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Breathing Life Into Northern Virginia's Notorious 'Concrete Canyon'

Could these face-lifts turn lackluster Rosslyn, with its impossible waterfront, into a place that people actually want to go?

An aerial view of Rosslyn looking north over Key Bridge into Georgetown, Washington, D.C. (Mariordo/Wikipedia)

Directly across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., lies a neighborhood called Rosslyn. It’s an aggressively urbanized part of Arlington, Virginia, and it’s one of the least-inspiring places to visit around the U.S. capital. Office towers built in the architectural style of blah crowd the land, and though there is a scenic waterfront, the highly trafficked George Washington Memorial Parkway keeps most people away. As for culture, there’s one theater and that’s about it.

Is there any way to breathe some life into what locals sometimes call the “concrete canyon”? That’s uncertain, but students at Virginia Tech’s Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center have given it a try with an ambitious attempt at reinventing the Rosslyn waterfront. Their goal was to make the neighborhood a pleasant destination with hypothetical amenities like public pools, floating food barges, and better bike paths (but no gondolas). They also tried to improve access to the river, which currently resists visitation with a bevy of dangers well-illustrated by Runyu Ma’s graphic, “Ways to Die Getting to Waterfront”:

Runyu Ma/Virginia Tech/Arlington County

The students’ 18 designs are featured in this month’s Transportation Research Record and also posted on Arlington County’s website. Here are a few of the bolder proposals.

‘Pop-Up Commercial Bridge Over the Parkway’

Runyu Ma/Virginia Tech/Arlington County

Ma’s design would smuggle people past the parkway’s formidable traffic via two elevated bridges, one exclusively for pedestrians and cyclists and the other dotted with retail spaces for folks who want to shop a bit. At the point where the bridges reach the muddy bank of the Potomac, Ma envisions having water taxis and restaurant boats hovering to service Rosslyn’s horde of office workers.

‘Natural Swimming Pool’

Paige Courtney/Virginia Tech/Arlington County

Paige Courtney thinks big by physically moving the parkway inland to accommodate a new traffic circle onto Key Bridge. Where the road used to be she’s planned a wild area for storm-water management, as well as two large pools (one pleasantly flowing into the other) for family and lap swimming.

‘New Causeway’

Ian Hunter/Virginia Tech/Arlington County

Ian Hunter would also move the parkway, but northward so it’s suspended over the Potomac. This causeway would ring a lagoon where people could enjoy the water and its ducks, gulls, and cancer-causing fish. The site’s natural beauty would be enhanced with a stream feeding the lagoon, as well as a protected beach for kid-friendly lounging and kayak-launching.

‘Rosslyn Congregation Park’

Jan Hornig/Virginia Tech/Arlington County

Jan Hornig plops a park right on top of the waterfront, replete with pop-up shops, restaurants, and a bike club. Trees and shrubs would change color with the seasons, creating a “place of peace, reflection, and interaction with the water and people.” (It’s a little unclear where the parkway goes in this proposal, though.)

‘Mount Vernon Trail Station’

Sebastian Zaror/Virginia Tech/Arlington County

Sebastian Zaror throws a bone to cyclists and joggers, who work up a sweat coming over the bridge, with a commuter station that includes a sports facility and lovely freshwater pool fed by an artificial wetland. Here’s hoping the pool has some kind of filtration system, lest the Potomac’s snapping turtles get in and wreak havoc on fingers, toes, and other prized appendages.

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.