Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Nine earnest staffers from the Arlington County government honored the famous “Arlington Way” on Nov. 15 when they showed up at Tuckahoe Elementary School for a show-and-tell and some civil discourse. Well, mostly civil.

The evening’s topic was the development (someday) of the East Falls Church Metro Station. Boosters of this aim-high, go-green project have produced enough detailed artist’s renderings to infuriate opponents–even though the construction timeline is known only to the gods in charge of ending economic recessions.

The years-in-the-making framework that was approved unanimously by the County Board in July would offer developers a chance to build a “transit town” atop and around the only Arlington Metro stop that lacks any amenities of civilization– other than slabs of concrete that do little to get you in the mood to kiss before you ride.

The vision-slices of which the county staff displayed as color illustrations mounted on easels- encompasses 600,000 square feet of mixed-use development. It would mean townhouses or apartments rising six-nine stories and would probably include some affordable housing, small retail shops, footbridges, green space, and short-term parking places alongside the bus lanes.

To dovetail with the now-in-construction Silver Line linking the East Falls Church stop to Tysons, Reston, and, eventually, Dulles Airport, the plan calls for a new western entrance to the station near the Lee Highway Econo Lodge.

The planners’ dream of a less-auto-dependent, pedestrian-friendly destination Metro could well bring a grocery store and a café to this predominantly residential neighborhood. Pulling it all off, however, would require shutting down most of the 422 commuter parking places (used mostly by out-of-county invaders) that the Virginia Department of Transportation considers integral to its regional system for access to Metro.

The cadre of neighbors who organized over the past year to block the plan-not surprisingly, they have a Web site-were out in force this Monday night. Among the 60-plus attendees, they were most visible scribbling passionate comments on feedback sheets the county provided. And their questions to staffers from Arlington’s planning, transportation, housing, economics, and parking departments were skeptical, even snippy.

Opponents worry about “another Ballston” of high-rises disturbing the peace of the residential idyll they signed on for when they bought their homes. They wish to retain the commuter parking (not everyone in the community lives an easy walk from the Metro).  And they fear a “spillover” of non-local drivers cruising for parking on their streets.

In pressing their case, they raise alarming visions of nine-story towers, tripled rents and crowded schools. They challenge the methodology used to estimate traffic impact-doubting the dream of luring more folks out of their cars.

They also blast the process that began almost a decade ago in homes of a few members of the Arlington East Falls Church Civic Association. After years of research, a house-by-house survey, newsletter updates and consultation with Virginia Tech engineers, the first reports describing the “transit town” prompted the county in 2007 to appoint a 20-member task force to hone the ideas.

Robert Moore, a neighbor and transportation professional, stood in the Tuckahoe multi-purpose room expressing bitterness over having been excluded from the task force. “We feel the county has overtly stiffed us,” he said. “It’s offensive that this is presented as an inclusive process that recognizes views or surrounding neighborhood.”

And he distributed his statement resignedly calling for changes in the plan so that retail buildings would face inward rather than out toward the neighborhoods, and that residential units would be townhouse-style rather than four-story flat-roofed structures.

John Wilson, longtime president of the civic association, stood beaming, saying he’s proud of the success of the drawn-out citizen participation process. And he noted there has been little county planning for the East Falls Church Metro area since the mid-1980s.

The county staffers patiently fielded questions. They pointed out that the proposed transit town is a lot smaller than Ballston, and that the problem of rising rents is an issue countywide. They provided a fact sheet calculating the impact on schools: additional 34-38 students. They said the problem of spillover parking on side streets can be addressed through the existing permit option for qualifying neighborhoods. And they noted that this plan is long-range-which is why Arlington officials are not worried that VDOT hasn’t agreed to relinquish its regional parking places.

“All of these decisions are subject to the real estate market,” said one staffer. So the county and the citizens are preparing to meet in January for two more open houses on the proposed transformation of East Falls Church. Folks will talk. It’s the Arlington way.