Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Missing from the messy machinations over missing middle housing is a measure of the majority. How many Arlingtonians favor the proposal to “upzone” to allow less-expensive housing types countywide?
Clues surfaced at the July 12 county board work session as more individuals and organizations weighed in on either side.

Tensions over the controversy showed in a few interruptions from the small live audience—about 100 watched online—and signs displayed contrasting slogans “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “No 8-Plexes Next to Single-Family Homes.”

The Arlington Tree Action Group warned that standards for nearly 60 percent of our tree canopy would be slashed in half. “Implementation of only 20 percent of the planned rezoning would remove 584 acres of tree canopy.” Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future continued opposing greater density, citing stretched resources and interpreting the issue’s heightened visibility as rising opposition. The Joint Facilities Advisory Commission called for a narrower pilot project.

Habitat for Humanity just came out in favor, joining the Sierra Club, Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, Chamber of Commerce, NAACP and the network

Sensing controversy, Paul Holland, chair of Plan Langston Boulevard Forum, told me “a missing middle layer previously included in the land use scenarios for Plan Langston Boulevard was removed last fall and included in the countywide missing middle process.”

At the session, Chair Katie Cristol invoked an “imperative to explore change” after a “90-year evolution of land-use policy.” She hailed the staff’s “massive research project and compendium of data.” The public engagement was welcomed by board member Christian Dorsey as “effective and unprecedented”: 150,000 multilingual post cards sent, QR coded e-newsletters, walking tours in six neighborhoods, a virtual Q&A and nine “pop -up” approaches to passersby at locations like Bluemont Park, Crystal City MegaMart and Westover Library.

Thousands of comments arrived, plus statements from nearly all civic associations, noted Principal Planner Matt Ladd. “They’re generally more negative than positive.”

But there’s a crucial caveat. Maps show the vast majority of single-family neighborhoods (and trees) lie in North Arlington. Of some 3,200 messages to the board: 70 percent came from single-family homes, 54 percent of them whites and only 3 percent blacks (31 percent wouldn’t specify race).

The clincher: When asked whether certain multi-family types should remain illegal, 78 percent from single-family homes agreed. But among renters, 70 percent want those new options.

Board members stressed that their equity agenda prompts continued outreach to nonparticipants.
Several expressed “discomfort” with proposed 8-unit buildings “not sensitive to existing neighborhood context,” as Ladd put it. And expect continued review of the proposed half-space per dwelling parking requirement (a complex question that varies by street).

A suggestion that allowances for multiplexes be targeted—such as areas near transit—prompted Takis Karantonis to argue this would leave North Arlington as exempt as it is now.

Before deciding this December, the board plans more citizen-to-citizen discussion and specifics for developers, such as a “pattern book” of sample housing types.

Cristol, who will not seek reelection in 2023, told me it’s tough to determine a majority view amidst polarization. “Single-family folks overwhelmingly don’t want it, but the majority of Arlingtonians are renters.”

Why are duplexes perceived by some as threatening? Cristol finds it perplexing: “I live near lots of duplexes, and they’re completely consistent with leafy neighborhoods where neighbors know each other and public amenities are kept up.”

After years of lobbying by descendants of Arlington’s once-enslaved Syphax family, Rep. Don Beyer and Sen. Tim Kaine on July 14 introduced the latest effort at de-Confederization.

Their bill would rename Arlington House, removing the 1972 label “Robert L. Lee Memorial” and make the just-renovated National Park Service property the “Arlington House National Historic Site.”

Since it was designed in 1802 in the vision of George Washington Parke Custis (step-grandson of our first president), it has been called Mount Washington (briefly), Arlington House, the Custis-Lee Mansion and the Lee Mansion. Lee, however, as Custis’s son-in-law, inhabited the place for only a fraction of the 55 years Custis lived there.