Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The tacked-up signs in the Courthouse neighborhood near the Innovation School displayed slogans: “No School Overcrowding,” “Don’t Displace Our Seniors,” “More Trees, Less Flooding.” 

The Jan. 8 “Realty Check” rally, organized by Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future and Arlingtonians for Upzoning Transparency, drew several hundred to the school multi-purpose room to derail  Missing Middle housing. The speakers’ message: “Stop the rush” into a “bait and switch” county proposal to rezone for more housing types, which they portrayed as ill-conceived by incompetent, dishonest, self-contradictory planners to benefit only developers and county coffers. A few pro-Missing Middle activists held countering signs: “If you care about social justice, you must care about exclusionary zoning.”

The rally came after the Planning Commission, having listened to 90 impassioned speakers, voted 7-2 on Dec. 15 to recommend that the county board advertise the framework, a decision set for Jan. 21. That means a final vote in March. The scathing speeches also came days after all five county board members on opening day 2023 expressed intentions to enact some form of the plan to allow more duplexes, triplexes and more.

New Chair Christian Dorsey invoked the county’s equity agenda, saying “barriers to entry” in current single-family neighborhoods “should be identified and dismantled.” Vice chair Libby Garvey stressed the need to improve communication among parties talking past one another:   One group thinks of “leafy neighborhoods with houses far apart” while the other thinks of “lively, vibrant, noisy urban corridors.” Recent chair Katie Cristol said the Missing Middle plan of “conceiving something other than one house on one lot” has been “a long time coming. Change is not really about 2023 but what Arlington will be 30 years from now.” Takis Karontonis called for “reasonable safeguards” to “manage potential adverse effects.” And re elected member Matt de Ferranti said, “Details matter.” He promised to seek consensus, not unanimity, to arrive at “a greater good.”

Former board member and host John Vihstadt cited 5,300 signatures in opposition, and 70-80 percent against at hearings and in surveys. He dismissed the recent 20 community conversations as “orchestrated to divide and conquer.” He mocked Dorsey and Cristol, who will not seek reelection, because they “won’t be around to reap what they sow.”

The rally consensus was that Missing Middle is “a gift to developers” by politicians who don’t understand land values or the demand for parking, and which won’t produce affordable units, but will incentivize gentrification and reduce diversity. The rhetoric appears to blame the county government for coming demographic and economic changes, accusing it of doing no planning.

Michael O’Grady, a former Arlington Economic Development research economist now at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the framework used “strawman concepts” and “data sets I’d expect in 1982.”

Molly McKay, a real estate specialist with Willdan Economic and Financial Consulting, said it “doesn’t take into account the character and quality of our neighborhoods.” Attorney David Gerk, stressing crowded schools, called Missing Middle a “fairy tale” policy expected to fail.  The true motivation is revenue and a “bumper sticker, a good political winner.”

Organizer Peter Rousselot told me he’s confident that further public exposure by March will prompt a pause. He confirmed there are rumors of lawsuits.

I asked the uncomfortable question of why the prospect of a duplex built nearby is upsetting—some react even before studying the proposal. “You must consider all impacts of increased density,” he replied.

Former Civic Association leader Duke Banks told me the main objection is the “broken promise” of the 1960s “social contract” to confine development to the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor. Single-family homeowners “are looking for a sameness,” he acknowledged. “They’re not so much against duplexes as against density.”

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Submitters on Nextdoor echoed an experience I had Nov. 1, when I got a call from a frantic weeping female claiming to be my daughter injured in a car accident. She passed the phone to a “state trooper” who said she was too hurt to continue. After phoning my real daughter (unharmed), I reported it to Arlington Police. Their probe led nowhere. Beware the scam.

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 Last week’s column on high school alumni fundraising should have mentioned the W-L Education Foundation, a nonprofit that has been raising scholarship money for Generals for decades. It cooperates with the alumni association but abbreviates it to avoid the dilemma of the name-change to Washington-Liberty.