Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The county board room was packed, noisy and vibrant with colored protest signs on Saturday, June 11, during the routine early morning public speakers time slot.

Opponents of the pending Missing Middle Housing initiative, under a strategy from Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future and the Arlington Tree Action Group, had chosen this day to make “our voices count,” as one placard read. Several dozen showed up even though the ongoing study of whether to loosen the zoning code to permit more-reasonably priced multi-family houses was not on the immediate agenda.

Vocal activists inside the Ellen Bozman building, with two sheriff’s deputies looking on, chanted and clapped for sympatico speakers. Their signs: “No Upzoning or Duplexes Here;” “We Need Better Planning for Development” and “Missing Middle Means Missing Trees;” and “The Arlington Way Has Gone Astray.”

Manning their literature booth down on the plaza near the farmer’s market was Eric Ackerman. He told me the county is “out of excuses” for mismanagement of “overwhelming economic forces.” Though increasing multi-family housing may be “well intentioned,” he said, it is “unrealistic,” and the board members “have incentives” to drive up property tax revenues.

Permitting taller buildings in single-family areas “would change the character of neighborhoods irreversibly,” he said, and worsen the climate crisis.

But a sizable slice of the audience held signs in favor of loosening the zoning code countywide: “In our neighborhood, density means diversity; More neighbors equal more fun; Granny flats are grand; Triplexes and duplexes are pretty; Renters are welcome; Arlington is for everyone.”

A statement the previous week from the Alliance for Housing Solutions said the recently released staff framework on Missing Middle “offers a set of bold and straightforward reform measures to address exclusionary zoning… The re-introduction of Missing Middle types will remove long standing racial and socio-economic barriers throughout our community.”

Speakers addressed a hodgepodge of topics, from the budget to schools to the pickleball court at the Walter Reed Recreation Center. But those who dread Missing Middle cheered when speakers asked the board to consider traffic and water drainage, to “take the time to walk the neighborhoods” and recall the failed “grand plan” to build the Columbia Pike streetcar.

Despite some interruptions, Chair Katie Cristol stuck to the agenda. She would not comment on Missing Middle today. But she thanked speakers from across the spectrum, including Stacy Meyer of the Arlington Civic Federation, who read a statement asking the board to tread carefully in revising the General Land Use Plan and burdening lower-density neighborhoods without further consultation.

The five board members in campaign literature and interviews have largely supported a need to pursue equity and curb the meteoric rise in housing costs. Takis Karantonis did a radio appearance last week sounding gung-ho. But most are holding their fire while staff continue with a study and public engagement on Missing Middle that began in early 2020 (interrupted by Covid-19). The board plans an open work session with the county manager July 12, and a vote this fall.

The three-year reachout has not satisfied critics, who, as tree steward Mary Glass told me, seek a “pause” and more data because “many Arlington citizens are totally unaware of the recent framework and plans to up-zone all residential areas to allow housing up to 8-plexes. …This is a landmark change to Arlington that has been kept under the radar.”

Rather than a clash of values and competing self-interests amidst a national housing shortage, the critics portray the debate as a scandal of incompetence and shallow data-gathering.

Their unsigned flier asks whether the push for new housing types marks “the end of the Arlington Way,” defined as a “long-standing tradition of public engagement on issues of importance to reach community consensus.”

The new “Arlington Way 2.0,” it accuses, involves “lack of respect,” “failed analysis” and “governance problems” as “partisans grab control of decision-making and steamroll the public.”
Those harsh words made me wonder, must the Arlington Way always mean “you get your way?”