The expansive, oddly shaped downtown district of Arlington, Virginia (it’s a county, even though it feels like a city) features some unusual intersections, which no doubt confuse motorists and pedestrians who are unfamiliar with the area. These intersections were nowhere near as precarious back in the day, when most of the area consisted of low-slung commercial on roads like Wilson Boulevard, complemented by ranch homes and Cape Cods on eight-acre lots nearby, on roads like North Fillmore Street. As recently as the 1940 census, the county only had 57,040 people. Granted, 1940 was quite a long time ago, but I feature that population snapshot because it clearly conveys a time period when this county directly across the Potomac River from Washington DC comprised a series of moderately settled nodes interspersed with a whole lot of nothing. The population exploded that decade, more than doubling to 135,000 in 1950, then grew more modestly each subsequent decade, to a rate of about 235,000 according to the 2020 census. (it even lost population in the 1970s.) While 235,000 might not seem a ton of people, it’s important to remember that Arlington County is only 26 square miles—one of the smallest in the county. From what I can assess, only three counties are smaller: Bristol County, Rhode Island (mostly water), New York County (the borough of Manhattan), and the smallest of all, Kalawao County, Hawaii, an obscure and archaic quarantine site for lepers that the Hawaii Department of Health manages.
That leaves Arlington County as number four, and it’s also the eleventh most densely populated county in the country.
Of all the photos I’ve taken over the years within Arlington County, precious few fully capture this density—of strip malls making way to 20-story condo buildings, the latter of which are a byproduct of County-initiated efforts to push Transit Oriented Development (TOD): high density mixed-use projects near the WMATA Metro stops. The above photos come from a blog article I wrote last fall, which explores how old-school suburbia must make way for high-rise urbanism, as the number of off-street parking spaces continues to diminish. It’s that staggering growth in population density—over the exact same time duration that most American cities were de-desnifying as suburbia flourished—that prompts unusual solutions to manage traffic patterns in an a formerly auto-oriented outpost like Arlington, which is now more dense than the majority of American cities.
But this time I’m looking not so much at parking lots as the roads themselves: specifically this oddity near the Clarendon Metro Stop.
It’s a block-long stretch of North Fillmore Street, just a 90-second walk from the bifurcated main streets of Wilson and Clarendon boulevards (complementary one-way streets that both offer numerous restaurants and retail) to the north. And an equidistant commercial node where Washington Boulevard intersects 10th Street North, just to the south. This intersection of North Fillmore and 11th Street North is comparatively quiet, though the high density of multifamily housing has still turned it into a viable corner for successful eateries like Green Pig Bistro. And, standing near the entrance of Green Pig Bistro, I offer the above photograph, where a massive sign alerts: “no thru traffic” on North Fillmore. Across the two-way street, near the painted crosswalk, another alert is barely visible: “dead end”.
If it seems weird to anyone unfamiliar with Arlington to have a dead-end street in a busy urban setting, you are not alone. Sure, I suppose it would be reasonable if the street were an alley, or a service road leading to a loading dock, but that’s clearly not the case here. North Fillmore is a full-fledged, dedicated right-of-way with off-street parking, double stripes to indicate no passing, and plenty of building and retail frontage.
So what exactly is going on with North Fillmore? Why is the intersection with 11th Street North referring to it as a dead end, with no thru traffic? Continuing about 200 feet down the block, the answer becomes obvious: traffic engineers have retrofitted it.
This is where the street “ends”…but only for southbound vehicles. The road tapers through a “bulb-out” extension of the curb, but only a moderate one, which serves the primary function of choking traffic into just one lane of travel: a northbound lane.
The stripes on the pavement make it clear: southbound vehicles must treat it like a dead-end (or really more of a cul-de-sac, as the stripes steer vehicles into a curved 180-degree turn), so that they must return to 11th Street North. And the “DO NOT ENTER” signs reinforce this. No going all the way to 10th Street North. Meanwhile, northbound vehicles can treat it like a through-street. A second bulb-out, at Fillmore’s intersection with 10th Street North, reveals how aggressively the traffic engineers in this area have tried to prevent southbound vehicles from making it all the way through.
But why these strange restrictions? It goes without saying that there’s a bit more going on than the average intersection. Does this panorama shot reveal it?
I’m not sure it does much on its own, but juxtaposed with a map makes things a bit clearer. I’ve outlined North Fillmore’s intersection with 11th Street North using a purple box.
It is almost—but not quite—a six-way intersection. Washington Boulevard and 10th Street North are the busier arterials; North Fillmore is a local street. Traffic engineers have decided to prioritize the two busier streets, which makes sense because they have higher carrying capacity, allowing them to significantly limit vehicles that might seek to enter the intersection from Fillmore. They can only reach it coming from the segment of Fillmore south of the intersection. And it turns out that the engineers modified that block as well—Google Street View shows a complete obstruction mid-block, so it’s a literal dead that only allows a few cars to park on-street in front of storefronts that face Fillmore. In the map above, I’ve indicated this additional modification with a thick blue square. Both north and south of this intersection, North Fillmore faces significant restrictions.
The perception—and no doubt the reality—is that traffic on Fillmore, though much lower in volume, tends to complicate an already busy intersection. And, if it were permitted, southbound traffic leaving Fillmore onto 10th Street North may seek to make a quick right turn, followed by an immediate left onto southbound Washington Boulevard, which is risky. Far better to limit vehicular travel in that direction altogether; since Washington Boulevard veers in a northwesterly direction, motorists can easily reach 11th Street North by turning at a subsequent intersection, on a road parallel to North Fillmore Street.
Due to the high concentration of diagonal streets in Washington DC (part of Pierre l’Enfant’s original Plan for the Federal City over 200 years ago), most Washingtonians are used to six-way intersections. They’re far commoner in this metro than most of the country. But, at least in the District, most of them began as six-way intersections. That’s how l’Enfant conceived them: a conventional grid with dramatic diagonals that radiated outward from major points of interest, providing clean and uninterrupted views to the dome of the US Capitol, the White House, or (a few decades later) the Washington Monument. Lots of big, complicated intersections in Washington DC, but they’ve always been there.
I’m pretty certain that is not the case here. As the map above shows, this portion of Arlington offered a conventional grid with numbered streets east-west; the north-south streets are last names that loosely follow the alphabet: Daniel, Edgewood, Fillmore, Garfield, etc. (Loosely follow president’s last names too.) It’s a third road, commemorating Washington through his own Boulevard, that plowed through the grid as part of an expansion of the road network in the 1920s, with extensions over the next two decades. Washington Boulevard links to I-395 (Shirley Highway) southward, then loops back around the southern half of Arlington National Cemetery and the Pentagon, in a confluence of highways and exit ramps that received the moniker “the Mixing Bowl” (the first of multiple confusing tangles). Here’s what the mixing bowl looks like, just two miles south of quirky little North Fillmore Street.
Some places call it a “spaghetti junction”. Regardless of the nickname, it’s a nightmarish tangle of freeway lanes and exit ramps, with new ones grafted on over the years as population grew and traffic thickened. (And it’s not the only one in northern Virginia: another “Mixing Bowl” in the Springfield area might be even more complicated.) Washington Boulevard, appearing in the northwest, transforms into a limited access highway before converging with the Mixing Bowl, which I have traced in pink.
In essence, Washington Boulevard provides a quick and “easy” link between central Washington DC (accessed by I-395 bridge across the Potomac River), and the bustling business district of Arlington centered around Clarendon Metro stop. But transportation planners and traffic engineers introduced it in various segments starting in the 1920s, a point in time when real estate developers had already begun to plat the street grid and homes that include Fillmore Avenue. It turns out that, in engineering Washington Avenue as a curved street across the grid, they did not conceive a design where people could safely navigate both northbound and southbound on Fillmore. The result is obvious from the road stripes and the bulb-out curbs above. And they’ve been there for years—at least as old as Google Street View started recording in around ’07 or ’08. It has likely been decades since North Fillmore was last a two-way through-street.
Amidst this effort at urban archaeology (not to be confused with architectural forensics), one question remains:
Why design the street as two-way for half a block? Why not just make it one-way northbound for the entire segment that links 10th Street North to 11th Street North? My speculative answer again ties to layers of development and redevelopment over time. Most of this portion of Arlington near the Clarendon Metro was single-family detached housing as conceived back in the 1910s, 20s, and beyond. Only as Arlington County surged in desirability—compounded by the development of the WMATA metro lines in the 1970s—did property values in this area explode. And only when county planners worked to relax zoning near the Metro stops—the principles of TOD—did zoning regulations allow redevelopment into high intensity, mid-rise condo and apartment buildings, with retail on the lower floor.
Incremental intensification is exactly what transpired at this block of North Fillmore Street. The building that hosts the successful Green Pig Bistro (among other restaurants, bakeries, and bars) is a five-story apartment building called Zoso Flats, which began occupancy about a decade ago. It almost certainly replaced a lower intensity use—probably bungalows from the 1920s and 30s. With all the storefront space on the first floor, prospective tenants probably needed assurance that traffic would be able to approach them from both directions. As I’ve noted before, one-way streets are notoriously less desirable for luring storefront retail tenants. However, since the building also features a parking garage with an entrance (no exit) on North Fillmore Street, as well as loading docks to Zoso Flats, the traffic planners could not tolerate all these cars approaching the nightmare intersection of North Fillmore, Washington, and N. 11th from both directions of traffic flow. What’s the result? What one sees today. Incremental changes over time, some dramatic (the Mixing Bowl and Washington Boulevard) and some resolved through little more than white and yellow paint on the asphalt.