- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 29, 2003

During the past 40 years, Columbia Pike has been known as one of Arlington County's main drags but not in the transportation sense.
Its diverse and unique array of businesses have given the strip a likable, neighborhood feel. But true economic development has been absent, and many residents there have grown tired of block after block of single, bland shops with peeling paint and generic signage.
But developers could flock to Columbia Pike if county officials get their way in the next few weeks.
The county planning commission will meet tonight to talk about the transportation and parking aspects of its plan to attract commercial businesses along the main three-mile stretch of Columbia Pike. In subsequent meetings next month, officials are expected to approve a plan to expedite development and create a pedestrian-friendly town-center environment.
The major discussion around Columbia Pike's redevelopment has centered on a fledgling planning concept called the form-based code. The code outlines rules on a building's design so that development is less haphazard and developers have a clear idea of what they are allowed to build before drawing up plans.
Also, the form-based code has few, if any, rules dictating what can occupy a building, so developers can build residential, retail or office space without considering strict zoning rules. County Board members are expected to approve the code Feb. 25, which would make it the first county in this area to do so.
"We make it easier for people to build the right thing," said Tim Lynch, executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, which has worked with residents on forming the code. "It lends predictability to the development process."
But not everyone is thrilled. Several residents said not enough time has been set aside to talk about the issues of parking and affordable housing, and others say they are confused about how the code will work.
"As a citizen, I find it difficult to understand because it's new," said Randy Swart, an Arlington resident who has lived near Columbia Pike for 48 years. "I think it would help to allow more time for citizens to work on it."
Furthermore, many residents said they were concerned about traffic congestion and parking problems because businesses will no longer be required to provide a specific number of parking spots. Instead, parking will be provided in several garages to be located along Columbia Pike and on side streets.
"Parking is already quite a problem for us," said Pat Williamson, a resident of the Barcroft neighborhood, near Columbia Pike. "There are already more people and cars in Arlington than there are parking spaces."
Arlington County officials turned to the new planning system last year after determining that the traditional site-plan process was not spurring economic development.
Developers lured to Arlington were more inclined to build at Metro-accessible sites such as Rosslyn, Ballston and Clarendon, and officials struggled with how to develop along Columbia Pike without squeezing out the smaller, independent businesses that gave the area a unique neighborhood feel.
"Traditional economic-development efforts just have not been successful," said Ted Saks, chairman of Arlington's Planning Commission. The form-based code "is a very new system and, in a way, is a bold experiment."
"But everything else has not produced desirable results," he said.
Proponents of the new rules said smaller developers should find the process easier and less expensive than that of the traditional site plan. For one thing, developers will no longer be asked to repeatedly speak before the planning commission, and are likely to save money on lawyers and engineers needed to be present at those meetings.
Parking will be a key topic of discussion tonight, when the planning commission holds a work session devoted almost entirely to transportation and parking. They are expected to iron out details of a plan to build several centrally located parking garages along Columbia Pike and will discuss plans for creating a trolley or direct bus system.
"The first concern is, do we have the plans for the garages? And that's a very legitimate concern," said planning commission member Tom Greenfield.
The process of creating, tweaking and presenting a near-final version of the form-based code has moved quickly. An original set of rules was created in September after a weekend series of interactive design sessions. At these sessions, residents brainstormed their visions for Columbia Pike, and architects created the code from those suggestions.
Since then, members of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization have met with Arlington neighborhood associations, and held town-hall meetings to discuss the code and make adjustments.

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