Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

County Manager Mark Schwartz opened the forum with a joke.

Welcoming the crowd of 200-plus gathered at soon-to-be-renamed Washington-Lee High School to help re-envision Lee Highway, he pretended to offer a plan to rename it: Liberty Highway.

Groans came from many neighborhood activists who turned out Feb. 12 to execute “The Arlington Way” and put in their two cents on how to create a theme for the multi-ingredient pudding that has characterized Lee Highway since it was so-named nearly a century ago.

The goal of the county’s “kick-off meeting,” after seven years of groundwork by civic associations and the nonprofit Lee Highway Alliance, is to “develop a formal framework” to upgrade, green and expand the economic pie along that 5 ¼ -mile state-governed thoroughfare.

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“Lee Highway is a unique corridor with conditions very different from other corridors in the county,” I was told by Natasha Alfonso-Ahmed, principal planner of the county’s comprehensive planning team.

Having lived walking distance from the highway (at two locations) for three decades, I have recently felt mystified as to how these hard-working visionaries would impose order.

This road links assets as diverse as the long-empty Johnny Lange sports bar (near George Mason Dr.), the 19th-century Fenwick House at Washington Blvd., car dealers, apartment structures and teeming shopping centers at Lyon Village and Lee-Harrison.

So, after entering the W-L auditorium in view of the video of Lee Highway filmed in 1949 by the Virginia Transportation Department, attendees were greeted by the leading volunteers and county staff hoping to tap their “passion” and “engagement.”

The grass-roots folks separated into breakout sessions to offer feedback on nine “key elements” assembled during the country’s 2016 “Visioning” study.
Those elements: land use, housing, transportation, public spaces, building form, height and urban design, historic preservation and cultural resources, economic vitality, sustainability and public facilities.

The coming vision will unfold over the next 24-36 months with help from the Arlington office of consultant AECOM. “We love Lee Highway,” its Clarendon-based representative Ryan Bouma told the audience. He promised to “map out ideas” and metrics by 2020 and draft a document for codifying by the country board in 2021. All in consultation with a “community forum” of 50 activists and a “working group” of 10 key stakeholders from residents, businesses and advocacy groups.

The big-picture vision will not redo the extensive neighborhood planning efforts performed for Cherrydale in the 1990s and East Falls Church a decade ago, officials said. And “character areas” will be respected.

Results of February’s session are still being compiled. But Alfonso-Ahmed gave me preliminary takeaways. “There are still opposing views about where and how much change is desired,” she said. “The issues people raised about height and density, for example, are still there and need to be further analyzed through the study.”

Attendee Bill Ross, chair of the Park and Recreation Commission, said his session mates focused on the streetscape and consistent sidewalks. “If we do nothing else,” he told me, “we need to make this corridor more attractive for residents, businesses, consumers, and pedestrians. That means landscaping and trees!”

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Officials called for a civil discussion, acknowledging that approaches that work in one segment may not work in another.

If there is fury when the plan is finalized in two years, no one will be able to complain there was no community consultation.


A cool jazz history factoid comes to me from Ken Avis, a British musician, researcher and lecturer who co-hosts “The Antidote” on Arlington Independent Media’s WERA-FM radio.

Jelly Roll Morton, “considered by many the man who invented jazz,” traveled up from New Orleans in the mid-1930s to do gigs in Washington.
At times the pianist appeared in segregated Arlington, at the rough-hewn area once-called Jackson City (near today’s 14th St. Bridge). The venue, Avis learned, was a late-night beer joint called Harry’s Blue Bird Barbecue.

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