What Arlington Is Doing Right

I pilloried Arlington County in a previous post for building $1 million bus stops. Now for a reminder of what the county is doing right… Forest City Washington, reports the Washington Post, is planning an upgrade of Ballston Common Mall that would add a row of sidewalk retail along Wilson Boulevard and build 306 residential units above the property.

The 578,000-square-foot mall has four levels at present. Adding the residential units will entail a significant increase in density, and Forest City will have to get a number of approvals from Arlington County.

County planner director Robert J. Duffy is receptive to the concept. “The county would like to “see the mall become a much more open and attractive mixed-use project. … We need to encourage … a vibrant place-making development that has a strong and active presence on the street.”

Arlington County is not afraid of density. Its planning officials know how to make density work. Focus on the phrase “place-making.” If past is prelude, Arlington’s planners will work with Forest City to make that the re-developed mall improves the surrounding urban fabric, not detract from it. They also will extract proffers (or other financial concessions) from Forest City to help pay for infrastructure improvements made necessary by the project — but they will provide enough added density and leave enough money on the table to make it a win-win.

Bacon’s bottom line: The project will make fiscal sense because Ballston Common is located only two blocks from the Ballston Metro station. The transportation infrastructure is already in place. Indeed, apartment dwellers will generate more fare revenue for the rail and bus services. The utilities are in place, too. The water-sewer pipes will be vertical (running up the high-rise, thus paid for by the developer) not horizontal (running through a green-field tract). Fire, police and rescue are all there. No need to build new stations or augment staff.

That’s what you get when you’ve spent the past 40 years building cost-efficient human settlement patterns.

There is one potential fly in the ointment. Depending upon the demographics, adding 360 residential units could add a couple hundred kids to the county school system. On the plus side, if neighboring schools haven’t maxed out their capacity, perhaps they can absorb the kids without the need to add new buildings. On the other, Arlington County spends a lot of money per child. I would like to know how county planners factor that into their thinking.


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21 responses to “What Arlington Is Doing Right”

  1. DJRippert Avatar

    Arlington is a CINO – County In Name Only.

    Here is the list of Virginia localities by population density:


    Lots of interesting data here.

    Tysons Corner – the place where everybody works and nobody lives?

    Higher population density than any Virginia city other than Alexandria.

    24 of the 25 places with the highest population densities are in NoVa.

    Fredricksburg has a lower population density than Purcellville!

    “Overbuilt” Short Pump checks in at #88 on the density list.

    Talk about scatterized development.

  2. In Perth, Western Australia the main train station IS a shopping mall, a very large shopping mall. Daily commuters inbound get coffee and breakfast and outbound buy clothes and groceries. The stores are so successful that they close by 7 p.m., not needing to try and squeeze out a few extra dollars in the waning hours.

    Perth, the joke has it, is a “City for Cars” with suburbs north, south and east, including Fremantle, some 35 kilometers away and the area’s port. Perth had eliminated all but one commuter rail line by 1980 while building freeways everywhere. Then, a group called “Friends of the Railway” started and fought the prevailing “drive anywhere, everywhere and often nowhere” Americanization of transportation. In 1997, two planners found $35,000 for a transportation demand management project called TravelSmart and the individualized communication about how, and why, to use sustainable transportation took off. The entire 1.6 million community of Western Australia (virtually everyone in Perth or its suburbs) has now all been TravelSmarted and the area has four very successful, commuter rails requiring very little in the form of taxpayer subsidies.

    The last rail line, called the “Southern Suburbs Railway” (going south to Mandura) opened a couple years ago with 67,000 first-day riders and 90 — yes, NINE ZERO — approval ratings even though the city had to close the “mall-train station” for a week to connect SSR to the station and the city’s other rail lines.

    Road congestion, in Western Australia, has all but disappeared and beginning in 2010 Infrastructure Australia (national transport funding) put better than half of all dollars into commuter rail across the country and refused to fund roadways UNLESS planners could prove that the new roadway would primarily be used by freight traffic.

    In that same year, our “green” president put $28 billion stimulus dollars into new roads (vs. $8 for mass transit and $300 million for bike-ped) on top of the standard 80 percent of all transportation dollars going to roadways. Although Australia has even more wide-open spaces than we do and as high a per-capita car ownership as we do, it is well on the way to transportation sustainability while we still produce almost half of the entire world’s automotive carbon dioxide emissions.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Where to start?

      Perth is a city of 2,000 sq mi with a population of 1.8M. It is in the state of Western Australia – a state that is 50% bigger than Alaska. In Western Australia, 1.8M people live in the city of Perth and 900,000 live in the additional 1 million square miles.

      So, the “city” of Perth is about the same physical size as NoVa, including all independent cities, Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun, Prince William and Fauquier counties. Populations are similar with this definition of NoVa at about 2.2M people and Perth at 1.8M.

      Perth has two big advantages over NoVa:

      1. A city governance structure with considerable planning authority (NoVa has the useless NVTC).

      2. A “downstate” essentially devoid of people.

      I wonder what transportation in NoVa would be if NoVa were an autonomous entity that had no material dealings with Richmond.

      And before somebody jumps on the “high tax” bandwagon – All government spending in Australia comprises 34.6% of GDP. In the US, it is between 39 – 41%.

      Of course, 13.8M of Australia’s population of 22.6M live in 5 cities (61%). In the US, the biggest 5 cities contain 18.3M of our roughly 300M citizens (6.1%).

      In the context of efficiency in the US – states are too big and counties are too small. We need regions with substantial governance authority.

      1. Mr. Rippert:

        Please “start” with the understanding that drivers can be talked out of their single occupancy vehicles, even drivers in countries with more wide-open spaces and as high of per-capita car ownership as ours, at a fraction of the cost of trying to build enough auto infrastructure.

        Of course Perth is different from NoVa (or Richmond, or Norfolk or my town, Cville) but the experience there — which spread to every Aussie city except Sydney (which was/is afraid of creating demand it cannot supply) — illustrates that even people who own cars and feel very much at home in them can be enticed out enough times to save immense amounts of money and create better health and less pollution at the same time.

        In the administration of George Bush, the younger, his Federal Transit Authority piloted TravelSmart in four American cities, Cleveland, Durham, Sacramento and Bellingham WA, and on average they experienced an eight percent VMT drop. Only one of those communities, Belliingham used the pilot as springboard and did a full-fledged TravelSmart project a couple years later to find a 15 percent vehicle miles traveled decline and a 42 percent increase in butts in bus seats.

        No, Bellingham is NOT NoVa, nor is it even Norfolk, but the point remains that among the most-dedicated drivers on the planet, the cheapest and most effective way to deal with congestion is to cajole folks out of their cars.

        1. DJRippert Avatar


          If the cheapest and most effective way to deal with congestion is to cajole people out of their cars, why isn’t it happening in Virginia?

          Because our governance system is broken.

          The belief that our over-powered central government in Richmond will make good decisions for a state as diverse as Virginia is absurd. The clowns in Richmond make terrible decisions because they re perpetually trying to be all things to all people.

          A locality in Virginia cannot decide how high the grass can grow in its common areas without getting specific instruction and permission from the General Assembly (aka The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond). http://scottsurovell.blogspot.com/2012/01/dillon-rule-height-of-grass.html.

          There are certainly some localities in Virginia that would greatly benefit from more mass transit. However, that would require coordination among the 140 half-wits we send to Richmond for a couple of months a year to argue about such critical matters as a Personhood Bill.

          Australia has a governance system that works. Virgijnia does not. Until you fix the governance system you will not fix the transportation system.

  3. WAIT! I thought “planners” and “experts” were the ENEMY of smarter, more sustainable development?

    On my bucket list BTW is Perth…. always wanted to go there… have thoroughly “explored” it with GOOGLE MAPS!

    Perth, BTW, has one more big advantage. It does not exist because the Fed govt is raining down deficit dollars on it….

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      “Perth, BTW, has one more big advantage. It does not exist because the Fed govt is raining down deficit dollars on it….”.

      No, that would be Canberra.

  4. Larry said, “WAIT! I thought “planners” and “experts” were the ENEMY of smarter, more sustainable development?”

    Fair comment.

    Arlington is not a perfect world. But given the fact that government intrudes into every conceivable aspect of the real estate market, and given the fact that government has broad powers, I would say that government can wield those powers for good or evil. Arlington wields those powers (for the most part) for good.

    The problem is that will last only as long as there is a consensus about the way things should be done. That consensus has held up for 40 years. Will it hold up forever? We shall see….

  5. Please “start,” Mr. Rippert, with the understanding that even dedicated drivers can be cajoled out of their cars. That is the point of the Perth example. Arlington has issues, of course, but it is doing good things, as Mr. Bacon’s article reveals but one thing it is not doing very well (nor is anywhere in Virginia) is communicating with drivers how/why they should leaves cars at home.

    Of course, Perth is not NoVA, nor is it Richmond or Norfolk or my town of Cville.

    The Federal Transit Authority under George Bush, the younger, piloted TravelSmart in four American cities — Cleveland, Durham, Sacramento and Bellingham WA — and discovered an average eight percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled in 2005 (about twice what the 2008/9 gasoline price spikes would create) Only Bellingham used that pilot as a springboard for a full TravelSmart program a few years later and discovered a 15 percent decline in VMT and a 42 percent increase in butts in bus seats (but, yes, there was a corresponding change in bus routing).

    No, Bellingham is NOT NoVA, nor for that matter is it Norfolk, but the point remains that good transportation demand management is the most successful and most cost-effective method of dealing with congestion. Yet, with minor exceptions, Americans have never heard of transportation-related individualized marketing.

    If interested, you can find my book on Amazon. Fatal Attraction: Curbing our Love Affair with the Automobile Before it Kills Us. (I apologize, Mr Bacon, for the blatant promotion here but one can’t explain how/why TS is successful in a handful of words).

  6. @Salz – actually Arlington sued VDOT over the HOT Lanes because they feared that too many SOVs would be willing to pay a solo toll to travel from exurbia to a job in Arlington and flood their surface streets.

    the specific aspect that they sued on was the failure of VDOT to (in Arlington’s view) properly model this claimed phenomena and apparently Arlington was on the right track because VDOT settled by removing the planned ramps to Arlington.

    I think comparing NoVa to any other metro area that does not have a heavy Federal govt presence will end up with different results that are not valid in comparisons.

    You’d be better comparing Perth with LA or Seattle or Dallas than NoVa or even Hampton Roads.

    OTOH – when it comes to carpooling and the use of transit – the NoVa area is among the leaders if not at the top percentage wise and this is because govt jobs are among the last vestiges of a job that can be a career and people who work at Federal agencies can count on keeping their job for years, decades and that makes it much easier to find a bus or van pool or slug, etc… that you can stick with and I do know people who spent their entire careers carpooling or riding a bus to their job.

    The “churn” we see in beltway cities and larger MSAs with a lot of highway infrastructure is caused, in part (in my view) by the fact that people are drawn to those places because of the availability of jobs – BUT – modern jobs are often not long-lived things and people do change jobs – and rather than move to where the new jobs is – they use highway infrastructure – unless transit is readily available and convenient on both ends of the commute.

    I often think – that when these things are discussed, we spend more time thinking about how we would change behaviors rather than the why behind the behaviors.

    A Mom and Dad with two kids and a mortgage are not going to sell their house and buy a new one if they can find another job in the region and there is available mobility infrastructure for them to use.

    no amount of “incentivizing” them to abandon their SOV is going to be successful if there is no real feasible way to do it.

    and I will admit that there are some folks that are going to SOV no matter what just because they want to… even if the commute is one from hell.

  7. Another advantage soon to be possessed by the RB Corridor is the added Metrorail service that is coming with the arrival of the Silver Line. While Fairfax-Vienna will see a drop in Orange Line service to accommodate the Silver Line, East Falls Church to Rosslyn will see more trains. And to make it even better, more responsibility for WMATA funding goes to Fairfax County based on the existing formula.

    Let’s also don’t forget Arlington has a major advantage in its ongoing effort to urbanize the RB Corridor in its existing grid of streets. It truly helps move traffic.

  8. mbaldwin Avatar

    Thanks for this informative entry and for the thoughtful comments by readers. Here in Loudoun County we need this kind of planned development in and around our coming Metro stations. But Metro itself, and Arlington-Perth type development get regularly slammed by county anti-tax elements still in the ascendency. Interestingly, even “Villages of Leesburg” that lacks a Metro has shown the value of concentrated development around vibrant entertainment, grocery and service establishments. But yes, school cost issues of new residential units can’t be ignored, although they usually are.

    As an aside, it’s a pleasure to read this blog and its civilized comments as a refreshing change from the intemperate excesses of another local blog not worthy of naming.

    1. Thanks for joining the conversation as well as for the kudos. Maybe we should start branding Bacon’s Rebellion as the “civilized” alternative of the blogging world.

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      There used to be bumper stickers that read, “Don’t Fairfax Loudoun”. Depits having lived in Fairfax County for a long time I thought the point was well taken. Unfortunately, Loudoun seems well on the way to Fairfaxification (at least East of Rt 15).

      Don’t do it.

      Think about towns and population concentration centers.

      Avoid endless curb cuts in the roads.

      Use mass transit.

      1. reed fawell III Avatar
        reed fawell III

        Way to go, Don!

  9. re: “intemperate” – a tame description of some blogs now days where expressing a reasonable opinion will get you a load of abuse and hate.

    I’m afraid BR spoiled me for other blogs especially those who are fierce defenders of “free markets”.. the blog itself becomes a totally “free market” of comments to include the best and worst of what can be uttered.

  10. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    BR – an oasis with occasional sand bitter wind sirocco.

  11. Okay, all good comments on the “Perth” aspect — but I wish you’d think “TravelSmart,” instead of Perth.

    (I’ll try to only post this once…sorry for my screw up above).

    Among the many aspects that I haven’t included, however, is that TravelSmart’s effects include people requiring that their tax dollars be spent on alternative transportation before building more highways.
    What happens, generally, is that the SOV driver (whom ya’ll seem most worried about) almost NEVER abandons his/her commute vehicle immediately. He/she is cajoled to change some other trip, knowing that if he/she is late to work, he is she is in “deep do-do” (if you remember that line) and he/she “tests” the alternatives, like, say the bus or bike-ped, for some less important trips. He/she begins to realize that the alternatives is better than she/he thought and notices what projects/programs will help he/she use alternatives more times for more trips. Only once the “test” period passes does the driver begin to consider alternative commutes and he/she begins demanding better transit or bike-ped infrastructure for that commute.

    The state’s transport planner says that TravelSmart helps them maximize their transportation system and ensure that buses, etc. almost never run at a loss while providing real data, as opposed to “stated preference” — so common in America — about what alternative transportation projects get the most bang for the buck.

    America’s present TDM (transportation demand management) is almost solely aimed at the commute trip BUT almost no one chances changing the commute trip until that person feels comfortable with alternative transportation.

    While there is no instant gratification, reasonably quickly in a TS city, the political parade changes because people are no longer demanding “relief from that horrible congestion” through more roads, but are rather asking that their tax dollars be spent for better transportation options…options that they themselves know they will use.

    In Brisbane, across the continent from Perth, they’ve now TravelSmarted the city, the North Brisbane suburbs and the Gold and Sunshine coasts. Three towns have completely sworn off road building and the very conservative, pro-business Brisbane mayor, Campbell Newman (if memory serves and he’s still in office from a couple years ago) is building bicycle trails everywhere, constructing some 125 miles of bike trails with city tax dollars over a handful of years. He even put up a downtown “Bicycle commute Center” where people have lockers, showers, bike storage, coffee and dry cleaning which is paying for itself. That center, a year into operation, according to one study was saving 35,000 kilometers annually from being driven into the city. Almost NONE of the 300 or so users had already been a bike commuter prior to this very pro-business program opening in 2010. Meanwhile, everyone is recognizing the health benefits though I don’t know if they’ve yet be quantified.

    The mayor, however, is proud that his constituency, as individuals, are taking personal responsibility for global warming. He’s a conservative, not anywhere close to a tree hugger. In Perth, the TravelSmart program began under a conservative administration, was expanded under a liberal administration and when the conservatives returned to power they utilized the same educational-encouragement concepts to address energy and water consumption. Saved the cost of putting up a huge desalination plant.

    Brisbane’s per-household cost for TravelSmart has averaged $70.

  12. Well.. I’m a skeptic in thinking people can be “convinced” by logic or words.

    I think they have to end up with higher costs before they start thinking about those costs and whether there are feasible alternatives to the costs and I include both time and money in the cost metrics.

    Despite Arlington’s concern about the influx of toll-paying SOVs, I think HOT lanes will change behaviors and I think it has a good chance to shift from building more infrastructure to better managing what we have now – more cost effectively.

    the simple truth is that not each trip has the same economic value and HOT lanes will do a better job of delineating the value proposition for folks.

    A doctor on her way to a heart bypass operation has a different economic incentive than a guy visiting his girlfriend or a worker whose boss just expects 8hrs – whenever they arrive. A UPS driver on her way to start the route – needs to be there when the truck is loaded and ready to roll.

    there are thousands of these value propositions that now will let each individual decide what they want to pay – in terms of time, money, time shifting and HOV/SOV mode.

    Maybe that’s the “choice” idea after all…

  13. I like the idea of giving individuals more information. Over time, people make better choices when they have better information. How bad is traffic approaching the RB corridor from the District? How crowded is the Orange Line train? How long would I have to wait for bus coming home at 6 pm if I don’t drive today?

    In major employment centers, we will likely need to charge extra for entry/exit during peak congestion periods. We need to start small, say by charging higher parking fees based on time of entry (and maybe exit) within the TOD areas at Tysons, for example.

    More park and ride lots need to be established in suburban/urban areas. For example, more people living in Great Falls would likely take the Silver Line if they could drive a reasonable distance, park their cars and catch a shuttle to the Wiehle station.

    I would also stop talking about Global Warming/Climate Change. It’s mission creep and risks putting off potential mass transit/bike/ped users. There are lots of people who might be open to changed commuting behavior but who also don’t want to be co-opted by a political movement. Concentrate on finding common ground – a better way to get to work – a chance to have a better commute – a less expensive way.

  14. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    This Ballston Common Mall article highlights several facts critical to Arlington County’s urban development success, as distinct from Tyson’s Corner’s failures.

    First, very early on, Arlington County came to understand, and found solutions to deal with, the fact that commercial development generates far more traffic than residential housing. In contrast, the development of Tyson’s Corner acerbated this basic problem. It built a suburban city.

    Think about it. One person typically occupies far more space at home than in his office. Plus a doctor sees far more daily visitors in his office than at home. So does a store clerk. So does the typical office worker. So does someone working in a convenience store, at a hairdresser’s, or flower shop.

    Suburban uses, dependent on the automobile, turbo charge these realities, traffic wise. Here, shopping centers, regional malls, and big box retail are the worst offenders. Their sales depend on auto visitors. So does their value, should the owner sell his asset because its traffic volume proves the drawing power of its stores. So suburban retail centers are designed to draw auto traffic, the more cars from the more far away locales the better.
    Potomac Mills is an example. Tysons Corner Mall is another mega example. (Ballston Common Mall is not as explained below)

    As a result, within suburban malls, shopping centers and big box outlets, a single parking space can “turn over” 65 times in a single day. One space makes possible 65 visits (each one by a different car that comes and goes) during business hours. In contrast, a parking space within a typical urban residential high-rise might generate only one turnover a day. Office buildings also substantially outpace residential. Distance between uses in suburbia drive this traffic.

    Herein lies some of the secrets Arlington County discovered early.

    1/ Density of development does not create traffic.
    2/ An imbalance of separated uses creates traffic, irrespective of density.
    3/ High density development of synergistic uses properly properly placed relative to one another, within an urban center, will drive traffic down. And it will keep reducing traffic until, and so long as the optimum mix of uses is achieved and maintained, and varieties of mass transit is steps away.
    4/ Mixed uses are best developed in tandem. Then your “city will find itself.” Then its best mix of uses, their variety, proportions, and nuance emerge in time to be captured. Thus, tandem development fuels best opportunity for market and financial success for all involved – whether office, retail, or residential tenant, owner, worker, or store clerk.

    Complexities are involved in building a successful urban center. But at base and speaking generally, Arlington learned that office space should never exceed nearby walk-able residential. That retail commercial should be built at same time as office and residential. That commercial space – office, retail, hotel – should best not exceed total nearby residential space.

    That the proper mix and match of uses can be used to drive traffic down as far as possible, by creating synergies that take visitors out of their cars, put them into mass transport, and/or on the streets walking instead. This in turn creates vibrant many faceted neighborhoods. This attracts ever more tenants, residents and shoppers. This throws off ever more revenues to pay for expanding public amenities and necessities. This becomes a spiral that feeds on itself, throwing off ever more benefits for all involved.

    Tyson’s Corner’s did the opposite. It tried to make a city living off an Interstate by building an suburban office park next to a suburban mega mall, and strip retail And so built itself into a dead end. Fairfax County knows what the solutions are. Now it should follow the Arlington example.

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