Planning and Development History

Arlington has been recognized as a model for smart growth success, thanks to a planning approach that focuses high-density, mixed-use development along three primary transportation corridors. Since the 1970s, much of the population growth and new jobs have developed within these corridors. Of the more than 34 million square feet of commercial office space in Arlington, some 92 percent is located within the two Metrorail Corridors and within walking distance of public transportation.

Arlington’s earliest planning efforts date back to 1927, when the first land-use ordinance was adopted. Three years later, the County established a zoning ordinance to encourage orderly development and prevent conflicting land uses. These ordinances laid the foundation for planning and controlling growth and development in the county.


In its early years, Arlington was an area of rolling hillsides dotted with small, rural village. It remained that way up until the First World War.


As a suburb of Washington, D.C., Arlington experienced similar waves of population growth. The first significant increase in population occurred during and after World War I. The size of the federal work force tripled between 1916 and 1918. The large influx of workers created a shortage of housing in Washington, D.C. and people began to look to the commuting suburbs. Between 1910 and 1920, the population of Arlington increased by 60%, despite losing the populous town of Alexandria. The 1920 census revealed that for the first time, the majority of Americans lived in urban and suburban settings, with the suburban population growing at a much quicker rate.


Arlington continued to grow at a steady pace, with the population increasing by 40% over this 10-year period.


Planned neighborhoods began to take shape during the 1930s. Over the next 20 years, a building boom ensued and Arlington’s rural landscape began to change. By 1935, significant construction of new housing units and apartment buildings was underway to meet housing demand for the influx of new federal workers under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. Arlington was one of the fastest developing counties in the Washington, D.C. area.

There was intense development in the years leading up to and following World War II, to accommodate government workers, soldiers and returning veterans. Between 1934 and 1954, 176 new apartment buildings or complexes were constructed, including Fairlington, the nation’s largest defense housing complex, and Colonial Village, the first FHA-backed apartment complex.

The Beginning of Smart Growth


The transit-oriented development that Arlington is known for began with planning efforts for the new Rosslyn-Ballston Metrorail corridor in the 1960s. At the time, planners and elected officials assumed Arlington would continue to grow, so they focused on the best strategy to deal with that impending growth and the introduction of a new rail system. It was the first of several key planning decisions that had a significant impact on shaping present day Arlington. Here’s how we did it:

  • During the 1960s and 1970s, the County started planning for the new Metrorail orange line. Arlington lobbied strongly for an underground route along the old commercial corridor instead of along the median of what would become Interstate 66. This approach would promote development to concentrate around public transportation rather than encourage suburban sprawl.
  • Arlington applied a bull’s-eye approach, targeting high-density development within a quarter-mile radius of metro stations, providing easy access to work and housing.
  • The General Land Use Plan (GLUP), one element of the broader Comprehensive Plan, was established in 1977 and it outlined the land use policies to guide future development decisions. Countywide, some 11% of the land area was targeted for high-density, mixed-use development within the two Metro Corridors, while the remaining 89% was designated low density to preserve existing neighborhoods and prevent unplanned development.
  • Sector Plans were then developed for each of the five Metro Station areas within the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor to maintain and enhance the separate and distinctive characteristics of each neighborhood as they evolved into “urban villages.”
  • The County’s site plan process was created to provide special exceptions for higher-density development than the Zoning Ordinance or GLUP allows. This review process allows us to ensure that all new development aligns with the goals for the neighborhood and that it will provide public improvements where needed.
  • Subsequent planning and development in the Jefferson-Davis Metrorail corridor built upon these same principles of clustering high-density, mixed-use development close to transportation and preserving existing neighborhoods.
  • The next major wave of growth happened in the 1970s following the opening of Metrorail stations in Arlington.

1980s and Beyond

During the 1980s, the County Board designated a third primary planning area, the Columbia Pike Special Revitalization District. Over the next two decades, a number of special planning districts were designated, including Clarendon, Lee Highway/ Cherrydale, North Quincy Street, Radnor Heights East, Fort Myer Heights North, North Tract and Special Affordable Housing Protection Districts.

By the 1990s, apartment dwellers outnumbered those in single-family homes and almost all of the land in Arlington had been developed, much of it consisting of numerous areas where multi-family dwellings dominate.