Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


“Public land for public good” is a battle cry making its way up the Arlington agenda. And like many slogans, it has the ring of common sense but encapsulates a mash of forces.
I got a taste of it from Marjorie Hobart, a retired teacher and advocate for the homeless who has worked the issue for nearly a decade with the Arlington New Directions Coalition. The idea is to create affordable housing through better use of land the county already owns. That contrasts with current efforts that rely-nobly-on nonprofit specialty developers and proffers negotiated with for-profit builders.

County-owned land can consist of everything from fire stations to parking lots to schools to slices left over when the feds laid out I-66.

The coalition’s percolating proposals got a boost last fall when Arlington’s Citizens Advisory Commission on Housing, with backing from other volunteer groups like the Alliance for Housing Solutions, recommended that the county embrace the concept. Possible projects include the land that is currently the Career Center to the fire station on Wilson Boulevard in Rosslyn.
Housing Commission member Alice Hogan told me “it will be wise, creative and fiscally more feasible” to pursue public land for public good at, say Arlington’s community centers, “where activity space, school needs and housing can all be addressed in a cooperative building structure,” she said. Even unused land could be leased to private developers as a revenue stream. Such options could be especially helpful given Arlington’s exploding school population.

Also enthusiastic is Nina Janopaul, president of the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, a nonprofit that acquires and develops properties. She cites a model in Queens, N.Y., where 200 units of affordable housing were built upward on what had been an inefficiently used surface parking lot.

Arlington obstacles, she told me, might be “bureaucratic inertia,” indecision over questions like who pays for sidewalks and perhaps some resistance from neighbors who prefer tidy single-use development to high density.

The county is warming to the idea. At this week’s budget hearings, folks will discuss a proposal for a multi-year housing needs survey that would officially identify potential parcels among those suggested by the coalition.

On March 10, the board approved $6 million for purchase of land and construction of an 83-unit affordable apartment building on Columbia Pike. And last August, board members broke ground on a diverse complex at Arlington Mill Community Center at Columbia Pike and South Dinwiddie Street. The five-floor facility will include 121 of APAH’s affordable housing units, a fitness center, public meeting rooms, a playground, retail and a 140-space underground garage.

Joel Franklin, Arlington’s housing planner, told me Public Land for Public Good is “one of the tools” the county uses. The next step is to identify which properties merit staff time and resources, he says. Some of the smaller parcels are not zoned appropriately for affordable housing, and may have restrictions on right of way, or are near trails.

Board member Jay Fisette calls the concept “admirable” but says the county must consider the broad picture. Encourage private projects, by churches, for example. “At the same time there is a growing need for affordable housing, there is also a need for open space,” he says.

His colleague Chris Zimmerman is also sympathetic. “The trouble is,” he cautions, “the county doesn’t own lots of land.”


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com