News & Politics

Is Arlington Becoming Just Another Soulless Suburb?

The county's vision of utopian urbanism is fading.

Photograph by Flickr user Tony Webster.

Urban planners and transit advocates routinely hold up Arlington County as the exemplar of intelligent urban and suburban planning. Its got neatly laid-out streets, underground Metro stations, fleets of Capital Bikeshare bikes, and blocks of mixed-use developments organized around public transportation.

But recent developments in Arlington suggest that its time as an urbanist’s utopia might be doomed. The latest blow? The sudden suspension of Tuesday-night group bike rides organized by Fresh Bikes in the Ballston neighborhood. The 16-mile jaunt, which had been held every spring and summer since 2005, did not return for its 2015 season last night after the ride’s organizer said its permit was denied following complaints from motorists who use Military Road.

The rides, which often attracted about 500 riders, started and ended at Fresh Bikes, which also provided participants with burritos and live music at the finish line. The route itself started getting a police escort in 2010 as the event grew in popularity. On its website, Fresh Bikes says it is pleading with the Arlington County Board to get its permit back from “few haters out on the roads,” though it may be a while before the organized rides return.

“Long story short, they got a few complaints last season and I think they got six complaints over the last month from people who remember the ride from last year,” Fresh Bikes owner Scott McAhren told ARLnow. “It’s the kind of stuff I can’t really believe would affect their decision.”

But Arlington’s apparent demise doesn’t just hinge on the end of police-supported bike rides and free burritos. The abrupt end of the Tuesday-night ride hits as the county prepares to lock the doors of the Artisphere, the ambitiously planned but sparsely attended modern-art gallery it opened with much fanfare in 2010. “Doomed from the start,” is how Christopher Henley of Washington Shakespeare Company, which was in there for two seasons, described the museum to the Washington Post.

Members of the Arlington County Board did not reply to questions about whether the place is losing its edge, but the trend has been creeping for a while. In November, after the county’s residents gave a full term to John Vihstadt—the board’s first non-Democratic member in 15 years—one of then-Chairman Jay Fisette’s first moves was to announce the cancellation of a planned streetcar along Columbia Pike, which planners had long eyed as the county’s next display of smart urbanism but Vihstadt and another member of the five-person board opposed. Arlington has endured other transit-oriented embarrassments, too, like its $1 million “superstop” bus depot, and an aquatics center at Long Bridge Park, which stalled last year after projected costs topped $80 million.

Designing and installing forward-facing urban amenities can be pricey, but Arlington has also been a model of fiscal stewardship. (It finished its 2014 fiscal year with a $29.8 million surplus.) Retreating from the Artisphere, the streetcar, and the aquatics center is quite distant from the reputation Arlington built up for itself since 1977, when it adopted the General Land Use Plan that fostered transit-oriented neighborhoods like Rosslyn, Ballston, Clarendon, and Virginia Square.

Pushing cyclists off the roads in favor of an unspecified number of whiny drivers might be even more jarring. Mobility Lab, a county-funded think tank dedicated to transportation planning, reported last November that 34 percent of Arlington residents commute via cycling, walking, or public transit, making it the region’s least car-dependent jurisdiction after the District.

Last September, Arlingtonians revolted upon discovering that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, wrote in her book that she moved her family into the District after deciding Arlington was a “soulless suburb.” Gillibrand, like all politicans who make seemingly innocuous quips, was forced to apologize, but now it really does seem like Arlington is losing its mojo.

“Arlington was for a long time a leader in the region of good planning practices, forward-thinking ideas of how to grow without adding traffic,” says David Alpert, editor of the urbanist—and generally pro-Arlington—website Greater Greater Washington. “Whether or not this particular situation relates to a broader trend, it would be a shame for Arlington to stop being in the vanguard of making things better and showing other jurisdictions in our region.”

UPDATE, May 8: Arlington’s assistant county manager, Diana Sun, told Washingtonian Wednesday that the Tuesday-night rides were suspended after McAhren failed to submit his request for a permit in time. “He woke up April 28 and said, ‘I forgot,'” Sun said.

McAhern said this isn’t the first year he missed the deadline, but he’s usually gotten a reprieve. “It was never a problem before it was this year,” he said.

Arlington did not suddenly develop a grudge against cycling, Sun said, but it is tyring to stick to its deadlines.

“We love biking,” she said. “The normal requirement is just two or three months ahead and he just forgot. We’re not anti-bike, we’re so pro-bike. You have to have rules, otherwise it’s chaotic.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.