Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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I have seen Arlington’s future, and it’s the twenty- and thirty-somethings emerging as our county’s hip urban villagers.

At least, that was the takeaway from the generational encounter group staged Jan. 12 by the Arlington Committee of 100.

“Go find a young person and make sure they’re sitting at your table,” came the instructions from the chair of the dining-debating society that since 1954 has attracted a crowd of regulars-myself included-that skews toward fifty- to eighty-somethings.

It was easy to spot members our hometown’s legion of 25-34-year-olds-those least likely to wear a coat and tie-who showed up to liven a discussion of housing and transportation.

Chris Zimmerman, the newly installed County Board chairman known for championing smart growth, told the audience it’s dangerous for politicians to make generalizations. He then proceeded to express puzzlement over the young generation’s proclivities for tattoos, body piercings, iPhones, blogging and Facebook.

While baby boomers’ saw their suburban culture reflected in 1950s-70s TV shows like “Father Knows Best, “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Brady Bunch,” Zimmerman pointed to the urban sensibilities in more recent fare like “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” and “Sex in the City.”

The young adults’ ubiquitousness, not just in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor but around bustling Columbia Pike, Zimmerman said, brings a “change in the feel of Arlington.” When he was a young adult, he walked often-deserted streets of those areas looking for an open restaurant. Now you’ve got 24-hour gyms, late-night yoga classes, and Wi-Fi cafes some frequent in their pajamas.

As entertainment districts have butted up against residential enclaves, the county has learned to manage it, Zimmerman noted.

The evening show-and-tell was meaty. Lisa Sturtevant, a former county demographer now assistant research professor at the George Mason University School of Public Policy, laid out data showing how those in the 25-34-year-old bracket are one of the county’s fastest growing.

They are more apt than other groups to hold professional and technical jobs, more likely to earn over $100,000, more likely to live near their work and use public transit.

Most notably, their homeownership rate (30 percent) is lower than the county average of 50 percent. With the average detached home in Arlington costing $700,000, it’s no surprise young adults are more likely to rent.

That’s where Arlington housing chief Ken Aughenbaugh came in. He noted that Arlington’s young “creative class” boasts the highest percentages of foreign born, mobile, and highly educated citizens. He’s been working for decades to create what is now 6,000 units of affordable housing-priced about half market rate-through public-private partnerships and a revolving loan fund.

The evening’s offbeat theme turned out tailor-made for Zimmerman’s vision of  “walkable urbanity.” In making lifestyle and economic decisions, younger folk are less fascinated by cars than their older compatriots, less interested in mowing lawns, less patient sitting in traffic.

Hence they’re ripe for Zipcar, Metro, buses, bike paths, and the type of “walkability of which Fairfax is devoid,” he says. All good for a vision of land use based on sustainability and a mixed-income population.

“Real estate values are rising and gas prices are going up, so Arlington will become more costly if we don’t do anything,” Zimmerman said. This modern-day generation gap is “an opportunity to create something in the sweet spot.”

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]