Columbia Pike is one of the oldest thoroughfares in Arlington. The first significant wave of development began in the early 1900s, when it became a bustling “streetcar suburb.” A streetcar line connected the Rosslyn and Nauck neighborhoods. The stop at the intersection of Columbia Pike and Walter Reed Drive became the focal point of early commercial development. By the mid-1920s, a grocery store, several cafes, drugstores and a stationery shop made the area a commercial hub.
Buildings constructed during the 1920s and 1930s were situated close to the street, with front doors facing the sidewalk and display windows on the ground floor, and office space or apartments on upper stories. These buildings were generally narrow and close together, forming a continuous “street wall” that wasn’t interrupted by parking lots, as many people didn’t own cars at that time. Following the trends of the times, buses eventually replaced streetcars.
The neighborhood shopping center and the concept of “one-stop” shopping became popular in the late 1930s and 1940s – both Arlington Village and the Westmont neighborhood shopping centers opened then. Grocery stores, bakeries, drugstores, cleaners, beauty shops and similar businesses met local customers’ needs.
Automobile-oriented retailing also increased during this period, on Columbia Pike and elsewhere. Gas stations, service centers and car dealerships and other auto-related businesses began to appear. These were usually built within existing commercial areas, breaking up the continuous “street wall.” Pedestrian access became a lower priority than auto access. Gradually, compact shopping areas began to spread out, forming separate strips along the corridor.
After World War II, additional neighborhood shopping centers were built along Columbia Pike, primarily to serve new residential developments. The Pike was widened to four lanes to improve traffic flow, virtually eliminating all on-street parking.
The majority of existing office space was built between 1961 and 1972 at various locations along the Pike and Ninth Street South. New commercial construction on Columbia Pike in the 1970s and 1980s consisted primarily of fast food restaurants, convenience stores and drive-through banking facilities. These facilities are all free-standing buildings surrounded by parking, which further fragmented Columbia Pike’s compact, urban character and solidified its transformation into a strip commercial area.
By the 1990s, Columbia Pike had experienced increased traffic congestion and there was a growing interest in creating sustainable development. Intensive planning efforts and a new approach to revitalizing the corridor took shape. In 1990, the first revitalization plan was adopted – Columbia Pike 2000: A Revitalization Plan. This effort was continued through the County Board’s creation of the Columbia Pike Initiative in 1998, followed by updates to the Revitalization Plan in 2002 and 2005.
The Columbia Pike Initiative and Form Based Codes (FBC) are important tools for returning the corridor back to its walkable “Main Street” heritage. With an influx of new development and residents, the preservation of affordable housing has also become a priority so people of all incomes can continue to call the Pike their home. The County proactively pursued this goal during the final phase of planning, which culminated with the adoption of the Neighborhoods Area Plan, and building minimum affordable housing requirements into the Neighborhoods Form Based Code. Along with the Neighborhoods Form Based Code, the County has pioneered other land use and financial tools to see the goals for this corridor come to fruition.