Please welcome to our newest contributor, Joey Katzen! Joey lives in north Arlington and works near Dulles, and will be writing mainly about land use and development in Northern Virginia.
As the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro Corridor has aged and grown into its looks, it reliably attracts unsubsidized, and primarily gentrified, urban development in Arlington. Now, local leaders and developers have turned their attention to Columbia Pike (no relation to the Maryland route). Columbia Pike is a major east-west road south of US-50, with a 1970s car-dealership vintage and an even older streetcar-suburb heritage.
Arlington has spent much time and money with stakeholders to develop a long-term “complete streets” vision for Columbia Pike, including 6-minute headway bus service (now available), future light rail, and a form-based zoning code. This is a very promising direction for a main street in one of America’s smallest and most urbanized counties.
However, there’s another major east-west route with similar layout and streetcar-suburb vintage, that is oft overlooked: Lee Highway.
Remarkably similar to its southern cousin, Lee Highway runs through Arlington from the Key Bridge in Rosslyn to downtown Falls Church. An ancient section of US-29 from the early highway age, the wide “Old Dominion Drive” sections of the corridor were once the railbeds of the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad.
Though the first section from Rosslyn west is a near-freeway, after that, it changes to a 35- and then 30-mile-per-hour, 4-lane arterial with frequent cross streets. That section boasts an abundant mix of neighborhood-serving storefronts, some sidewalk-facing and some more suburban in form. Two significant activity nodes punctuate the corridor: Cherrydale and the surprisingly as-yet-unnamed neighborhood centered on the Lee/Glebe intersection. Both previously had stations on the W&OD railroad.
Before the real estate slowdown took its toll, Lee Highway began seeing new investment in recent years, particularly in Cherrydale. Several mixed-use condominium buildings and street-facing retail were constructed (or partially constructed). Lee/Glebe hasn’t seen similar investment yet, though some of the wealthiest neighborhoods south of McLean surround it.
Remarkably, Lee Highway witnesses nearly no heavy traffic any time of day, except on the near-freeway section in Rosslyn and at the Lee/Glebe intersection. Its four lanes not only flow; they fly. Only frequent police enforcement keeps traffic at safe pedestrian speeds on a road that was clearly designed in another era for suburban speeds, especially the more suburban, residential section west of George Mason Drive.
Unlike Columbia Pike, however, officials have thus far put little planning effort into articulating a cohesive future vision for the entirety of this inner-ring corridor. They should, as it is bound to attract developer attention as the market recovers. Cherrydale has gotten some attention with new pedestrian streetlights and improved sidewalks, but the rest of the corridor mostly languishes. Bus service, while running at decent 12–15 minute headways, isn’t up to “rail-replacement” frequencies and makes too many stops. Notably, the McPherson Square 3Y service, which only runs in rush periods, in the peak direction, is usually packed. Sidewalks are still narrow, though there is growing pedestrian traffic.
The road would likely be able to accommodate all the current car traffic with one fewer lane in each direction. That would accommodate non-rush curb parking. But the route is a primary federal transportation corridor, under the jurisdiction of VDOT, and so ultimately very difficult to change. Plus, the corridor runs through 12—that’s right, twelve—very active and very affluent civic associations. That the road is still called Lee Highway might also be biasing future development.
The most exciting future possibility for the corridor is the proposed roundabout at the Lee/Glebe intersection. That would create a pocket park, focal point, and attractive vista for new, walkable development at this spot.
What would you plan for this corridor, and why do you think it has remained the mostly neglected cousin of Columbia Pike?