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Lee Highway: Arlington's other Columbia Pike

Please welcome to our newest contributor, Joey Katzen! Joey lives in north Arlington and works near Dulles, and will be writing mainly about land use and development in Northern Virginia.


Photo from ChristineRich on Flickr.

As the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro Corridor has aged and grown into its looks, it reliably attracts unsubsidized, and primarily gentrified, urban development in Arlington. Now, local leaders and developers have turned their attention to Columbia Pike (no relation to the Maryland route). Columbia Pike is a major east-west road south of US-50, with a 1970s car-dealership vintage and an even older streetcar-suburb heritage.

Arlington has spent much time and money with stakeholders to develop a long-term "complete streets" vision for Columbia Pike, including 6-minute headway bus service (now available), future light rail, and a form-based zoning code. This is a very promising direction for a main street in one of America's smallest and most urbanized counties.

However, there's another major east-west route with similar layout and streetcar-suburb vintage, that is oft overlooked: Lee Highway.

Remarkably similar to its southern cousin, Lee Highway runs through Arlington from the Key Bridge in Rosslyn to downtown Falls Church. An ancient section of US-29 from the early highway age, the wide "Old Dominion Drive" sections of the corridor were once the railbeds of the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad.

Though the first section from Rosslyn west is a near-freeway, after that, it changes to a 35- and then 30-mile-per-hour, 4-lane arterial with frequent cross streets. That section boasts an abundant mix of neighborhood-serving storefronts, some sidewalk-facing and some more suburban in form. Two significant activity nodes punctuate the corridor: Cherrydale and the surprisingly as-yet-unnamed neighborhood centered on the Lee/Glebe intersection. Both previously had stations on the W&OD railroad.

Before the real estate slowdown took its toll, Lee Highway began seeing new investment in recent years, particularly in Cherrydale. Several mixed-use condominium buildings and street-facing retail were constructed (or partially constructed). Lee/Glebe hasn't seen similar investment yet, though some of the wealthiest neighborhoods south of McLean surround it.


Image by Samer Farha on Flickr.
Remarkably, Lee Highway witnesses nearly no heavy traffic any time of day, except on the near-freeway section in Rosslyn and at the Lee/Glebe intersection. Its four lanes not only flow; they fly. Only frequent police enforcement keeps traffic at safe pedestrian speeds on a road that was clearly designed in another era for suburban speeds, especially the more suburban, residential section west of George Mason Drive.

Unlike Columbia Pike, however, officials have thus far put little planning effort into articulating a cohesive future vision for the entirety of this inner-ring corridor. They should, as it is bound to attract developer attention as the market recovers. Cherrydale has gotten some attention with new pedestrian streetlights and improved sidewalks, but the rest of the corridor mostly languishes. Bus service, while running at decent 12–15 minute headways, isn't up to "rail-replacement" frequencies and makes too many stops. Notably, the McPherson Square 3Y service, which only runs in rush periods, in the peak direction, is usually packed. Sidewalks are still narrow, though there is growing pedestrian traffic.

The road would likely be able to accommodate all the current car traffic with one fewer lane in each direction. That would accommodate non-rush curb parking. But the route is a primary federal transportation corridor, under the jurisdiction of VDOT, and so ultimately very difficult to change. Plus, the corridor runs through 12that's right, twelvevery active and very affluent civic associations. That the road is still called Lee Highway might also be biasing future development.

The most exciting future possibility for the corridor is the proposed roundabout at the Lee/Glebe intersection. That would create a pocket park, focal point, and attractive vista for new, walkable development at this spot.

What would you plan for this corridor, and why do you think it has remained the mostly neglected cousin of Columbia Pike?

Joey Katzen is an entrepreneur and attorney who previously lived in Arlington, Virginia. A native of the Commonwealth, he hopes our public and private sectors can work together to continue transforming each of our neighborhoods into attractive places we can be proud of. 

Comments

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I have no idea why it's been neglected but it has a ton of potential. Over the long-term, Arlington will probably devote more effort in investing capital in this corridor. I think the areas between Glebe and I-66 have the most potential but w/ the residential setting there are some areas where there isn't a whole lot you can do development-wise.

They should keep the name though. There's so much misunderstanding about the Civil War as it is, they shouldn't pander and change the name especially if it's after Robert E. Lee. I'd rather they change the name of Rt. 1 than 29.

by Vik on Dec 30, 2008 8:53 am • linkreport

Vik, I think the concerns about the name stem from the fact they're calling it a highway rather than a street or boulevard, not that it's named after a Confederate general.

Lee Road or Lee Street perhaps...

by Alex B. on Dec 30, 2008 9:19 am • linkreport

What the hell is a "Brompton"?

by Juanita de Talmas on Dec 30, 2008 9:39 am • linkreport

Arlington County seems to have a lot of excellent places for potential vibrance that are tucked away.

by Cavan on Dec 30, 2008 9:45 am • linkreport

i'd love to see the county tear down the decaying bromptons frontage. it's an eyesore, and a hazard to boot. i can't imagine why it's been delayed for so long.

i'd also love to see traffic calming at the lorcom lane/old dominion intersection - during the evening rush, you're literally taking your life into your own hands if you cross old dominion on the west side of the intersection. drivers speed around that corner, and pay no attention to pedestrians.

i'm a bit skeptical of a traffic circle at lee/glebe, though. i used to live near chevy chase circle, and while it's pretty, it's dangerous as all hell and difficult for pedestrians to cross. the illustrations linked on the study for the lee/glebe circle don't show any access for pedestrians to the "pocket park," so i don't see much use for it. maybe they'll put a fountain into it that drunk drivers can plow into...

by jenny on Dec 30, 2008 9:49 am • linkreport

juanita - the bromptons are mixed townhouse/condo development on lee highway. the condos fronting the highway were never completed due to extreme structural problems, and construction was halted in 2005. the developer, Ed Peete Co., hasn't done anything with them since, and they're slowly falling apart.

by jenny on Dec 30, 2008 9:52 am • linkreport

When I lived in Arlington, though I lived on Wilson I frequently traveled to Lee, mostly because it fit in with my mindset, which was still stuck in the suburban context. Frankly, it reminded me of the Boston Post Road, which is not a compliment but at the time made me feel more at home (they even had a Friendly's).

Which is all to say that Lee Highway has a long, long, way to go. There are pockets of good built environment (like Cherrydale, but even they have a huge suburban style supermarket) but they are surrounded by miles of suburban strip malls. Some of them are relatively brand new (e.g. the Harris Teeter out by Lee and Harrison).

Although the picture you chose is actually of Old Lee Highway, which is another nice pocket with some cool independent stores.

As you say, it's a question of transportation. I suspect that a decent percentage of residents along Lee Highway would prefer to take transit and may even walk all the way to the Orange Line where possible.

by Reid on Dec 30, 2008 10:13 am • linkreport

It's too bad that Lee Highway between the McDonalds and George Mason looks trashy, that awful strip mall with no parking on the westbound side, the power lines, god knows how long its been since its been repaved...

by Jose Theodore on Dec 30, 2008 10:24 am • linkreport

Thanks for the piece and welcome, Joey. I live at the west end of this road in Arlington. I did a piece a while back on Infosnack about a proposed streetcar line along this corridor, complete with suggested stops and car barn locations.

http://www.infosnack.org/2008/07/example-streetcar-line.html

Unfortunately the bus line ridership is currently very low compared to reasonable criteria for upgrading service (Average weekday ridership between Rosslyn and East Falls Church of about 600, with total 3E/A/B ridership of about 2750. This does not compare favorably to ridership on the much more popular 70s, 40s, 30s or the X2, which have riderships well above 10,000 per day (PDF). Maybe after a revitalization and general increase in density along the corridor a streetcar would make sense again.

There are definitely some good sites for general densification or transit oriented development (Lee and Lexington, Lee and Harrison, Lee and George Mason, Lee and Glebe, Lee and Quincy, Lee and Kirkwood, Lee and Veitch), and the corridor is already designated at "Primary Transit Network" corridor in Arlington's Master Transportation Plan:

http://www.arlingtonva.us/departments/EnvironmentalServices/dot/planning/mplan/mtp/MTP_Draft.aspx

I have 3A/3B/3E bus ridership data by stop (boardings and alightings) for anyone who wants to take a look. Please email michaelp@ggwash.org if you want it.

by Michael Perkins on Dec 30, 2008 10:29 am • linkreport

@Reid - I previously lived in this area as well about 0.6mi north of the VA Square Metro. I frequently drove Lee Hwy as, even at just 35mph, it was far quicker to Rosslyn than taking Wilson Blvd the entire way. Efficiency is not a suburban concept. That said I would never have protested any changes to Lee Hwy that would have made it less car friendly and more like Wilson.

As for the suburban style strip malls; that's somewhat of an asset when selecting a corridor for revitalization through transit. It provides large chucks of land than can be rezoned as dense mixed use TOD. A artery like Washington Boulevard, west of Glebe, is mostly single family residential and would be harder to transform.

by FourthandEye on Dec 30, 2008 10:34 am • linkreport

FourthanEye:

Me too. I would use Lee Highway as a quicker way to get to Rosslyn. Putting aside whether that's efficient, the suburban aspects I was referring to had more to do with the types of stores and the parking layout (i.e. drive through, front facing parking lots).

I agree that there are some aging stripmalls that may be more easily modified than individual homes, but like I said, some of those strip malls are relatively new and thus probably resistant to change.

by Reid on Dec 30, 2008 10:44 am • linkreport

I wouldn't mind seeing Lee Highway renamed Lee Boulevard (at the risk of confusing old-timers who remember when Arlington Boulevard, aka U.S. 50, went by that name), but Vik's got it right--the road in Arlington that *really* needs a renaming is the Jefferson Davis Highway.

As for the state of Lee Highway itself, the county has also put in some bike lanes on the stretch from Veitch to the Lyon Village shopping center. Some of the north-south streets connecting Wilson and Lee now have bike lanes as well.

by Lyon Parker on Dec 30, 2008 10:49 am • linkreport

If area this does see some revitalization, I'd like to see it reatain some of its humble, surprisingly funky character. The little strip pictured is a great example. Even the strip mall further to the west has a retro-charm thing going for it, would be cool to see it stay there while replacing the parking lots near the streets with newer development.

by NAB on Dec 30, 2008 11:18 am • linkreport

I have lived in this area - 9 yrs very close to Lee/Glebe intersection and 6 1/2 a little west of Lee/Harrison. I love the area and find Lee Hwy very convenient to drive and shop. My teens use the Lee Hwy bus line, too. Though I think some of the strip malls are overdue for improvement, I would like to see more of the independent Lee Heights (Lee Hwy and Lorcom Lane) types of shops rather than the chain variety of Clarendon. I think that development is nice but missing so much of the character that I love about Arlington.

by Tish on Dec 30, 2008 11:38 am • linkreport

Lee Hwy is listed as a priority transit corridor in Arlington's master plan. That ranks it in the same category as Columbia Pike and Route 1.

I suspect that after Columbia Pike and Route 1 are done, the next corridors Arlington starts talking about will be Lee Hwy and Glebe Rd.

You just can't do it all at once.

by BeyondDC on Dec 30, 2008 11:59 am • linkreport

How many of you guys are from the DC area, born and raised. I'd venture most of you are from outside of the area, like most residents are. It's a very transient region, and thus many local customs are eschewed in favor of trendy progressivness and a competition to see who can be the most sensitive.

Renaming Jefferson-Davis Highway would be as dumb as the renaming of National Airport was.

A- It's a waste of time.

B- It's an even bigger waste of money.

C- What good does it actually accomplish?

D- Is naming something after Jeff. Davis bad anyways?

E- How much unecessary confusion would that cost?

F- There's enough transplanted Yankees down here; just let us keep our history at least.

by Economic Geography on Dec 30, 2008 12:17 pm • linkreport

I think a good thing, from a future development standpoint, about Lee Highway in Arlington are the strip malls. FourthandEye said it right that they provide large areas to re-develop when the time comes. I don't see anything big happening but there are some strip malls that would be great mixed-use developments and aside from that, a little landscaping, some better design for pedestrians and some more transit and the road it's a great corridor for almost anyone. I think that whole area of 29 between I-66 could be another great little strip in Arlington.

But BDC has it right, it will take time. I figured it was one of the higher priorities for Arlington. Columbia Pike and Rt. 1/Crystal City are both extremely important obviously.

by Vik on Dec 30, 2008 12:21 pm • linkreport

Economic Geography, no one is seriously talking about changing anything but it obviously struck a chord w/ you. I misread the article and didn't see that "Highway" was italicized. I don't really share the writer's opinion that it's a bias though either.

Not everyone from this area feels a historic tie to the Civil War, much less the Confederacy, although it's a part of the area's important history. Most people would be pretty indifferent towards changing the name but there would also be a lot of vehement opposition by the people who've been here for multiple generations and care and that's their right. It's not even possible anyway, this area is not like "San Fransicko". And you're right that it's a waste of time and money.

And talk about confusion, there already is confusion, between Rt. 1, Jefferson Davis Highway and Richmond Highway, it's already confusing to people who don't know the area.

I guess since I'm from here and don't feel any connection whatsoever to the Civil War, you're going to ask me where my parents and grandparents are from, right? Maybe it's only the white "natives" who's opinion matters.

by Vik on Dec 30, 2008 12:45 pm • linkreport

but Vik's got it right--the road in Arlington that *really* needs a renaming is the Jefferson Davis Highway.

@Lyon Parker - why? the north won the war, let the south keep its history, fercrissake.

by jenny on Dec 30, 2008 2:02 pm • linkreport

I meant the word "brompton". Is it another word for a townhouse? Is it just made up? It's used in the WashBiz article like I should know what it means.

by Juanita de Talmas on Dec 30, 2008 2:23 pm • linkreport

Arlington County seems to have a lot of excellent places for potential vibrance that are tucked away.

Hopefully the coming depression will prevent them from being redeveloped out of existence.

by Tom Thumb on Dec 30, 2008 2:26 pm • linkreport

Well any native old enough can recall when RT50 was named Lee Blvd. It was changed to Arlington Blvd in the 50s to keep the transplants from getting confused.

As for Lee Hwy, you can keep the name and have the proposed trolley that Zimmerman is trying to shove down our throats here on the pike.

by PeteC on Dec 30, 2008 3:10 pm • linkreport

There is no question that Lee Highway has a great deal of potential. The bigger question is what it should look like in the long run and what the county should do to encourage development. There are many run down and abandoned construction projects. The Bromptons are the big eye sore, but many streets have unfinished single family homes even in Cherrydale.

There are a large number of small projects the county could undertake to help encourage developers to reinvest in both residential and commercial growth. Many side streets are in poor repair and have no sidewalks (see 21st Rd N and Stafford St). Simple improvements could help make the difference in encouraging people to reinvest in their own properties and attract new developers as well.

by TheHunter on Dec 30, 2008 4:35 pm • linkreport

@TheHunter:

I definitely agree with your first point. One problem I've heard, though, from various county staffers is that they expect it will be really (*really*) difficult to bring all the different neighborhoods together to plan for the future and encourage development. That is, it will be hard to actually *decide* what to do to encourage development.

I think a lot of the residents like Lee Highway's multiple lanes and flowing speed and may not want to sacrifice *any* ease of driving for a more "complete street" treatment.

As a result, I think it may change more organically, led by developers, one parcel at a time. This may not be bad, but it will make the corridor markedly different than Columbia Pike, which received attention as a whole.

by Joey on Dec 30, 2008 10:01 pm • linkreport

It would seem to me that developing the area where Lee and Old Dominion split off for a few blocks would be important to any long term redevelopment of the corridor. There are already 5 big apartment buildings there along with some townhouse developments, so filling in density wouldn't be too terribly hard.

Furthermore, by getting some mixed use, walkable areas in there you would connect the Cherrydale and Lee-Glebe areas into a long corridor. Combine that with redevelopment of some of the old strip malls on either side of the road and you'd have a pretty viable 3 mile or so long corridor.

Really, the area from Lexington St to Spout Run could be very walkable by just redeveloping the strip malls into more mixed use type developments. Other than the Old Dominion/Lee Highway strip there are pretty much constant strip malls on either side of the road all the way out. In any event, the whole area between between Lorcom Lane and George Mason pretty much all of the strip malls could really use an update, so putting together a transit strategy sooner rather than later is pretty important. If those strip malls in there start to get redeveloped absent transit they will likely go the way of the Lee-Harrison Center, which was redeveloped 6-7 years ago into just another strip mall with giant parking lots.

by Jeremy on Dec 31, 2008 1:32 am • linkreport

BTW, How about Route 50?

by BeyondDC on Dec 31, 2008 1:59 pm • linkreport

[Lee Hwy] would likely be able to accommodate all the current car traffic with one fewer lane in each direction. That would accommodate non-rush curb parking.

what's the rationale behind this? to encourage more driving? it's not like there's a real need for increased parking in the neighborhoods along Lee.

by jenny on Jan 6, 2009 11:40 am • linkreport

@Jenny:

Actually, there is. I live right behind the Lee/Glebe intersection in the 1930s townhouses (Glebewood Village), and parking every night is miserable. Plus, the businesses along Lee there have such small parking lots that the employees park in the neighborhoods.

Unlike many of my neighbors, I have no problem with so-called "outsiders" parking on our neighborhood streets (as long as I can find a spot *somewhere* within a few blocks at night), but it shows that there's more demand as-is than there are empty asphault-lot spaces.

I think narrowing Lee Highway in non-rush periods by the addition of curb spaces would actually *discourage* driving, especially in the long run. Traffic would move slower (because of the adjacent parking), and the addition of these spaces would free up landowners to convert more of their empty lots into occupiable space. This space could hold residents who would walk along the corridor rather than driving.

Case in point: the Alpine Italian restaurant has a lot adjacent to their building, and another across the street. Combined, there's more asphault square footage than restaurant space. If 30 spaces were available on the street after 6pm within a block of the restaurant, Alpine would have absolutely no need for that second lot across the street.

by Joey on Jan 6, 2009 3:58 pm • linkreport

RE: low bus ridership

I live near the Lorcom/Old Dominion split, and from Rosslyn out to where I live the area is fairly dense. As mentioned above, much of the street is lined with strip malls, but almost everything else is 3-5 story apartments with a few ~10 story condos/apartments and some other townhouse developments.

I sometimes commute via the bus down Lee Hwy into Rosslyn metro, but at ~30 min it is slow, so I tend to opt to drive when I can. I bet there are a lot of people who would opt for transit if it were faster. I know transit would be a no brainier for me if there were an option that only took about 10 min into Rosslyn.

by db on Jan 8, 2009 4:59 pm • linkreport

Leave Lee Heights shopping center alone. It may be a strip mall but it has GREAT shops that couldn't afford some glitzy high rise development.

by jk on May 6, 2010 11:23 am • linkreport

--nearly no heavy traffic any time of day, except on the near-freeway section in Rosslyn and at the Lee/Glebe intersection. Its four lanes not only flow; they fly.--

I'd submit that you don't travel Lee Highway very often during rush hour to say it flows. Further, given the HOV restrictions of 66, there are only 2 major arteries for travel in from Western portion of Fairfax County to DC - Lee highway and GW Parkway. So how is one supposed to get to DC from EFC if you restrict traffic.

--Only frequent police enforcement keeps traffic at safe pedestrian speeds on a road--

The frequent police enforcement only occurs at the end of the month to get their ticket numbers not to slow traffic. You can set a calendar to it the cops are so predictable setting up their radars at two locations on Lee highway past Harrison/Lee Center.

--The road would likely be able to accommodate all the current car traffic with one fewer lane in each direction.--

You really need to ride this road to even understand how laughable this comment is.

by Burger on Apr 12, 2011 2:18 pm • linkreport

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