Whither Lee Highway?
I caught a glimpse of the multi-faceted answer on Jan. 11 when I attended the board meeting of the five-year-old Lee Highway Alliance. Some 45 gathered at its newly rented office in the Russell Building near Lee Heights shopping center.
They offered a rich example of Arlington’s volunteer citizens partnering with county officials to produce a highly professionalized planning team. The goal: reimagine and humanize the five-mile strip that some feel is themeless, in parts unsightly, and screaming with untapped potential for walkability, greenery, lighting, art and prosperous commercial variety.
“I’m really optimistic,” said alliance president Sandi Chesrown, an urban planner who co-founded the project that, she estimates, has already involved 1,000 Arlingtonians and 15 civic active associations along the corridor. It entered the new year with a $133,000 budget, incorporation within the Commonwealth of Virginia, a pro bono law firm, tax-exempt status and a paid executive director (Lucia deCordre). “This area has not been re-planned for 60 years,” Chesrown told me. “We need to re-plan and think toward the future.”
Funded with two county grants, donations and sponsorships, the Lee Highway Alliance is now back on the front burner of Arlington’s planning agenda, said county board Chairman Katie Cristol, who promised forward movement in the next couple of months.
Her commitment was echoed by county planner Natasha Alfonso-Ahmed, who promised a key planning initiative document to the county manager by Feb. 1. Creative economy director Susan Soroko declared herself eager to hear why the gathered are so passionate about their neighborhoods.
The alliance has conducted more than 30 education events to loop in residents, landowners and businesses, Chesrown said. A small-business representative called the alliance “a nice bridge” for proprietors who may feel “overwhelmed” by county bureaucracy.
Obstacles, however, loom on the highway’s horizon. Already, Chesrown noted, branding efforts were delayed by concern that the movement to remove Robert E. Lee’s name from public entities might throw them a curveball. The county’s recent decision to tackle the affordable housing shortage by creating a housing conservation district in a dozen zones was called “unfortunate,” by Ralph Johnson, a business representative on the 17-slot alliance board.
Control of Arlington’s portion of the state highway by the Virginia Transportation Department has been a thorn in the side of the alliance. A key reason was poor and late communication on such moves as VDOT installing digital signs announcing new tolls on I-66 at Lyon Village, and design plans for a pedestrian bridge on the bicycle path at Washington Blvd. near the Falls Church-Arlington border.
“The county should take over from VDOT, which doesn’t have the creative ability,” said Jim Todd of Cherrydale. But Chesrown says relations with VDOT are now positive, thanks to a new state liaison who meets with the Arlington folks every six weeks.
I asked whether long-standing merchants should fear gentrification. “We did a survey of small businesses on Lee Highway and learned that a surprising number would actually like to see redevelopment,” Chesrown said. “A lot of them own the land and would be in charge of the negotiation and be able to go back to the space once it’s redeveloped.”
Alliance co-founder Ginger Brown said, “It’s important to respect the difficult decisions that have to be made.” That’s why, she added, “we build relationships.”
Speaking of Lee Highway, there’s a new incarnation of what I’ve long called the “jinxed restaurant.”
At Lexington Street, beginning in the 1970s at that hard-to-park-in location, you had a Pizza Hut. It was followed by a succession that included an Indian health food veggie place, a Bolivian-Colombian menu combo, the diner-like Charleyhorse Grill, the upscale Tap and Vine, then the fusion Asian Kitchen.
Just this month it reopened under the same Asian management as Misoram, a noodle place. I’ve sampled it. Good, warm soup.