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Chris Zimmerman Takes Smart Growth Ideas from Arlington to National Stage

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A rendering of proposed Arlington streetcars traveling through Crystal City.
Arlington County: http://www.flickr.com/photos/89392997@N00/8232957674
A rendering of proposed Arlington streetcars traveling through Crystal City.

Chris Zimmerman was first elected to the Arlington County Board in 1996, and ever since, he's been one of the most vocal proponents of the county's transit-and-pedestrian-friendly growth. Now, Zimmerman is leaving for a job at the advocacy group Smart Growth America, which promotes those same sorts of policies nationwide.

Zimmerman moved to Arlington from D.C. in 1979, before Metro had opened the Orange Line through Clarendon, where he first rented an apartment.

Metro Connection's Jacob Fenston spoke with Zimmerman about the county's ongoing transformation from car-centric suburbia, to a place where many residents can get around on foot.

What was Arlington like when you moved there?

"Metro was brand new and didn't go very far. You could take a Blue Line train to Rosslyn, get off, and take a bus. I wound up renting an apartment in a house. My roommate from college and I got the place for $215 a month, utilities included, which we split, of course. I remember walking around Clarendon, where they were finishing up work to open the subway, the orange line. There were older businesses. There were things like antique shops, there were an amazing number of palm readers in Arlington, and of course, used car lots everywhere, and not that many people walking on the street. And of course, within the year, the Metro line opened to Ballston, and that did change everything, including the rents."

What do you think has driven the change since you've been here? Is it market forces? Is it conscious decisions by leaders in the community, residents?

"The answer is yes. It is both those things, it is always both those things, it is never market by itself."

"In the late 70s, Arlington was in many ways a typical dying inner-ring suburb. It had been losing population. Particularly people with kids were moving to new suburbs just outside and farther and farther out every year. A lot of people came here, started out here, and then moved, because that was the thing you did. You moved to the bigger house and the bigger lot in the suburbs with the new school. It didn't seem like a place that was "happening," and that really is what began to turn around in the 80s, and more dramatically in the 90s, in the last 20 years or so.
Part of what happened of course was Metro. There was a great vision by people who did the initial planning and investment in the 1960s and 70s. But you couldn't just get Metro. Other places got Metro and do very much with it."

You joined the County Board in 1996. What do you think the big challenges have been, in terms of seeing through that vision of development around Metro and around transit?

"The most important thing is the first fundamental decision that our predecessors made. But the details really do matter, and the details are what was left to us."

"We had to rediscover the principles of city-making, of designing urban areas for human beings, because that in the United States became almost a lost art after World War II. And not just having to rediscover the old ways, but actually having to do it in an era that in fact does involve automobiles and we have to accommodate them. That's a new thing that's had to be invented."

"Arlington wound up being at the cutting edge of that, because we were ahead of other places in needing to figure that out."

Is there a trade-off, in terms of making a place affordable and this type of development? I think a lot of people think of transit-oriented development as being code for gentrification.

"That is the next most important part of this. Let me pause for a moment though, and just say, that is a remarkable achievement. Because when they first passed the plan for Arlington's Metro, when they first committed to building the subway and adopted the initial sector plans, the big concern was, will anybody ride this train, and will anybody want to live near it? So the fact that we've turned around so much, that our concern now is, can it possibly be affordable for anyone who isn't wealthy - that's a measure of the success of this effort."

"Now, it is a problem. Every extra bit we've put into working transit work better, every bit we've put into making our parks and communities nicer, every bit we've put into making our schools so desirable has contributed to making housing less affordable."

"Is it compatible, can you have the rising value of doing something that's very desirable, and still have affordability? The answer is, yes you can, if you're committed to channeling some of the increased value that you're creating into housing affordability."

[Music: "This Could Be The Start Of Something" by Lester Lanin from Best of the Big Bands]

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