Thursday, July 28, 2011

Arlington Passes Strip Mall Preservation Act

Rest easy, strip malls of Arlington. The Arlington County Board has acted to let developers know if they try to turn you into housing, they can expect ... well, probably just a sternly-worded letter, but still:
County Board members on July 9 unanimously adopted an initial “historic resources inventory list,” which ranks nearly 400 properties constructed between 1909 and 1962 based on how important staff and a consultant believe it is to shield them from demolition. It is an effort, County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman said, to make up for lost time. 
“We didn’t have a great tradition of preservation in Arlington,” he said, particularly since the county has a limited number of properties more than a century old.
Never let a lack of actual historic properties stop you from declaring that whatever properties you have handy are historic.
The first phase of the effort focused on only a very narrow slice of property types in Arlington: garden apartments, shopping centers and commercial properties more than 50 years old. Leventhal said those types of properties are most vulnerable to redevelopment.
As the National Trust for Historic Preservation points out, in many cases the greenest building is the one that's already built. But saying properties more than 50 years old are most vulnerable to redevelopment is like saying cars more than 10 years old are most vulnerable to being traded in. Even if it's still functional, does it still meet your needs? Will it be a slight to the historic value of TheGreenMilesMobile if I need a roomier car when I have kids?

From Fort C.F. Smith to the Key Bridge, I understand the value of preserving truly historic places & sites. But in a place like Arlington that's nearly 100% built-out, historic preservation doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's a choice between maintaining existing structures and the best available use of that land in redevelopment - often the choice between a short, single-purpose building that can serve a smaller number of people and a tall, multi-purpose building that can serve a much larger number of people.

This comment to my original post is the essence of why the sustainable development advocates at the Urban Land Institute thought my original post was from The Onion. The comment discusses the Colonial Village Shopping Center strip mall as if it was the Pyramide du Louvre & bashes "misguided," "pious transit-related development. It also ignores the inherent choice - that every time we give a one-story strip mall & parking lot the cover of preservation, we're choosing to block something else potentially more beneficial.

And let's face it: Arlington was a quiet bedroom community before transit-related development revitalized it. Actually, I don't even know if "revitalized" is the even right word, which implies we were this vital at some point in the past - Arlington is more lively in 2011 than it's ever been, and the graph is trending straight up.

Here's the most annoying contradiction: Does anyone fighting new multi-family housing near Metro want to give up the added value of their homes, wildly inflated by their proximity to these vibrant neighborhoods? Of course not.

So what's next?
Still down the road is a similar effort for the roughly 10,000 residential properties the county government believes have historic value.
Arlington has 207,627 residents with about 90,000 households & around 60% of residents live in multi-family units. I emailed a friend who works in local real estate, "Arlington County thinks there are '10,000 residential properties' with 'historic value'? Come on. How many houses are there in Arlington total?"

He replied simply, "10,005."
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