Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Locals are only joking (I think) when they speak of renaming Arlington as “Amazon County.”

But the arrival of our famous corporate citizen in Crystal City has reverberated through the debate over Arlington’s “missing middle” and declining stock of affordable housing.

I sat in on a revealing discussion of divisions over the county’s current push for “upzoning,” held Oct. 15 by the Arlington Civic Federation. It contrasted ambitious visions for long-term urbanization planning against feelings in some residential neighborhoods that resemble “Stop the world, I want to get off!”

The call for higher-density housing near employment centers and transit is embodied in the county’s “Housing Arlington” campaign launched this year. Our population of nearly 208,000 will gain 58,000 residents by 2040, as laid out by senior planner Richard Tucker. “We have a shrinking number of households earning less than $100,000 a year,” dropping from 52.6 percent in 2010 to 43.9 percent in 2017. There’s a shortage of 9,000 apartments, and “Arlington has one of the highest housing costs in the nation.”

Housing Arlington crosses disciplines with public and private initiatives, Tucker said. Among them: land use and financial tools, institutional partnerships, raising the density cap offered to developers who fund affordable housing, a county employee subsidy and an update of the housing master plan. Examples of upzoning include the newly expanded option of adding accessory dwelling units to detached homes, placing assisted living units in multi-family homes, and creating housing conservation districts in multi-family areas.

Not so fast, argued Peter Rousselot, an attorney and veteran of Arlington’s fiscal policy battles who is my colleague in columny. (He writes in ArlNow.) His advocacy group, Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future, warns that the plan to “eliminate single-family zoning” would “transform Arlington from an urban village to a paved metropolis.” The result: more “disastrous flooding” (like the July 8 deluge), escalating taxes, and new pressures on schools, infrastructure and the budget.

The upzoning to “make room” championed by County Board members such as Katie Cristol, “is alluring,” Rousselot said. “But it can lead to discordant results to those who moved into neighborhoods with single-family zoning who thought density was confined to the corridors.”

Arlington should avoid the high-density bandwagon he called trendy among today’s planners. He cited policy studies that question the efficacy of local government efforts to create affordable housing. “There are rising home prices, so we need new ways to address Amazon, up to a point, I agree,” Rousselot said. “But let’s get a handle on density and development already authorized before we get into things that increase that density.”

Concretely, Rousselot recommends the “best practice” of a 10-year operating budget forecast that factors in all priorities amid “fiscal and environmental constraints.”

There are studies and there are studies, rebutted Terry Clower, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. He joked that some Arlingtonians want to build a moat, so we “don’t let them come in.” But seriously, “the devil is in details,” and the applicability of narrow studies to the broad picture—particularly the private studies that don’t disclose data–require expertise to understand.

The county is “not rushing into anything,” Clower said, pointing to decades-long timelines for energy and transportation planning. Many residents appear supportive, but take the attitude of “just make sure you change the day I move out.”

After eons of construction, Metro’s unusual Bike & Ride cage at the East Falls Church station is nearly ready for use by mixed-mode commuters, I’m told by WMATA spokesman Ian Jannetta.

Though there already are rows of bicycle racks available for cyclists with bike locks, the spiffy white cage offers better anti-theft protection at no charge to those who register bikes with their SmarTrip cards, he said. Only the College Park station has such a cage, with a third being built at Vienna.

The East Falls Church shelter is expected to open by the end of December.