Lee Highway is the main street through north Arlington. While other Arlington streets like Wilson Boulevard and Columbia Pike have grown more urban, Lee Highway has remained car-oriented. But the landscape is starting to change, and there’s a big effort underway to ensure residents play a role in shaping the details.

Lee Highway and Spout Run Parkway. Photo from Arlington County.

Arlington is famous in smart growth circles for its walkable Metro station neighborhoods, and the sleek urban development there. But there’s more to Arlington than Ballston and Crystal City.

North of I-66, where Metrorail has never reached, Lee Highway is Arlington’s main road. It runs through leafy suburban neighborhoods filled with single family homes and low-rise garden apartment buildings. Its abundant surface parking lots, clutter of roadside signs, narrow sidewalks, and speeding traffic combine to make Lee Highway a fairly typical car-oriented suburban road.

Lee Highway is changing. The community is shaping how.

It’s been that way for over 50 years, but as urban growth demand has skyrocketed, land values have shot up, and as land has become more limited in the nearby Rosslyn-Ballston corridor over the past ten, a few redevelopment projects have started to pop up along Lee Highway in areas that haven’t yet been planned. Rosslyn, Courthouse, Columbia Pike, Clarendon all have adopted plans guiding growth and change within their boundaries.

Recent new development along Lee Highway. Photo by Google.

The community steps up

In response to that changing reality, north Arlington’s civic associations and community groups formed the Lee Highway Alliance (LHA) in 2012, as a grassroots coalition to plan for the future.

Between 2012 and 2014, the LHA connected with hundreds of residents, businesses, and property owners in the Lee Highway community through a listserv. LHA organized walking tours and monthly forums on issues ranging from affordable housing to streetscape improvements to retail, and even conducted a targeted survey for Lee Highway businesses and property owners.

In the fall of 2014, they hosted a series of five community meetings spread along the corridor, to raise even broader awareness about Lee Highway and hear the local perspective on Lee Highway’s strengths and weaknesses. The rooms were always full. Both LHA and Arlington County host webpages that document these forums and the community meetings that followed.

One of the key results of all these early efforts are guiding principles that set the stage for the community visioning effort soon to unfold.

In a time and place where citizen input is essential to get buy-in, LHA has become a model for planning from the ground up.

It’s time to create the vision

After three years of grassroots background work, it’s now time to start figuring out what the community’s vision for Lee Highway will actually look like.

This weekend, November 6-9, a community design workshop, or charrette, will take place to develop a community-based vision for the future of the corridor.

Anyone who’s interested in Lee Highway can attend the charette, where an army of planners will sit down with small groups of residents to hear ideas, put pens to paper, and mark-up maps.

By the end of the weekend, hopefully, the community will have hashed out the beginnings of a grassroots plan. Not imposed from officials, but built from the ground-up by the people who will live with it.

From there, the Lee Highway Alliance will deliver its vision to the Arlington County Board. The county will then consider how it can help the community realize their vision through formal planning efforts.

Plenty of challenges, but strong opportunities

Inevitably, Lee Highway won’t end up looking the same as Ballston, Columbia Pike, or Crystal City. It’s built to be a different type of place.

There’s no Metro line on Lee Highway, and along most of the corridor the commercial buildings are only a single block deep, with neighborhoods of single-family detached houses immediately behind.

But people want to be on Lee Highway. Shopping centers are overflowing, and demand for new housing keeps rising. And though there’s not as much land as on other streets, there are plenty of large properties that could become civic amenities.

The opportunities are there, and the charrette will begin to chart that new path. Attend it, and help create the vision.

The charrette will run from November 6-9, at the Langston-Brown Community Center, 2121 N Culpeper Street, in Arlington. You can attend for all or part.

Kellie Brown is an Associate Planner in the Arlington County Planning Division. She has been active in the Lee Highway civic engagement effort and lives in Lyon Park. She holds degrees from Georgetown University and the University of Maryland.