How Are Developers Feeling About Columbia Pike?
Two years ago, developers were betting high on Columbia Pike. The Arlington County Board looked like it was moving forward with a streetcar that would bring new life to the Pike. Then political backlash mounted and the streetcar plan died in November 2014.
Since then, some say the Pike has struggled to re-create the excitement it had before the streetcar's demise, while others feel confident about the neighborhood's future.
“The mood is not good,” Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization chairman John Murphy (above on the left) said of developers. “Some of them made big investments, big bets based on the county saying we’re going to do the streetcar. They feel betrayed, they’re not happy at all.”
One of those investments was a mixed-use building consisting of 257 units and 15k SF of retail at 3400 Columbia Pike (above) that opened in fall 2015, developed by the Penrose Group.
Penrose founder and president Mark Gregg tells Bisnow the firm has averaged 16 to 20 leases a month, slightly above its forecasts, and hope to be fully leased by the end of the year. Penrose’s development at 3400 Columbia Pike sits at an intersection with another major artery, Glebe Road, which Mark said has allowed the development to succeed without having the streetcar.
“Certainly the streetcar would have helped our project, we would have had a stop right by our project,” Mark says. “We would have certainly liked to have seen that, and it would have been a benefit for our project. I understand it's fairly political and it’s a high cost, but I think solutions for transportation are really important and they’ll be more important in the future.”
While he laments the streetcar would have brought more business to the area, he thinks the overall state of Columbia Pike is promising.
“If you look in the last 10 years, the number of buildings that have been built and new retail and things that have come, it’s clear that there’s a lot of new developments that have occurred,” he says. “I think it will continue to improve.”
John disagrees, saying those new buildings came in anticipation of the streetcar and are seeing worse returns than they had originally calculated.
“We don’t have the traffic, we don’t have the base of residents economically speaking,” John says. “People built restaurants that are perhaps losing money, people built apartment buildings that haven’t been able to make their numbers and won’t until a significant investment is made on the Pike.”
In lieu of the streetcar, Arlington County has developed a 10-year initiative called the Transit Development Plan to improve bus service along Columbia Pike. The plan aims to expand the routes, increase the frequency of service and provide better amenities.
John says the TDP, a much smaller investment than the streetcar, will not drive development the same way a streetcar would have.
“What banks look for when they finance buildings, apartments and restaurants is permanence,” John says. “A couple more buses, maybe a few new bus stops is nothing that says that’s going to get us where we need to be.”
Some developments have still gone forward after the streetcar’s demise. A 365-unit apartment building with a 50k SF grocery store (pictured above) developed by Orr Properties was approved by the Arlington County Board in February. Last July, WashREIT announced it plans to build a new 360-unit building on The Wellington Apartments complex.
One development type that has been on the rise since the streetcar’s demise is affordable housing. The Arlington Presbyterian Church closed down last week and will be razed to make way for 173 units of affordable housing, called Gilliam Place (pictured above), which will be developed by the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing.
APAH is also turning a parking lot just off Columbia Pike at 1100 South Frederick Street into 229 Units of affordable housing called Columbia Hills, APAH President Nina Janopaul tells Bisnow. Nina says Columbia Pike has lost 4,000 units of affordable housing since 2000, the most of any Arlington neighborhood, so she would like to continue to bring back more affordable units.
Nina says even without the streetcar, she thinks Columbia Pike is ripe for development because of its proximity to DC, its schools and parks.
“My view is that all of the inner suburban communities are going to continue to thrive and be desirable places,” Nina says. “Maybe the streetcar would have accelerated that but the basic fundamentals are there, it’s a desirable suburban community.”