local chick-fil-et is two blocks away.

But it goes to what I was saying about Jacob's cycle being off in this region -- I am not sure you can rent out that space at any price.

Rosslyn could easily displace the West End as the hotel district if space opened up.

And part of it is branding. Arlington can be walk friendly but DC will always win on that -- no hills. Biking? The nice place to live isn't a great brand.

Both the Crystal City and Rosslyn BID are very active in trying to brand.

At 12:41 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

in a job interview in Hyattsville, I made fun of their brand, countered with "Prince George's Rising Star."

2. And yes, I've been impressed with Crystal City BID's branding and programming efforts. But at the end of the day it's still Crystal City.

But the Wilson corridor from Courthouse to Ballston has lots of potential, still.

But yes, at the end of the day, DC has more potential, especially since it can have more people overall and is more central.

... fwiw, I ran into Bob Brosnan at that Leinberger conference and we talked for a bit, but not so much on this specific issue.

I do agree that ArCo is screwed, given the Silver Line. If they could have kept NSF that would have helped.

They are going to have to continue to invest in placemaking and be very purposive-purposeful about it.

DC has the right building blocks, but doesn't pull them together very well.

At 12:42 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

yes, the Landrum places were an omission.

At 1:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

DC's problem are obsolete thinking Ward 9 personel who basically are one step removed from bailing from the city and just going out to Mitchelville- these folks are exactly like the white flight people who bailed from DC in the late50's thru the mid-70's- they want cars and suburban housing and styles. They also do not really care about what makes a city work just so long as we get good sports games and events and plenty of parking on Sundays for the older people when they want to go to church in the city.Bowser represents this old mix while Catania represnts the more modern thinking that emphasizes transit options and walking/biking. The momentum is towards Catania in the long run but I still think Bowser will win because the old people all love her and will get out with that rabble rousing church vote routine. I do not think she is bad- she is young and that is on her side as a positive but she still would fight many creative concepts IMO just as Grey did. Anyway- these older people in DC are holding us back. Arlington has had for some time a big youthful group running things that is progressive. I fear that until someone like Catania wins and marshalls the forces behind him that DC will remain complacent about it's "good bones" and do nothing to make basic long term investments like new metro lines, etc. If Catania had been mayor instead of Grey we'd already have streetcar system up and running.

At 4:54 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

for awhile I was thinking that David Catania's temperament isn't right for running the Exec. Branch.

Then I remembered why I voted for him in 1997, because he wasn't Arrington Dixon, he wasn't part of the old guard.

I didn't even know he was a Republican.

Anyway, the same reason I voted for him in 1997 is why I should vote for him now. Maybe things won't always go over well. But so what, bureaucracy is pretty resilient. But we can guarantee that Muriel Bowser won't try at all to shake things up. It's just not in her makeup, given that her background pre-Council was as a government bureacrat...

At 6:21 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

more on the NOVA commercial RE market:

Plus I keep forgetting to mention that the big takeaway I get for the slimming down of the commercial RE market is that maybe the moment for puncturing the height limit downtown is passed, making finding funding for intra-city metrorail expansion maybe impossible.

At 8:12 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

I don't know. Partly because I don't agree with your trade off of height for metro. Partly becuase DC is still better positioned from intersection of lines.

And so you've got to adjust for the demand. Although the heavy residental commuting isn't really what you need to take DC further.

For example, maybe you don't need a seperate blue line, but a new line running from Rosslyn up to Bethesda.

Or the mythical one running from Alexandria up to Tysons.

It is too easy to get caught in the technical markings of a subway map and forgot the investment.

At 8:54 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Just like I argue that DC needs to do its own Metro planning, because WMATA's planning takes into account getting support from all three jurisdictions, you're right that NoVA needs to do the same.

Years ago, at a conference Gerry Connolley made the point that most of the transit is focused on the east side of the metropolitan area, in terms of reaching DC. Tysons-Fairfax needs to plan for its own preeminence.

WRT Bethesda to Rosslyn-Tysons, I say, why isn't there ongoing extension planning for the Purple Line.

That could deal in part with the Am. Legion Bridge issue.

And similarly, PGC needs to push the Purple Line beyond New Carrollton to Alexandria.

2. WRT your point about height and DC centrality, that is a good counter to mine.

It's true, and it would cement the core's continued relevance and centrality in the region, especially vis a vis Tysons, especially if there could be a couple of nice HQ wins for the core, PA Ave., like Fannie Mae, MicroStategy, not having lost Intelsat, etc.

At 12:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yep- too many headquarters when locating to this area completely factor out the possibility of DC as a base and instead go to the suburbs. The city leaders like Grey- old school- are not seemingly interested or even aware of the need to capture any of this largess. This is really sad and points to what I was saying about how the primary concern for these guys are high priced sports boxes where they can go with their friends to see football games and parking for seniors going to churches who no longer reside in the city. They have obsolete priorities and so will Bowser. At least she is a nice looking gal though- I will give her that- lovely smile she has !!


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