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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Beauregard Corridor residents explore benefits of 'walkable urban places'

People who live near the Beauregard Corridor in Alexandria’s West End are concerned about the impact of the BRAC-133 project—and continuing long-term urbanization—on traffic, noise, pollution, and the character of their neighborhoods.

After their disastrous experience with the BRAC, which will bring about 6,400 Defense Department employees to the office buildings  under construction to the Mark Center without adequate transportation improvements, residents and city officials want to make sure any future development is done right—and creating a walkable urban experience is considered by many the best option for smart growth.

While the five largest property owners in the area are working together on a multi-year plan for higher-density, mixed use projects aligned with transportation improvements, residents—and anyone who drives through the area—will likely face huge traffic tie-ups until those new projects are implemented.

At a Jan. 31 meeting of the Beauregard Corridor Stakeholders Group, Donna Fossum, chair of both that group and the Alexandria Planning Commission, said when the new BRAC office building opens in eight months, “everyone’s lives will change.”

To put the developers’ proposals in context, Fossum invited Christopher B. Leinberger of the Brookings Institution to give a presentation at the Jan. 31 meeting on the benefits of creating “walkable urban places.”

According to Leinberger, there are two main options for development: “drivable suburban,” in which housing, retail, and office buildings are all separate and connected by roads, and “walkable urban,” where people have access to transit and can easily walk to shops and restaurants.

The “drivable suburban” model contributes to sprawl, which creates lots of problems, including long commutes, economic segregation, higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions, higher energy use, and even increased rates of obesity. The highest levels of foreclosures occur in the outer suburbs Leinberger says, because “we built too much of the wrong product in the wrong location.”

The pendulum began to shift in the mid-1990s, he says. Surveys show 82 percent of the “millennials,” people born in the period 1980-95, want to live in walkable urban places, like Arlington and Dupont Circle.

Metropolitan Washington has 23 existing (and 16 emerging) “regionally significant places,” including walkable urban places like downtown D.C., “downtown adjacent places” (such as Dupont Circle and Georgetown), suburban town centers (Bethesda and Silver Spring fall into this category), places where suburban strip malls have been redeveloped (Ballston and Friendship Heights), and “surburban green field developments” (Reston Town Center and National Harbor).

The presence of the BRAC project in the Beauregard Corridor gives this area the potential to become a “regionally significant place,” Leinberger says. But in its current state, “it’s neither fish nor fowl”; it’s not quite a drivable suburban area nor a walkable urban area.

“There are few successful examples of drivable dense urban places,” he says. There is concern that if it isn’t transformed into an urban walkable place, “it could be on a downward spiral,” as younger people and investments abandon the area for more favorable communities.

According to Leinberger, successfully transforming a suburban strip mall environment into a walkable urban place—like Ballston and Clarendon—requires strong management to protect the quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods from noise and traffic cut-throughs. When it’s done right, the value of single-family homes near urban walkable places will rise significantly, and the tax base will increase, primarily from commercial property. He says this kind of development will cut greenhouse gas emissions and energy use by some 60 to 80 percent.

The Beauregard Corridor Stakeholder
Group meets in the John Adams School
He acknowledged some of the challenges of developing the Beauregard Corridor are the barriers posed by I-95, Seminary Road, and Holmes Run.

The development of Annandale poses even more challenges. While the Beauregard developers envision the eventual extension of the Columbia Pike streetcar line along Beauregard Street, there is no plan to bring transit to Annandale. And while most of the property in the Beauregard Corridor is concentrated in the hands of a few developers, Annandale is chopped into many small parcels of land. Any attempt to bring a large mixed-use project to Annandale, as proposed in the Annandale amendment to the Fairfax County comprehensive plan, would require consolidation of land.

Leinberger told the Annandale blogger such development is possible: If one visionary developer takes a risk on a large project, others will follow. But communities like Annandale could stagnate if other areas, like the Beauregard Corridor, draw development and businesses from aging suburbs.

Kai Reynolds of the JGB Companies, one of the Beauregard Corridor property owners, says Leinberger’s presentation about the value of urban walkable places is very much in alignment with what the developers want to do—except for Leinberger’s statement that developers should help pay for transit.

Representatives of the five companies who own properties along the corridor have been meeting with local residents periodically to explain their vision for redevelopment. The developers have promised to provide public amenities, such as parks, athletic fields, or community facilities, based residents’ priorities.

At their latest meeting, Jan. 24, the developers outlined their plans for multi-phased, higher-density development—including about 4,600 new housing units—to occur over the next 25 to 30 years. A key part of the plan is the creation of an elliptical traffic circle to improve traffic circulation through the Beauregard/Seminary intersection and a new network of through-streets to replace the current system of parking lots, cul-de-sacs, and dead-end streets around the existing housing developments. [You can access the presentation from that meeting here.]

JGB has plans to transform the current shopping center between Reading Avenue and Rayburn Avenue into a much larger mixed-used development with more stores, offices, and a new nine to 12-story hotel. “There is not enough commercial space to meet the demand,” says Victor Dover, with the Dover, Kohl and Partners town planning firm, who represents JGB.

A representative of Home Properties, which owns Southern Towers, wants to replace the adjacent three-story garden apartments with a series of five-story multifamily buildings and new parking decks, resulting in 669 additional units within the next five to 10 years.

Jon Eisen of the Hekenian Group, which owns the 10.1-acre Shirley Gardens property on the other side of Beauregard across from Southern Towers, is planning a 16,000-square foot mixed use development with a hotel, offices, shops, restaurants, 520 multifamily units, and, on the land closest to the existing single-family houses, 15 to 20 townhouses.

Peter Schultz of Duke Realty, which owns Clyde’s and a series of office buildings along Beauregard, has longer-term plans to replace those buildings with more energy-efficient projects, possibly including a boutique hotel, in about 10 years.

According to Dover, the developers have refined the plan they presented to residents in December, reducing the proposed developments by half a million square feet, cutting 500 housing units from the plan, simplifying the street grid, adding more green space and recreation areas, and adding a site for a fire station at Beauregard and Sanger Avenue.

The developers’ next meetings with residents will be Feb. 28, focusing on open space and environmental issues, and March 28, with more details on the ellipse and other transportation plans.

NOTE: This item was crossposted on the Greater Greater Washington blog.


  1. A more walkable Annandale would be nice. A bunch of us walked to Casa de Mama last weekend, nearly got us all killed. It would only take minor adjustments to make Annandale a lot more pedestrian friendly. The shops and malls are fine. But more sidewalks, or just SOME sidewalks, would be nice.

  2. A walkable urban place - not a catchy phrase, but a good idea.