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Columbia Pike Neighborhoods Area Plan Makes Affordable Housing a Priority

In Practice
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Columbia Pike Neighborhoods Area Plan Makes Affordable Housing a Priority

A local nonprofit has recently purchased Magnolia Commons, converting it from market-rate affordable housing to committed affordable housing. Image courtesy of Arlington County DCPHD.
The neighborhoods along Columbia Pike in Arlington, Virginia make up a vibrant community with a rich history. Originally a pay-to-use turnpike in the early 1800s, Columbia Pike is now a vital 5-mile corridor connecting Pentagon City, a major employment center, with the high-rise residential/commercial hub of Baileys Crossroads/Skyline Plaza. By 2040, more than 7,000 new residents are expected to join the current residents of neighborhoods along the pike, such as Magnolia Commons, Barcroft, and Okland. In response to this projected growth, the Arlington County Board recently approved the innovative Columbia Pike Neighborhoods Area Plan, which will encourage better urban design and transportation while preserving and expanding affordable housing options. Unlike previous Arlington County plans for commercial and transit corridors, the Columbia Pike Neighborhoods Area Plan incorporated affordable housing needs early in its preparation and emphasizes residential development.

History of Revitalization on the Pike

The plan is the latest installment in a much larger redevelopment effort for the communities along Columbia Pike. In the 1990s, Arlington County founded the Columbia Pike Initiative and tasked the Columbia Pike Redevelopment Organization, a coalition of business and community leaders, with developing a long-range plan for these communities. Initial efforts focused on redeveloping commercial areas, where cumbersome zoning and development regulations hindered growth. To encourage development, Arlington County created the Columbia Pike Special Revitalization District Form Based Code, a set of optional regulations that a property owner may choose to follow in five Revitalization District Centers. The code, with its streamlined approval process and emphasis on regulating design rather than land uses, proved successful, speeding production and encouraging development. Over the past four economically sluggish years, the Revitalization District Centers gained almost 200,000 square feet of commercial space and 1,000 market-rate residential units, and additional projects are moving through the approval process.

Preservation and Development of Affordable Units

Jennifer Smith, Arlington County principal planner/Columbia Pike Initiative coordinator, states that, from the earliest stages of preparing the Columbia Pike Neighborhoods Area Plan, stakeholders made every reasonable effort to preserve the sizable stock of residences that are affordable as a result of their age, size, and amenities. Because the county has typically lost affordable units in previous revitalization efforts, the plan calls for preserving all of the Columbia Pike corridor’s 6,200 market-rate affordable units — whose market rents are low enough to be within the budgets of low- and moderate-income households

Another goal of the plan is to preserve or replace all of the estimated 1,200 committed affordable housing units — those that were built with public funds. One strategy to accomplish this goal is to help owners convert market-rate affordable units into committed affordable units. This may be accomplished, for example, through tax incentives or public funding for energy-efficient upgrades in exchange for a commitment to continue a unit’s affordability for a specific period of time.

At the same time, the plan encourages new affordable housing. The plan recommends an optional form-based code (FBC) for the neighborhoods area in which developers set aside between 20 and 35 percent of units as affordable to those making between 40 and 80 percent of area median income in exchange for incentives, such as increased density. Developers receive density bonuses if they provide more than the required number of affordable housing units.

Drafting a Form-Based Code for the Neighborhoods Area

Preparation of the FBC has just begun, with a target adoption date of fall 2013. Over the next few months, county staff will prepare a draft with the help of consultants and a Form Based Code Advisory Working Group made up of community members. The planning commission and zoning committee will review the draft. A parallel process will finalize the financial tools identified in the Tools Technical Report, which was prepared along with the Columbia Pike Neighborhoods Area Plan to identify financial tools used in similar community development plans across the country.

Improving Transportation on the Pike

In anticipation of a planned streetcar line, the plan incorporates transit stops and five-lane cross-sections for Columbia Pike. The streetcar will operate along a five-mile route, connecting to bus lines to the west at Baileys Crossroads/Skyline Plaza in Fairfax County and to the east at the Pentagon City Metrorail station in Arlington County. In addition to providing safe, affordable, and reliable transportation along a busy corridor, the streetcar is expected to increase real estate values, which should provide margins that will make it easier for developers to build new affordable housing units. Other transportation improvements in the plan are new street links, sidewalks, and bike paths.

The Columbia Pike Neighborhoods Area Plan is part of an ambitious, long-range effort to revitalize this important corridor in Arlington. With policies for walkable residential areas between the mixed-use centers being redeveloped under the Columbia Pike Special Revitalization District Form Based Code, the plan supports those transit-oriented centers. The plan is distinctive for its goal of encouraging residential development while preserving the community’s market-rate affordable housing stock and building new, committed affordable housing. To accomplish this, the plan relies on incentives for property owners rather than requirements.

Published Date: January 14, 2013

The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.