Guest Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

  The vaunted “Arlington Way” has become a political football.

   The concept, dating to the 1980s, of active consultation between our governors and governed, is the subject of a lengthy draft statement blasting county government assembled over months by experienced activists in the Arlington Civic Federation. “Whereas, in this process Arlington residents had a meaningful seat at the decision-making table, which resulted in robust community discussion, producing consensus-driven outcomes that have made Arlington one of the most sought-after places to live in the nation,” begins the plan to “restore confidence.” It appears to many “that current community engagement methods are unevenly applied or have fundamentally changed and no longer consistently include  critical engagement principles and features, and where far-reaching decisions may be made without incorporating substantive resident input or broad community consensus.”

  Signed by former federation presidents Stefanie Pryor, Michael McMenamin, Duke Banks, Sandy Newton and Allan Gajadhar, it traces various definitions of “the Arlington Way” by luminaries. And its 100-page appendix comes choked with complaints about board and staff behavior during past controversies: uneven public notification, overuse of closed sessions, outside consultants who lack transparency and seem designed for a predetermined conclusion.

  The push comes amid polarization over the proposal to rezone for more Missing Middle (multi-family) housing. (Critics of that plan launched an online whistleblower newsletter “The Arlington Way: How Arlington Really Works.” It’s anonymous.) But Civic Federation activists see the statement as broader—president John Ford postponed final consideration until February in hopes of improving its practicality.

    Former county board member John Vihstadt (2014-18) praised the effort. “Community engagement systems—whether from county board members, board- or manager-appointed advisory bodies or staff—atrophied during the pandemic,” he told me. “The resolution is a timely, well-founded document with compelling recommendations to reinvigorate how the people and their local government interact. It’s long past time for the level of government closest to the community to truly conduct itself that way—and for the entire community to feel it.”

  Former county board member Mary Hynes (2007-15) rejects the premise. “The board for years has listened to the public, and developers and citizens have private meetings with board members. Board members meet with staff and talk to each other.” But listening doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing. “Some saying the board doesn’t listen don’t focus in on who is at the table,” she added. “We’ve been trying to get participation of renters, people of color, and low-wage workers who don’t have a lot of time. Parents are doing PTA stuff and working—all of that’s really hard.” Hynes advertised an “open-door Monday, which put us out in neighborhoods in libraries and communities to open channels. But people are busy, and governance is all about relationships.”

     Mary Margaret Whipple, board member (1983-95) called the draft “well-researched and carefully written and deserves consideration. But many of the concerns have been reiterated over the years. Even when, as they claim, the `Arlington Way’ was robust and encouraged citizen participation, there were people who dissented, usually because their opposition to a particular decision did not prevail,” she said. “I can attest that at almost any county board meeting, someone would testify they had never heard about it, even after a lengthy citizen review. Many times when people say the board didn’t listen, what they really mean is that the board didn’t agree with them,” Whipple added. “Even extensive citizen involvement does not mean that consensus is reached.”

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        Data miners at Preservation Arlington posted their November report on demolitions of housing stock.

        Sixteen demolition permits were applied for, all for single family homes, noted Eric Dobson. Four are in South Arlington, 12 in the North. Three were purchased in the last two years for over $1 million, only to be torn down. That makes 163 demolitions for the year.

           Facebook responder Cathy Evans Pollack noted that the home at 1150 N. Ivanhoe St. was for years owned by Signature Theater co-founder Eric Schaeffer. Now owned by Silver Creek Homes LLC, it is assessed at 1.1 million.