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Arlington, Virginia: A Vision for America’s Suburbs

The D.C.-area county has the potential to cultivate self-sufficient communities that retain their ties to the capital

Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor, view from inside the CEB Observation Tower. Credit Flickr/BeyondDC (CC BY-NC 2.0)

For the first time in decades, America’s suburbs have found themselves as a central topic in political debate. Between alleged agendas to “destroy” the suburbs and President Trump’s overt appeals to save them and earn the votes of “suburban housewives” ahead of the 2020 election, Americans are beginning to reassess the nation’s dominant mode of development, and whether it can survive and adapt to meet the needs of a growing populace. This cultural and political moment holds tremendous potential to create a broad public consensus toward building more walkable, sustainable, and beautiful cities where people of all backgrounds can co-exist. Perhaps the ripest plot of land for this kind of redevelopment in suburbia lies just outside the nation’s capital in Arlington, Virginia. This county has a new opportunity to become a blueprint for the rest of the country in building vibrant urban neighborhoods out of endless suburban sprawl, and it’s crucial that it doesn’t miss it.

Arlington is in many ways a microcosm of America’s suburbs, with rigid zoning laws and a housing crisis to match. The Washington, D.C. metropolitan area continues to grow despite a slowdown in the housing market due to COVID-19, and the city’s sky-high real estate prices show little sign of letting up. For years, newcomers to the area have been forced to look far outside the District to find more affordable housing, only to find similarly expensive housing and few options for homes that don’t include garages, picket fences, and HOA fees. But while most suburban areas have continued the same pattern of sprawl and single-family zoning since the early post-war era, Arlington is taking a sober look at its missteps and opening the door for a more people-focused housing pattern. 

County leaders are set to begin a study into its “missing middle” housing, with the intent to eventually create policy changes that allow for more duplexes, triplexes, and mixed-use developments. While places like Minneapolis, Minnesota and the state of Oregon have taken steps to allow these kinds of units, Arlington already has the existing infrastructure and natural features that are the ingredients for beautiful new townscapes. Just as New Urbanist architect and planner Leon Krier once described Washington as “a sketch of a great city to be, a grand skeleton with noble limbs but little flesh,” so too can Arlington be a canvas for creating a new model of American suburbs where civic life can flourish. Aside from its proximity to America’s beautiful capital, Arlington boasts stunning river views, lush park space, and tourist attractions like Arlington National Cemetery. It could use a more beautiful and sophisticated residential environment to match. 

3D satellite view of the Rosslyn area of Arlington, consisting of mostly high-rise development bounded by major highways. Copyright 2020 Google Maps.

Across America, traditional towns and villages have been drowned in a sea of sprawl that blurs towns’ boundaries and weakens their individual identities. This is true in Arlington as well, which has no incorporated towns but does have some older neighborhoods with more traditional town-like design. For the NIMBYs in Arlington devoted to preserving a sense of character in their neighborhoods, a plan for redevelopment that emphasizes the creation of traditional town centers with beautiful public spaces, medium-density housing, and urban parks could help remedy the county’s chronic placelessness. The best New Urbanist projects make places feel more like themselves. Now, as Arlington seeks to reassess how it uses its space, it should plan to build more of the things that make it appealing in its own right, not just an off-brand version of D.C. At its best, Arlington mixes quiet, family-friendly neighborhoods with exciting streets. At its worst, Arlington blends into the region’s monotonous outer-ring suburbs, with all the expenses of city life and few of its benefits.

For the massive yearly influx of young, highly educated, and largely underpaid professionals into the DMV, including an estimated 20,000 interns seeking summer housing, Arlington offers a cheaper alternative to the District, but only slightly. The median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Arlington hovers around the $2,000 mark: a heavy burden for new residents already encumbered by higher-than-average student loans. And the high median home value of $751,270 is prohibitive for many low-income families, first-time home buyers, and immigrants seeking to get their start. It must be noted that these prices are artificially high, the legacy of Arlington’s stunted development during a key phase of growth in the 1930s, when county officials banned rowhomes and multifamily housing units that were in high demand. 

View of the center of Arlington County, with the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor running through the middle of mostly single-family neighborhoods. Copyright 2020 Google Maps.

As a result, Arlington’s landscape in 2020 largely resembles that of most American cities: disproportionate amounts of detached, single-family homes surrounding small pockets of super-dense developments in “business districts”—and not much in between. When towns don’t build the “in between,” they not only stifle opportunities for homeownership for residents who make less than Arlington’s average salary of $112,138, but they miss out on much of the diversity and cultural amenities that bring life and energy to a place. Where these in-between areas do exist, Arlingtonians can find a historic bike shop with charming apartments on top, or a hip bakery in the same neighborhood where Bob and Nancy have lived since ’79.

Despite Arlington’s original goals to taper densities from new “urban villages” along metro lines into existing neighborhoods, little progress has been made toward this goal in the 50 years since redevelopment of the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor began. These neighborhoods along the corridor, referred to as “bullseyes” in Arlington’s master redevelopment plan, have few of the characteristics and gentle density that define historical villages. These “villages” allowed for denser development only within about a quarter mile of each metro station, and so the area’s growth sprawled upwards. During the corridor’s largest period of growth from 1990-2000, planners failed to remedy the issues they had observed during the project’s midpoint in the previous decade: overdependence on cars, lifeless towers, and unfocused use of open space. Even with a bevy of transportation options available, cars take up a disproportionate amount of space in Arlington’s urban jungle and relegate pedestrians to sidewalks and Metro escalators. In one neighborhood nexus where planners could have placed relaxing public parks by a Catholic parish and George Mason University campus, three four-lane boulevards collide and eat up any remaining open space with massive parking lots. 

If the residents who gave their input on the corridor are only familiar with an all-or-nothing approach to urbanism, it’s no wonder they kept it contained to a narrow strip and out of their old neighborhoods. But a genuine village-centric model for Arlington could allow for desperately needed growth in an organic way without overdevelopment or sacrificing its suburban status. As Steve Mouzon of the New Urban Guildnotes, the current debate uses an imprecise definition of “suburbs” to mean any place that’s less dense than Manhattan. 

Buckingham neighborhood of Arlington (identified by red border), consisting largely of “missing middle” housing options and “gentle density.” Copyright 2020 Google Maps.

America’s sprawling suburbs not only represent poor planning over the last century, but a breakdown between communities’ identities and the built environment they inhabit. Most Americans, while living predominantly in suburban areas, have significantly different ideas of what suburbia is. Arlington can help to solve this disconnect in a practical way, through intentional development of its neighborhoods into self-sufficient communities that retain their physical ties to D.C. while standing as fully realized towns. Arlington only has to look next door to Alexandria for a prime example of this urban-suburban integration. Del Rey, a suburban expansion of Alexandria that grew from a once-separate town called Potomac, connects seamlessly with the historic town center while being home to its own town festivals and seasonal events.

With neighborhoods like Crystal City rebranding as “National Landing” and redeveloping to accommodate Amazon’s incoming “HQ2,” there’s nothing stopping the rest of Arlington from getting a new lease on life as well. One day, residents of the Shirlington neighborhood won’t need a car to visit “Village at Shirlington” and its retail-lined, tree-shaded streets. And other neighborhoods may one day follow after Buckingham and Arlington Heights by filling in underdeveloped lots with handsome new townhomes. While the suburbs may fade from public debate, keep an eye on Arlington: the suburb with the potential to shape America.

Josh Delk is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He is a proud graduate of Grove City College and avid bicyclist. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.

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