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Streetcar Advocates See A Walkable Community For Columbia Pike

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A view down Columbia Pike, where new residential buildings and retail spaces could soon by served by a streetcar line along the busy corridor.
William F. Yurasko: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wfyurasko/4002624581/William F. Yurasko: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wfyurasko/4002624581/
A view down Columbia Pike, where new residential buildings and retail spaces could soon by served by a streetcar line along the busy corridor.

This is the second part in a series of ongoing reports about the metropolitan Washington region’s changing neighborhoods. The first part highlighted Southeast D.C.'s Capitol Riverfront neighborhood.

It's a rain-drenched day, but as David DeCamp and John Murphy drive up and down Columbia Pike in Arlington, they have very sunny outlooks. The future of this corridor, which spans 3.5 miles between Arlington Cemetery and Fairfax County, is even brighter thanks in part to plans to build a streetcar line.

"The streetcar gives you the opportunity to leave your car in your garage or your parking space, or even live without a car entirely," says DeCamp, a real estate developer. 

The streetcar would run along the busiest bus route in Virginia; roughly 15,000 riders take Columbia Pike buses each day. The plan in its very early planning stages — the county just submitted an application to the Federal Transit Administration for streetcar grant dollars — but advocates such as DeCamp believe it could bring big things to the Columbia Pike neighborhood.

Revitalization will take more than a streetcar

Murphy, the vice president of the board of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, agrees, but he adds a streetcar will be only one piece of this corridor's transformation. There have also been changes to county zoning laws to make development easier and a decision to allow double the number of housing units along Columbia Pike.

"All three of those things need to work together to bring us a cool place to live," Murphy says. 

Another way to term for 'cool place' is WalkUP, or walkable urban place, as a recent George Washington University real estate study [PDF] described 43 different neighborhoods in the D.C. region. 

For Columbia Pike to live up to that description, it needs more residents, thus the decision to allow more housing units to be built, says DeCamp.

"We need more density," says DeCamp. "Density is sometimes viewed by people as the antithesis of what you want in development, but what density has proven to do in Arlington, it has created places where you can move around easier."

Once the population grows, Murphy believes employers will be more inclined to locate their offices along the Pike. 

"Mixed-use has three components: residential, office, and commercial. Columbia Pike sorely misses office right now," he says. 

A fight for affordable housing as the Pike upgrades

Because this corridor is not on a Metro line, the streetcar line may be the final piece in making Columbia Pike the kind of neighborhood that developers say makes D.C. a pioneer in urban renewal. But as with other neighborhoods, that renewal also comes with a drawback: a lack of affordable housing. 

Landowners along Columbia Pike will be required to maintain roughly one quarter of their new apartment units as affordable housing, according to special planning guidelines applied to the corridor.  

Chris Zimmerman, an Arlington County Board member who has been heavily involved in the county's transit oriented planning, hopes the combination of maintaining some affordable housing and expanding access to transit will allow the Pike to avoid one of the negative consequences of gentrification:  population displacement. 

"Our goal is to make it possible for everyone who lives there today to live there tomorrow," he said.  "We believe it's possible to accommodate the same number of people who make, say, 60 percent of the area median income or less, if we build it into our planning."

The story of affordable housing along Metro's Orange Line corridor between Rosslyn and Ballston is a cautionary tale. Thirty years ago, when the county began planning for the Orange Line, it was so focused on attracting affluent residents, it neglected affordable housing units, Zimmerman says. That lesson is serving Columbia Pike planners today, he adds.

"The community is very supportive of this because people understand that a lot of what they like about the Columbia Pike corridor is its diversity," he said. "We don’t want it to become homogeneous. We don’t want it to become a place that is just for affluent people."

Murphy and DeCamp also believe the success of Rosslyn-Ballston can be repeated on Columbia Pike without displacing the neighborhood's vibrant, mixed-income population.

"I'm excited about the potential of the Pike to save the diversity of residents we have here" says Murphy, who believes the goal of zero population displacement is attainable. "They've made that happen. It's going to be an incredibly dynamic, diverse, energetic engine."

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