Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The latest on that shared thoroughfare we call Lee Highway includes visible progress on constructing the new bike-path bridge that dramatizes the border between Arlington and Falls Church. Hail, bridge-builders!

To mark the end of a year collecting ideas for the road’s “reimagining” by the nonprofit Lee Highway Alliance, its executive director, Ginger Brown, gave an update predicting that phase two — development of land-use and zoning ideas — could be “the most contentious.”

There’s fear of gentrification and rising rents for small businesses. But there’s also awareness that solutions that involve rezoning for greater density can ruffle feathers among supporters of the status quo, as they do in our county’s concurrent debate over affordable housing.

“Lee Highway is stuck in 1950s strip-mall zoning,” Brown told a Dec. 19 breakfast group at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. That feeling back in 2012 occurred to some residents of the Waverly Hills section drafting their Neighborhood Conservation Plan. The resulting alliance attracted a dozen neighboring groups and held 50 educational forums and a charette, eventually winning county funding.

“Arlington was already changing and booming, so we thought it better to have a plan so the community benefits,” Brown said.

Lee Highway boosters first had to “join the queue” and wait while Four Mile Run and Columbia Pike got policymaker attention. But 2019 brought focus to the alliance’s four-phase strategy slated to culminate in drafting a plan in 2021 for adoption perhaps in 2022.

To modernize and enforce “a sense of place” along Lee Highway’s diverse, 5.2-mile stretch, the alliance must address core county issues — crowded public schools, the desire for economic vitality, preservation of historical and cultural resources, sustainable energy and expanding transportation options such as a bicycle network that along Lee is currently “not great,” Brown said.

“The character of each neighborhood is different,” she added. And as an “auto-oriented corridor,” Lee Highway can’t be planned around Metro like Rosslyn-Ballston or Tyson’s Corner. “We’re not trying to be something we’re not.”

The focus is on commercial nodes — such as Lyon Village and Cherrydale — where there’s a chance for greater density in affordable and “missing middle” housing, plus partnerships to help small business continue thriving. The alliance’s working map for Lee Highway as “the place where we do our living” widens the target zone by a quarter mile on either side. Better to evaluate the amenities within walking distance for nearby residents.

Goals include assuring proximity to parks and commercially provided child care. Tools will include art and signage for branding each node, which could be “a little quirky, but charming and cool, too,” Brown said.

Lyon Village, which depends on anchor tenant Giant food, is in a “topographically depressed” land area, which means factoring in stormwater disposal. “It’s complicated,” Brown said with a grin in stating the obvious. Developers and small businesses must be profitable, yet there is hope innovation in “affordable retail.”

The alliance relies humbly on the past work of others — such as the stalled 2011 plan for adding shops and a new entrance to the East Falls Church Metro.

Reimagining in the real world takes more time and controversy than planners hope for. “By-right development is probably not a good thing for us,” Brown acknowledged. “We hope it is not a zero-sum game. We can all benefit from public investment.”

Another Lee Highway property’s evolution began in the 1950s with Evan’s Coffee Shop on a crowded lot near the crossroads with N. Glebe Rd. The restaurant briefly became Frankenstein’s, then for four decades left its mark as the Alpine (where Washington Redskins gathered).

Next, preservationist developer Brian Normile bought it with plans for a new restaurant. Instead, in 2018 he signed a long-term lease with the Children’s School, the daycare provider for Arlington teachers, currently in Ballston.

Construction of its permanent home is soon to begin, says broker Chris Smith, on behalf of school director Naseera Moqsood.

Completion date: Summer 2021.