Arlington’s lackluster waterfront is losing major river-oriented tourism and leisure dollars and forgoing a valid transportation option in this river city. With the recent success of The Wharf and the Capitol Riverfront, the continued realization of waterfronts in Georgetown and Old Town and Amazon’s selected site running the length of the Potomac River, Arlington is the missing link in connecting and capitalizing upon DC’s urban waterfronts.
Arlington’s current waterfront represents its suburban past. For Arlington to fully embrace a walkable urban character, it should push that walkable urban character to the shore. Although Arlington’s waterfront has recreation options, it lacks water taxi service and is best known for the congested highways and bike trails with pretty views of the DC skyline. Theodore Roosevelt Island and the Mount Vernon Trail are wonderful excursions, but both are most easily accessed by car or bike, not on foot, and require a picnic, as there are no food or drink options. Those looking for an urban, pedestrian experience go to Alexandria or DC. Indeed, as an Arlington resident, I drive visitors to Alexandria for water taxi tours and enjoy The Wharf for drinks, dining and concerts.
Most of the Arlington waterfront is National Park Service (“NPS”) land administered through the George Washington Memorial Parkway (the “Parkway”), actually designated a “park” itself for scenic drives, so Arlington County cannot instantly allow development. However, NPS control is not a deal breaker. Local governments and non-profit organizations have started cooperating with NPS and enhancing National Parks as NPS funding goes down and deferred maintenance costs go up. For example, DC and a non-profit group partnered with NPS to successfully construct and maintain the Georgetown Waterfront Park. NPS has even gotten creative with funding sources and has developed corporate sponsorships, including a recent controversial campaign with Anheuser-Busch InBev. The physical barrier of the Parkway can also be, quite literally, overcome. By building caps over highways, cities, like Boston, Dallas and St. Louis, have added parks, art, activities and, most importantly, connections to cut off areas of their communities.
Arlington County is interested in waterfront development, but it needs a team of strategic partners to help make plans for more development, like the 2015 Rosslyn Sector Plan, a reality. One prospective partner is the Key Bridge Marriott, the closest development to Arlington’s Rosslyn waterfront, which is already submitting a formal application to Arlington County for redevelopment. Additionally, NPS recently approved non-motorized boathouses in Arlington for needed high school rowing facilities. These rowing facilities are welcome, but would be a missed opportunity if not accompanied by more amenities. An incremental first step could be a boathouse north or south of Key Bridge utilizing both the land within the traffic circles and the waterfront, with — until a cap over the Parkway is realized — updated, safer and more direct pedestrian and bike paths and bridges in front of Key Bridge and Roosevelt Island. Taxis, ride-shares, buses and delivery and emergency vehicles would need loading and emergency lanes, but parking isn’t necessary with the focus on pedestrians and water transportation. A small food hall concept run by a private entity leasing land from NPS, indoor and outdoor seating and water taxi access would capitalize on Arlington’s location in the DC area by attracting tourists, commuters, workers on their lunch breaks and residents that would otherwise go to DC. A partnership between Arlington County, NPS, strong developers and creative local governmental or non-profit groups could overcome regulatory hurdles, raise necessary capital and finally showcase Arlington’s urban character on the Potomac.
The author is a real estate attorney and a George Washington University graduate student in Walkable Urban Real Estate Development Certificate Program.