Arlington Virginia smart growth past dooming its future

In this post, I am reflecting on a couple recent items I have read concerning the county I reside in, Arlington Virginia.    As usual for these posts, I’ll attempt to relate it back to data science at the end.

For background, the first item was a recently released study that surveyed county residents on the question of affordability of living in the county.   This study includes a poll of whether current residents expect to stay residents in the future.   A majority in the young age group said they will move within 5 years and the stated reason is affordability.

While this may be true from a perspective of a poll question, my immediate reaction is that in 5 years, they will be less young.   Part of the appeal of the recent growth in the densest parts of town is the attractiveness of that location to young people.   Youth appeal is naturally declines as one ages.  Many would move out in any case because their priorities will change.   For example, many in this age group will specialize into professions with advanced experience and degrees so that affordability is not an issue, but they will still have to move to where senior specialization in that profession is more needed.

Much of the appeal of the densest parts of Arlington is the youth-oriented night-life and the availability of jobs that will employ young college educated people.    While the county hosts many jobs for senior level positions, most of these hired people are imported from other locations often at their personal cost of long commutes to bring them to the local jobs.    Few of the entry level positions have an internal advancement program to get to those upper level jobs.   Many young people will probably move for many reasons unrelated to affordability even though that appears to be the biggest issue at the moment.

Much of the recent success of Arlington is due to a change in culture that made it very appealing to young people, many of whom are enjoying their first major incomes and the many satisfying opportunities to spend that income locally.  An exaggerated analogy is that Arlington is like a vacation theme park for people who enjoying their first tastes of financial independence.   It is like college except that the cash flow is in the opposite direction.

In any event, the survey itself was motivated in part by a realization that the Arlington experiment has been a great success.   That success is reflected in the sense of disappointment expressed by people who regret that it is impractical to stay here for the long haul.

Being a long time resident of the town, I can appreciate that disappointment.   I loved living here since the day I arrived in 1985 and stubbornly (perhaps too stubbornly) stuck around because it has some very nice qualities even though I am no longer young.

That brings me to the second item I found yesterday.   This is a documentary describing the urban planning that occurred decades ago that successfully resulted in approving a metro line and then routing it through a struggling urban corridor (Wilson Boulevard) and obtaining an over abundance of stops.    The result was a long corridor where there was some metro stop within walking distance.

The urban planning included a site plan to restrict (or encourage) high rise development adjacent to the corridor with density appropriate for the location relative to the metro stop.

It is interesting to me that most of the documentary seemed to focus on the unique phenomena of the area around the Clarendon Metro stop.    The success story is that the wisdom of the master plan is that the highest density would be on top of the metro stops and then taper off as walking distances became longer.    The best examples of following that wisdom are at the two ends: Rosslyn and Ballston.   But the pride and joy of the accomplishment is Clarendon which is not really as dense.

There is no argument that Arlington is enjoying a boom status and high degree of global recognition for smart growth planning.    However, the real products of that planning are Ballston and Rosslyn.   These two locations fit the original vision and yet their status is eclipsed by Clarendon which happens to have a metro station that is actually inconveniently located.

The brilliant master plan suggested the densest and tallest structures would be literally on top of the metro station.  This is like Rosslyn or Ballston where the escalator from the metro drops people off at the entrance of a large office building so those workers would never even have to step outside.    But Clarendon is different.   The escalator entrance is the middle of an open space, a mini park, in the median between the two directions of traffic (Wilson and Clarendon Boulevards).   Reaching anything requires at least walking across the street and even then the options are remodeled old structures with a few high rises.

The most dynamic and attractive part of Clarendon began to be built out in the very late 1990s.  The documentary has plentiful views of this part of Clarendon.   This part is between two metro stations.

From the perspective of the vision of the original planners, this development is in the wrong spot.  That vision was of a bulls-eye development that would center on top of the metro stop and then taper off.   Clarendon developers instead found the sweet spot off-set from the metro, or between two metro stops.

The success of Clarendon area definitely benefited from the decisions made decades earlier.  Those decisions were won in part on the vision of development that tapers off from points centered on metro stops.   However, Clarendon didn’t follow that vision.

Rosslyn and Ballston are most representative of the original vision.   Both of the locations did indeed enjoy an initial enthusiasm that matched that earlier vision.  Rosslyn was first with a very heavy emphasis on attracting commercial business office buildings.   That initial experience presented a problem in that the town became empty or dead after working hours.

Ballston came second with a mixed development plan of 50/50 split for offices and residences.   Typically two buildings would rise at the same time: one an office and another an apartment though not necessarily adjacent to each other.

But Rosslyn and Ballston appear to be examples of deliberate urban planning.   But it turns out that by the 1990s, both areas were showing some signs of irrelevance.    They would continue to hold their own as a result to their proximity to metro stations and access to I-66, but this was happening equally as well on top of many metro stations in DC and Maryland in locations without a similar master plan.

Then Clarendon happened.   Even through the 1990s, Clarendon was a very under developed area despite the access to the metro.    My recollection was that this was the original plan: to provide metro access to preserve a slice of an old small-town community.   At the time it was dominated by small family owned businesses in old 1930s 2-story brick buildings.   The Sears retail store had a decent investment nearby but it didn’t benefit at all from the metro.    When Sears left, the entire area became distressed.   Much of the retail traffic for the small businesses was from traffic drawn by the presence of the Sears store rather than access to the Metro.

The Sears store was located well for the master plan because it was between two stops.   Its business relied on several low-rise buildings to provide multiple parking lots.   When it left, it left a huge vacant area right between the two metro stops (Clarendon and Courthouse) that themselves were little used stops between Ballston and Rosslyn.

Developers seized the opportunity of that location and made it the center of what we now call Clarendon.   In the context of the original bulls-eye, the heart and draw of Clarendon is at the far outer edge of that bulls-eye in all directions, but especially in the site of the former Sears location.

In the past decade it is this modern reinvention of Clarendon that saved the cherished master plan.   The existence of a vibrant Clarendon revitalized Rosslyn and Ballston as more attractive for locating businesses and residences.     The reinvented Clarendon saved Ballston and Rosslyn.   It saved the master plan.

As shown in the documentary, Clarendon is the center piece of proof of the wisdom of the master plan.   I praise Arlington for leveraging this revisionist success story.  But the a more accurate image of Clarendon in the original vision was what it looked like in the 1990s, a metro station providing life-support to an old neighborhood of small buildings hosting family-run small businesses.

It is great that Arlington and in particular the Wilson Boulevard corridor has prospered.   In the 1980s and 1990s, I frequently walked the distance between the Rosslyn and Ballston metro stops.   It is a far more delightful experience today.   Today the entire route has lots of pedestrian traffic.   Back then, I’d walk nearly the entire distance without encountering a single pedestrian.

Again, I applaud the success of the corridor made possible by the master plan.   However, I question whether the master plan is fully responsible for that success.

Most of the interviewees in the documentary above are very progressive and liberal thinkers.   The views they present seem to be at odds with their politics.   While the earlier urban planners had a very liberal and progressive vision, the subsequent execution is very conservative.   Most of the actions for planning since the 1960s are not inconsistent with conservative management practice.

First there is the conservative appreciation for the wisdom of the original planners.   Many of modern decisions continue to refer back to the original intent as a guiding principle, despite that fact that Clarendon completely changed that original vision for the Wilson Boulevard corridor.   We are unable to change anything because it would spoil the reputation of the original thinkers.

The plan exists.  Success occurred.  So the plan must have been brilliant.

The result is that the Wilson Boulevard plan a model to be preserved for its example of a successful plan to display to planner visitors from other cities.   The future is about repeating the plan in different corridors.    If it worked for Wilson Boulevard, it could work for Columbia Pike, and who knows, perhaps Arlington Avenue and even Glebe Road.

It is a good theory but it seems to be a very conservative one.    It conserves an old idea that appears to work.  It seeks to preserve what appears to be working, and grow by copying that working plan elsewhere.

Another echo of a conservative perspective is the focus on keeping property tax rates low.   The great achievement of the plan was to keep individual homeowner property taxes low.   Another frequent conservative message was the reverence for preserving the quiet neighborhoods of single family homes that preserve a historic charm of what Arlington was like before the Metro.   I don’t mind these messages because I live in a single family house in a quiet neighborhood.   But I’m also a conservative.

I find it odd that we are not thinking seriously about progressive options for the future.   It is great to applaud the foresight of the original planners.   But we should follow the examples set by the thinkers rather than follow the blueprint they left behind.    The story was that these early progressive thinkers looked at the facts on the ground that told them that new highways that would be quickly congested were going to destroy Arlington as they then knew it.

Today the facts on the ground are different.    Arlington discovered a new urban center with Clarendon in the middle.   The premium for locations are measured with respect to distance from Clarendon.   As I mentioned earlier, Ballston and Rosslyn are benefiting by being just the right distance from Clarendon for attracting businesses and high-rise residences to preserve the street-life friendly density for a Clarendon town center.

At the same time there is that initial report of young people regretting that they will not be able to stay here for long because of the lack of affordable housing.

A progressive vision for Arlington may be to retire the old Metro-corridor based master plan and replace it with the hub-spoke plan with Clarendon as the hub.   The attraction is Clarendon, not the Metro stops.    Currently single family neighborhoods are in ideal locations for attracting high-rises to support more residences and perhaps even businesses.     The inconvenient lack of Metro stops in the other directions could be addressed with street cars that will serve high-rise developments to get to the Metro stops.   As a result, such a hub-spoke street car arrangement could become more heavily used than the planned street-car for Columbia pike that lacks a very promising attraction for high-density development.

A progressive vision would be to recognize the modern opportunities and the modern needs of people who want to stay in Arlington but who can not afford it.    A new progressive master plan would scrap the now conservative corridor-based plan and replace it with a heart-of-Arlington model that radiates in all directions from the a vibrant town center of Clarendon.

Finally, I see a lesson in this from a data science perspective.   In previous posts, I described a discipline with a new name of dedomenology that practices as a naturalist studying the datum.   Natural-science naturalists necessarily have to leave the comforts of their homes to get out into the natural environments of their subjects.  Secondly, we demand that naturalists record as objectively as possible and to avoid any interpretation from personal biases (in particular to avoid the problem of projecting human traits on non-human species).

It is very hard for a naturalist to study himself.   Perhaps it is even a contradiction to study oneself from a naturalist perspective.   I could run tests on myself (such as taking my own blood sugar measurements or blood pressure), but I seek a very disinterested psychologist to help me figure out where I’m thinking wrong.

In the area of data science in particular, we hear of a lot of success stories of data being exploited to discover new opportunities.   Often these discoveries are presented as disruptive, surprising the long established incumbents.    Often these are true outsiders in the form of start-up companies.

There is a call for established businesses to invest in data analysis to help them discover their own disruptive ideas.   Companies are heeding that advice in terms of investment.   I question whether they will ever be able to gain any benefit from that investment.    As in the above example with Arlington’s recent prosperity, its progressive-minded leadership is unable to see the data that is showcased right on their own promotional documentary.

The data is that something unexpected happened in Clarendon.   This unexpected event presents new and unforeseen opportunities for smarter growth.   Despite this access to data, they are unable to see this conclusion.   Instead they leverage the data as justification for repeating the plan on other corridors.    This is old-fashioned conservative decision making of basing a decision on a theory rather than on data.

If there were an opportunity for disruptive start-up to rival the county government, it would build new spokes (with roads designed to accommodate eventual light rail street-cars) from the attractive hub of Clarendon.   In the long run this start-up would put the county government out of business because it was able to look at the data instead of being committed to an outdated master plan.


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