A neighborhood is about people, not buildings
When opponents of redevelopment say they want to protect the character of their neighborhood, what does that mean? A petition, circulated by activists in Arlington's Bluemont neighborhood who oppose a mixed-use Safeway, suggests it's mainly about the height of buildings.
Preliminary rendering of Safeway's proposed new building on Wilson Boulevard. Image from Silverwood Companies.
The document, entitled, "Keep Safeway Site at 35 Feet High or Less," says, "taller commercial and residential structures would violate the scope, scale and values of the community."
Why are they wrong? Because the character of a neighborhood is not defined by the height of its buildings, but by the spirit of its people. The real question is this: What kind of neighborhood do Bluemont residents want? Do we want to be an inclusive, welcoming community, or do we want to be the kind of place that tries to keep newcomers out?
The Bluemont Safeway is on Wilson Boulevard, about a ¾-mile walk from Ballston Metro. Last year, Safeway announced their intention to redevelop the decades-old store and its large parking lot. Current plans call for the new building to occupy the entire site, with parking underground and 160 predominantly 1-bedroom rental apartments on top, according to developer Mark Silverwood.
The region needs more housing in the right places
The Washington region has folks who commute to DC from as far as West Virginia. Their daily journey illustrates a variety of serious problems we say we care about: affordable housing, suburban sprawl, oil consumption, high emissions, and traffic. When a commercial landowner seeks to add significant housing to a single-use site, they're offering an opportunity to help solve all those problems.
Bluemont residents are pretty close to the center of our region. As such, we use less energy and produce less pollution per person than people farther out in the suburbs. We're closer to a whole array of cultural and economic resources. We can be proud of those advantages. They're a big part of why people want to live here.
If we say "no" to new housing, the people we've kept out will do one of two things. They'll move further out into the suburbs, contributing to the loss of farmland and wildlife habitat, driving and polluting more to get to the center from way out there. Or they'll bid up prices to move into one of our scarce housing units; less affluent residents will be pushed out over time. That's why Arlington neighborhoods like ours need to provide more housing. We have a chance to do that.
The proposal promotes real community values
If we care about widely shared values like land conservation, energy conservation, pollution reduction, and affordable housing, then Bluemont residents should support Safeway's proposal. It's good for the region, and sets a positive example for others to follow.
It's also good for the community itself. Aesthetically, it will be a tremendous improvement. The existing store presents a featureless brick wall to Wilson Boulevard, and its parking lot is a bleak void in the fabric of the neighborhood.
The existing store on Wilson Boulevard, seen from west (left) and east (right). Photos by the author.
The new store will create a superior pedestrian experience, with ample shop windows and no curb cuts along Wilson. The apartments, a housing type new to the neighborhood, will allow long-time residents to remain active in the community as they outgrow the yardwork and stairs of typical 2-story houses.
The proposal isn't perfect, of course. Neighbors have suggested allowing customers of nearby businesses to share the new garage, a move that would help make the area's sidewalks safer and more appealing for foot traffic. Smaller-scale "liner" shops and restaurants along Wilson would also make the place a more vibrant destination for nearby residents.
At a recent public meeting organized by the Bluemont Civic Association, Safeway representative Avis Black explained that the geometry of the rather narrow site precludes additional stores, although outdoor cafe seating appears likely.
Neighborhood group plans to vote this week
This Wednesday, Bluemont Civic Association members will vote, choosing between 3 statements of BCA's position on the redevelopment. The first 2 options oppose Safeway's proposal, essentially on the grounds that it's "excessively tall," according to the group's April newsletter. The third option, revealed in an e-mail over the weekend, states support for Safeway's proposal "under certain conditions."
The Association should work with Safeway in a spirit of cooperation, not conflict. One day, when they write about the character of our neighborhood, let's make sure they say that we recognized a good thing when we saw it, that we found a way to make it even better
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