Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpSome clarity on the looming county board rematch between John Vihstadt and Alan Howze emerged Oct. 8 during their debate at the ever-civil Arlington Committee of 100.

Democrat Howze abandoned a previous reticence and evinced some passion, while independent Vihstadt—the surprise upsetter of the Democratic establishment last April–displayed an easy confidence and camaraderie with fellow board members.

The Columbia Pike streetcar, of course, dominated the exchange moderated by Sun-Gazette editor Scott McCaffrey in the Marymount University banquet room. Both candidates proved well-informed and articulate.

But they differed starkly on whether Arlington should plan boldly for the future or take a breather and scale back on ambitious spending.

Vihstadt said he had “shaken up the board as the newest member,” though his colleagues, he teased, won’t give him credit. He reeled off recent board accomplishments in lowering property taxes, addressing school crowding and hiring an auditor.

Then came the slam. “What we don’t need are the slow and expensive streetcar, a gold-plated aquatic club and a $1.6 million dog park,” said Vihstadt, an attorney emphasizing 30 years of community service. “We need focus on public safety, parks, schools and infrastructure, to find the right balance that preserves residential neighborhoods.”

Howze countered that Arlington “must have courage to make the kind of bold choices that gave us the community we have today.” When Metro was being planned in the 1960s and 70s, and with the recent Silver Line, “there were the same voices saying no,” Howze said. “But fiscal responsibility is not only good stewardship of today’s dollars, but wise investment in the future.”

Noting he was born in a farmhouse in Clarendon, Howze said he would be “the only board member with children in Arlington schools,” now so crowded they recently enrolled the largest kindergarten class ever. “We have to find the right mix” and create alternative ways of paying for projects like the aquatic complex (on indefinite hold). “I got into politics out of commitment to activism” on the environment, he said, praising Arlington for having the state’s lightest carbon footprint.

The electric-powered streetcar, whose funding appears secure, and the Columbia Pike revitalization plan that preserves affordable housing make “a shining example of getting it right,” said Howze, a business consultant. He accused Vihstadt of a “hope and pray” market approach that would bring the same housing losses that occurred in Arna Valley. The effort to cancel the streetcar in favor of more buses, Howze added, is a common tactic among anti-transit advocates to “create doubt” while ignoring the historic link between transit and development. The future “is not about saying no,” Howze said, “but getting to yes.”

Vihstadt said “the streetcar is not a panacea for development,” noting that Shirlington does well without Metro. “Rather than building more high-rises with expensive units, I’d like to keep the apartments like Fillmore Gardens on the Pike that fit the scale of the neighborhood,” he said.

Vihstadt denied being “Mr. Obstruction,” citing his support of all four bond ballot issues. “We need at least one voice to say no on occasion or question spending rather than just smile and nod.”

The audience applauded both candidates. My quick poll of the three other board members present split unsurprisingly: Libby Garvey thought Vihstadt “of course won”, Jay Fisette and Mary Hynes just as certain Howze “nailed it.”

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On Oct. 9 I had a chance to talk Arlington with visiting students from Germany and Ukraine under Arlington’s Sister City program. During a presentation at the County Board room, the high school kids whose second language is (excellent) English told board members what they like best about Arlington is the Metro and the bike paths.

The food, they said, tastes good but is “a bit unhealthy.” Our high schools seem large and well-equipped, the consensus went, and Americans tend to be prouder of their country than many in Europe are in theirs.