Ballston Examined

Ballston Mashup

I completed this essay for the final assignment for my urban design class. The assignment was to conduct an analysis of this block adjacent the Ballston Metro Station in Arlington County, Virginia. My study area is part of the “Ballston-Rosslyn Corridor,” a nationally-known example of smart growth. Along the corridor, the county has added roughly 40,000 residents, 20 million square feet of office, and one million square feet of retail — with only a negligible increase in automobile traffic, thanks to bus and Metrorail use.

In the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., adjacent the Ballston Metrorail station stands a collection of buildings far taller than any in the national capital. Reaching 10, 15, even 22 stories into the sky, these buildings contain offices, shops, apartments, and a hotel. Unlike most cities, however, this compact urban node has sprung out of the ground in just twenty years. 17 of the 19 buildings nestled in the area’s roughly 20 acres were completed since 1980. (fig. 1)

Fig. 1

Nothing existing here before anticipated the scale and character of the development. The two oldest buildings in the study area are at an entirely different scale than the new construction. The surrounding neighborhoods of single-family homes and garden apartments have different lot sizes, street widths, and building rhythm. County officials and private builders have chosen to deviate from the established urban patterns, deliberately striving to knit together new development into a new urban texture. All of the buildings here were developed under specific zoning adopted in 1979 in response to the construction of the train station. While this zoning has evolved somewhat since its first adoption, the rapid development of the area creates an intriguing case study in the urbanity created by a specific set of polices and standards. While boasting clearly urbane aspirations, the collection of buildings has not created a coherent urban space. My analysis falls into three categories: the area’s poor street void definition, lack of an open space hierarchy, and its streetscape inconsistency.

Fig. 2

A coherent urban space depends on a clearly defined street form. Considering the building footprints alone, in surrounding neighborhoods the streets are clearly defined by rows of single-family homes. (fig. 2) This system of what William C. Ellis has called a structure of voids. Moving to the study area the structure of voids transitions to a structure of solids, where each building has a unique shape, only loosely related to the adjacent streets. In order to visualize the structure of voids for the study area a rough, three-dimensional sketch was created. (fig. 3) The illustration depicts highly variable street spaces, quite distinct from the regularity in traditional urbanism. The visitor navigating these streets perceives the unfolding of a variety of spaces among buildings, not a street with a clear definition, beginning and end.

Fig. 3

To determine the cause of the irregular distribution of public space we must examine the underlying structure of the district. The study area’s 24 lots range in size from some similar in scale plots intended for a single-family home, to lots large enough to encompass an entire city block. (fig. 4)

Fig. 4

When developed under Arlington County’s zoning code, this variable underlying structure has profound design implications. The area’s zoning (C-O-A) requires 10% of the total site area for each building be landscaped open space. This provision guarantees the public open space will be found heterogeneously distributed throughout the area as each developer negotiates with county officials about what 10% portion of his lot will become public. In some areas this space has been coordinated to create larger courtyards, but the locations of these courtyards must be opportunistically located at the intersection of similarly sized lots. The result is a proliferation of awkward, ill-used open spaces, instead of the creation of larger, more coherent spaces. (fig. 5)

Fig. 5

The proliferation of landscaped space drains the potential vitality of the larger parks, which in another setting could perform the role as a district-wide focal point. An interesting counterpoint to the success of nearby Market Commons in Clarendon. This mixed-use complex contains most of the public space in the area, and sits just off a street that has been intensely developed creating a continuous street wall. (fig. 6) While the public spaces in Ballston were sparsely used on a recent visit, the Clarendon Commons was bustling with activity. Of course, the success of the spaces is also related to the distribution of commercial space – in Ballston it is concentrated in the large mall.

Fig. 6

Finally, county regulations also translate the variable lot sizes into a variable streetscape. In order to incentivize lot consolidation and the construction of apartments, the C-O-A zoning creates a hierarchy of allowable building heights depending on the primary use of the building and the lot size. Taller buildings can be built on larger lots, and apartment buildings can be built taller than office buildings. The result has been buildings over a considerable range of heights (fig. 7)

Fig. 7

Combined with the open space requirement, the result of the regulations is buildings of highly variable heights and configurations. Despite text expressing the county’s desire to cultivate street level retail, the policy regime creates an irregular streetscape both at the pedestrian scale and building scale. Lastly, the zoning code’s parking requirements mean the buildings contain over 7,000 parking spaces. While for the most part these spaces have been cleverly embedded into the buildings, the car entrances and exits create additional interruptions to the street level fabric. (fig. 8 )

Fig. 8

Although the district does not create the fabric of traditional urbanism, it cannot be said to be a failure. Meandering among the buildings, the visitor is invited to discover new urban spaces and stores and restaurants in unexpected locations. The city builders have achieved extremely high density in a highly landscaped, almost peaceful setting. While deviating from the traditional urbanism they espouse, their insistence on public landscape surrounding every building has created an alternate system, perhaps not unlike the landscape urbanism described by theorists like James Corner. As we leave Ballston, it must be noted this is an immature landscape in urban time. Only time will tell how its remaining underdeveloped parcels will evolve. Perhaps in that time the many young street trees (fig. 4a, 4c) will mature, and the landscape itself play an increasingly important role in defining more clearly the urban fabric.


Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Do people spend time in the green space once spring arrives? if its as dense as i’m perceiving, i would think they’d crave the green space throughout winter.


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