Residents organize for positive change in Bluemont
Arlington's Bluemont neighborhood fought plans to rebuild the local Safeway and add apartments. Now that the project's stalled, a new group called Bluemont Forward wants to change the debate over growth.
In April, the Bluemont Civic Association voted to oppose a proposal from Safeway and developer Silverwood Companies to replace the 1960's-era store on Wilson Boulevard just west of Ballston with a new supermarket and 160 apartments. They claimed that the building would harm the area's quality of life and left no room for compromise.
Now, neighborhood leaders say Silverwood has quietly backed out of the project. As a result, Safeway could continue to pursue plans for the site, or it could simply close the store and leave Bluemont without its only grocery store. Silverwood won't comment on the record, but it's possible that BCA's hard-line stance was a factor in the decision to pull out.
Bluemont Forward touts the benefits of progress
Residents formed Bluemont Forward around a common vision of remaking their stretch of Wilson Boulevard as a walkable, vibrant place. Their website invokes tradition and history, inviting people to "rediscover the benefits of rationally scaled, neighborhood-oriented, mixed-use commercial areas." The group's supporters include former BCA presidents from the past 20 years.
While recent BCA meetings suggest the neighborhood is a hotbed of hostility to change, Bluemont Forward demonstrates that neighbors holds a variety of views. Many welcome progress and are ready to embrace the benefits of new development. Group members push for a pragmatic, collaborative approach that would serve the neighborhood well in future discussions.
"Arlington County, the developers, the Safeway, can come together for the common good," says Bluemont Forward spokesperson Chitra Kumar. "The Safeway is really a centerpiece of the community. Right now it's mostly a parking lot, and the community would like to see it redeveloped. We have talked to our neighbors and we know there's a sense of wanting to see some change, especially in that site."
Kumar says a new Safeway could bring about many positive changes. "If you have more foot traffic in that area, potentially have street improvements, a lot of positive things could come," she says. "We want to see that happen in a reasonable way."
Opponents' fears are overblown
Research shows that we have what psychologists like Dan Gilbert call an "impact bias." In the context of neighborhood development, author Edward Glaeser explains it best: "people…significantly over-estimate the impact that a negative shock will have on their happiness. The enemies of a new high-rise may think that the tower will make them miserable, but in reality, they will quickly adapt to the new situation."
The existing store on Wilson Boulevard, seen from west (left) and east (right).
Photos by the author.
Roger Lewis, an architect and frequent guest on WAMU's The Kojo Nnamdi Show, offered similar thoughts to radio listeners in February. On the subject of "people worrying about everything from parking to density and property values, et cetera," Mr. Lewis said, "I think a lot of the fears are unjustified. A lot of the anxieties at least that I've heard voiced…are bogus. I don't think they're justifiable."
Neighbors who voted against the change may have legitimate concerns, but in time they'll become accustomed to it. "We do think people will get used to seeing it, especially if they see the benefits they get out of it," says Kumar. "There can be a lot of them: a walkable, biking-friendly Wilson Boulevard village center that they can walk their families to."
However, the difference between the BCA and Bluemont Forward is about more than tone or attitude. BCA has taken a hard-line position against any development whether or not the existing Safeway is economically viable. They unequivocally oppose rezoning the Safeway site, saying they want no additional density there.
Meanwhile, Bluemont Forward's vision for the Safeway site is arguably moderate: not too restrictive but not too big, either. They worry that 160 apartments may be too dense, but are open to changing the current zoning. "To encourage a service-rich neighborhood center," says their website, "we agree that a redeveloped Safeway site that offers public amenities should be allowed a level of density greater than the currently allowed density, which is amenable primarily to one-story strip-mall type development."
No one actually wants to lose Safeway
Surveys of Bluemont residents show that everyone wants to have a grocery store in their neighborhood. But with the redevelopment plans in doubt, so is the future. The worst-case scenario is that Safeway may decide it's easier to sell the property than to maintain an outdated store. The new owner may then build a big car wash or another auto-oriented facility, which are allowed under current zoning.
Former BCA president and former Arlington Planning Commission member Gerry Procanick confirms the possibility that Bluemont could lose the Safeway: "The analysis we did a number of years ago showed that the current zoning would not support any viable by-right upgrade to the property," he says. "Without significant re-development the site will remain mostly asphalt, or default to some sort of townhouse project. For those of us who plan to stay and have seen what other neighborhoods have done with similar properties, there is no doubt that our neighborhood can do better."
Development opponents say that this argument plays on people's fears. But by warning that a new Safeway and housing could produce more traffic, parking problems, noises, smells, threats to safety, and school overcrowding, they're doing the same thing.
Bluemont certainly can do better than the current Safeway. If Bluemont Forward is any indication, the neighborhood can also do a better job of working with Safeway than its civic association has in recent months.
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