The Presidents' Breakfast – civic association-led planning
This is a good example of:how to develop community support for corridor redevelopment in advance of a formal public process
Twenty-five years ago, Arlington County (Virginia) officials, businesses and neighborhoods along Columbia Pike started a revitalization organization in response to the growing disinvestment along the length of the Pike. Unlike downtown redevelopment, corridors pose special challenges for both economic development and neighborhood buy in; the longer the corridor, the more neighborhoods to involve. Moreover, corridors spread economic activity along a thin strip of roadway. In Arlington, presidents from 10 civic associations met regularly to build relationships, planning skills and trust.
Arlington, Virginia is a mature inner-ring suburb of Washington DC. The County is noted for its visionary transit-oriented development and walkability along Metrorail routes and adjacent neighborhoods. It is also known for the “Arlington Way,” a consensus-driven approach to decision-making. In the past ten years, the county has experienced significant population growth resulting in climbing real estate prices and pressures for more development outside the subway corridors.
The Columbia Pike corridor runs from the Pentagon westward across south Arlington to the Fairfax County border (see map below). Most of the Pike was developed from the 1920s through the early ‘60s with a mix of local commercial uses and multi-unit residential, with single-family residential in bordering neighborhoods. While the population density was high for a suburb, it was deemed insufficient to build the subway line proposed in the 1960’s. Nonetheless, its bus lines have the highest ridership in Virginia.
By the late 1980’s the businesses and civic associations along the Pike noted that disinvestment appeared to be taking hold. This led to the birth of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization (CPRO). Membership included a county economic development representative, local businesses and civic associations. The CPRO was funded 1/3 by the county and the rest from events and dues paying members including local businesses. Its purpose was to spark redevelopment.
The next step occurred in 1998 when the county board authorized the Columbia Pike Initiative launching the formal planning process for the corridor. The Initiative, led by the Executive Director of the CPRO and county planners, had frequent feedback from the neighborhood civic associations through the Presidents’ Breakfasts (discussed below), charettes and other outreach. Early strategic decisions in the process were:
- To not widen the Pike,
- Keep historic structures to anchor areas of activity, and
- Redo the commercial areas first into mixed-use nodes. The result was a ‘form-based code” passed by the county board in 2003.
The Presidents’ Breakfasts
At the same time, CPRO began sponsoring gatherings of civic association presidents on a semi-regular basis. Through experience, they evolved into Saturday morning breakfasts in order to maximize attendance. A county board member with particular interest in the area always attended and the meetings allowed for the airing (and addressing) of gripes large and small. Through the breakfasts the neighborhoods discovered common concerns and learned about each other’s issues. Personal bonds developed that facilitated communication and consensus building.
Planning was not the purpose of the breakfasts yet they became an important source of feedback for the Initiative. While participants in the main Initiative’s process were people interested in and supportive of change, the Breakfasts tended to draw those opposed to change. This served as an important source of information and a “reality check” for the Initiative. For example, it was through the breakfasts that the consensus was obtained for the upper limits of density along the Pike. Conversations by the civic association presidents with the county board members let the board know what the communities would support.
A further feedback loop was via the listserv set up to cover the entire corridor. It was lightly moderated (to preserve civility) and served as a forum for both big and small issues. Reading posts on plans for the Pike gave valuable information on reactions to proposals from people not involved in either the Initiatives or the breakfasts.
The results have been the institution of the form-based code and subsequent development under it and a plan for the entire Pike that has modified the General Land Use Plan and has rezoned much of the Pike. The rezoning includes workable incentives to preserve the existing number of affordable housing units. One feature of the plan is the preservation and revitalization of existing neighborhood commercial areas. The surrounding single-family neighborhoods are preserved as-is. The consensus for preserved affordable housing and increased density is contingent on the realization of the key feature of the plan: the Columbia Pike streetcar. This is designed to provide a strong transit option for the expected increase in population without increasing the number of auto trips. A major funding source for it is the expected increase in property values. An additional result has been the creation of a community sense that goes beyond the individual neighborhoods. Its residents now see the corridor as a larger community: “The Pike”.