Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

bartonmugLast Monday evening, I went to the Arlington County Main Library to see a new television production on the massive efforts that went into the development of the land use plan for the Metro corridors planned for Arlington.

 

Let’s go back to the 1950’s. Arlington came out of World War Two in pretty good shape. Several major community developments – Buckingham, Shirlington, Fairlington, Colonial Village, to name some of them, were nationally known examples of concentrated urban planning – developed to house the large influx of both civilian and military families brought by the war.

The future did not look as rosy for Arlington. In those days, the principal vehicle of development was the highway, and huge plans were being developed all over the country for a national network of highways leading out of major urban areas into the countryside, where sprawling suburban and exurban communities were springing up.

The plans for Washington D.C. anticipated that major highways would fan out from the urban center. Close-in communities would be covered with these highways.

In Arlington’s case, some of this had already happened. The construction of Shirley highway had split and destroyed several Arlington communities, for example. Preliminary plans showed an eight lane highway running straight through Roslyn. If that had happened, Roslyn would now be nothing but an urban wasteland, similar to many areas under the freeways in Los Angeles.

To make a long story short, this didn’t happen largely because the District of Columbia refused to allow another major bridge to be built across the Potomac and refused to consider building roads to bring the new highways into and through the city.

While all of this was happening, plans were being developed for the construction of a great new rapid transit system. It was also being designed to snake pass through close-in neighborhoods to reach the outer suburbs. There were very few stops planned for Arlington, and the major route was going to be above ground on the median strip in the middle of what became Interstate 66. Almost no Metro service would benefit Arlington residents

Arlington leaders began to push for a radically different system. The major lines would be underground and stretching in North Arlington along the Wilson Boulevard corridor, and in South Arlington through Crystal City. And the number of stops would be increased substantially – to the point where we now have more Metro stations in Arlington than any other jurisdiction in the metropolitan area save the District of Columbia.

Then planners drew an imaginary circle of a quarter of a mile – easy walking distance – around each station. Major development would be confined to these areas, with the highest densities being right at the Metro stations, precipitously declining to the quarter mile limit, beyond which there would be largely single family housing. And only fully mixed use development of residential, commercial, and retail properties would be allowed near the Metro stations.

The result has been the development of remarkable system urban neighborhoods that has been studied the world over, and that has given Arlington the reputation of being one of the best run, and best developed communities in the country.

The television show is beautifully done, including interviews with many of the leaders of the planning process over the years and great shots of Arlington, past and present

You can buy the DVD for a mere five dollars and can see it periodically on Arlington community cable television. It is a fascinating tale of a vibrant and forward thinking community that I think you would enjoy.

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