Vihstadt , a former Planning Commissioner, announced his decision Thursday morning with a press release declaring his opposition to the Columbia Pike Streetcar and the planned Long Bridge Aquatics Center as two of his chief campaign positions.
A Republican, Vihstadt is hoping to secure endorsements from both the Arlington County Republican Committee and Green Party. He has behind him a bipartisan array of supporters, including prominent Arlington Democrats in County Board member Libby Garvey, Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos and former Arlington County Democratic Committee Chair (and ARLnow.com opinion columnist) Peter Rousselot.
“It is rare for a candidate to have the breadth and depth of experience John brings to the table,” Garvey said of Vihstadt. “I welcome John’s willingness to re-examine County priorities at a time we are having trouble finding money to maintain essential services.”
Other notable supporters of Vihstadt include former Arlington School Board chair David Foster, former Arlington County Civic Federation president Jim Pebley and local fiscal watchdog Wayne Kubicki.
Vihstadt also opposes the rollout of more SuperStop bus stops – the first of which cost $1 million – and wants to accelerate the “phase-out of county taxpayer subsidies for the Rosslyn Artisphere.” He wants to use the savings from halting these projects to address Arlington Public Schools’ budget and facilities issues.
“Something is seriously wrong when schools across Arlington are over capacity and fighting for funding,” he said, “while county leaders continue to plow millions into high profile projects beyond the scope of core community needs like education and public safety.”
Vihstadt is the first non-Democrat to announce his candidacy for the seat that will be vacated by board member Chris Zimmerman at the end of January. Alan Howze, Peter Fallon and Cord Thomas are vying for the Democratic nomination.
Vihstadt has served on the Housing Commission, the Commission on Aging and on the board of Community Residences. A father of two, Vihstadt lives in the Tara-Leeway Heights neighborhood with his wife, Mary, and works as a partner at D.C. law firm Krooth & Altman.Vihstadt says he commutes to work via Metro, ART and carpool.
Arlington County is in the process of negotiating with Comcast for a new long term franchise agreement, but they’ve run out of time. That’s why they’re requesting a one year extension, which will be examined at Saturday’s Arlington County Board meeting.
Franchise agreements, which allow cable and video service providers to operate in a locality, typically are negotiated once every 10-15 years. Comcast took over an existing franchise agreement in 2000 and that expired in June of this year. In June, the County Board approved a six month temporary contract extension, which ends this month. Because both parties are still hashing out details of a long term agreement, they submitted the request currently before the Board for another temporary extension, to expire in December of 2014.
“The purpose of the extension is to give us time to negotiate the best deal we can with Comcast,” said the county’s Cable Administrator Rob Billingsley. “Rather than put the agreement in any kind of peril, the idea is that the Board passes, hopefully, that extension so we do have that time. All parties agree to do this, it’s not at all controversial.”
Both parties are required by law to keep the negotiations confidential. Billingsley did say, however, that the meetings have been successful and productive thus far.
“Because these agreements last as long as do, there’s some complexity to it,” Billingsley explained. “You’re not rushing it and you’re getting the best deal possible.”
The long term contracts allow Comcast to use the county’s “rights of way” such as streets and sidewalks. In exchange, Comcast provides free public education and government TV channels, in addition to grants and equipment for producing shows on those channels. The county also receives approximately five percent of Comcast’s gross revenue in Arlington, which is first routed through the state due to tax requirements and then heads back into the county’s general fund.
Part of the cable franchise renewal process involves examining Comcast’s past performance and determining future services to be included in the new agreement. There was a public meeting to discuss such desired services back in September of 2011.
County staff is recommending the County Board approve the temporary contract extension on Saturday.
An interfaith community group says it has gathered more than 10,000 signatures for a petition that calls on Arlington County to help develop 1,000 to 1,500 new units of affordable housing over the next 3-5 years.
Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE) collected the signatures and plans to present them to Arlington County Board Chairman Walter Tejada next Thursday. VOICE says the affordable housing can be built by redeveloping government-owned sites, including the Lubber Run Community Center in Arlington Forest.
VOICE’s proposal identifies government-owned sites that could be redeveloped including Lubber Run Community Center. The group wants the units to be available only to families and individuals making less than $50,000 a year.
According to a press release, VOICE plans to bring more than 100 people — including clergy in religious attire — in front of the Arlington County government building (2100 Clarendon Blvd) Thursday, Dec. 12, at 5:45 p.m., in support of the plan.
The VOICE group is seeking immediate action from the County Board to start implementing some of its proposals at its Dec. 14 meeting.
EnviroCab co-founder Cord Thomas announced he was running for the vacant seat on the Arlington County Board at last night’s Arlington County Democratic Committee, declaring a platform of job growth and fiscal responsibility.
Thomas is a newcomer to Arlington politics, having not held a public position before, but after he and his uncle, Hans Hess, sold EnviroCab six months ago, he decided he wanted to do more for the community.
“I don’t have a lot of experience in Arlington politics, but I have a lot of experience in growing Arlington,” Thomas told ARLnow.com. “I know what it’s like to spend money that’s your own. Everyone likes to spend other people’s money, but when it’s their own, they look at it more seriously.”
Thomas, a Nauck resident, is also a co-owner of Ballston-based Elevation Burger, which has grown to more than 40 locations worldwide.
Thomas was a surprise inclusion in the group of Democratic candidates vying for the seat made available by Board Member Chris Zimmerman’s impending resignation. Joining Thomas in the race will be Highland Park-Overlee Knolls Civic Association President Alan Howze and former Planning Commissioner Peter Fallon.
Howze’s and Fallon’s candidacies were widely known among local Democrats, to the point where many officials endorsed one or the other at the Democratic committee meeting.
“I was disappointed after I made my speech that so many elected officials had already made an endorsement,” Thomas said. “It seemed rather closed off, almost. I didn’t realize this was happening.”
Thomas, 31, said he plans to represent county constituents he feels are not represented at all on the County Board: small businesses and the county’s largest demographic, 25-34 year olds.
“I have an understanding of what it’s like to buy a home in Arlington these days,” Thomas said; he bought a home in Nauck six months ago. “A lot of small business owners support me in doing this. They really want a voice, and I think that’s important.”
Thomas doesn’t have a stated position on the Columbia Pike streetcar or the Long Bridge Park Aquatics Center, but said that fiscal responsibility must be a priority in deciding on all issues. Thomas said he swims at the Wakefield High School pool, but questioned the size of the investment the county was making with the aquatics center.
“With the streetcar, I’m really waiting for the county to have real numbers,” he said. “I want to see companies come and give us real projections. Until that comes out, I don’t think it would be responsible to make a decision on it. When the information comes out, if it supports economic development like we all think it will, then fantastic. But we need to be responsible here.”
Thomas is concerned with many of the ways the current County Board has allocated its dollars, emphasizing his business experience to show that he could correct the Board’s policies and be, as he put it, “good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”
“In business, every dollar counts,” he said. “However you spend it, you need to make sure you get the bang for your buck out of it. I don’t believe that’s really looked at in the board. In fact, I know that’s not really looked at. I don’t think anybody wants to cut any programs, and neither do I, but we have to learn how to increase our revenue through growth. In order to spend money you have to bring money in.”
Photo courtesy Cord Thomas
Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
The Arlington County Board’s budget guidance for FY 2015 fails to provide appropriate guidance on important issues. The guidance was adopted after a flawed process. The guidance reflects a status quo mindset in an era crying out for a new direction.
The County Board needs a completely different, more open and more transparent process for adopting its annual budget guidance. Here is an example of a better process:
- publish a draft set of guidelines 60 days prior to the target date for final adoption;
- invite all citizens and citizens advisory groups and committees, like the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission, to comment in writing within 30 days of publication of the draft guidelines;
- post all such public comments on the County website;
- hold a public hearing on the draft guidelines and all written comments, then
- adopt final guidelines.
In significant part because of the flawed process the County Board followed, this year’s budget guidelines fail to provide appropriate guidance on important issues.
Here are some examples of important issues that are not adequately addressed, or not addressed at all, in this year’s guidelines:
- the seriousness and long-term nature of Arlington’s escalating office vacancy rate;
- the impact on Arlington’s residential tax payers of the long-term stagnation in the valuation of Arlington’s commercial tax base;
- the long-term declining share of Arlington’s operating budget dedicated to Arlington Public Schools even before enrollment increases are taken into account;
- the need to devote a higher share of Arlington’s operating budget to APS (even higher than historic levels) to account for surging enrollment;
- the need to introduce rigorous, unbiased cost/benefit tests to evaluate major capital projects like the Aquatics Center;
- the impact on the operating budget, and Arlington’s AAA/AAA credit rating, of the rising debt payments needed to finance the escalating cost of Arlington’s capital projects;
- the failure to impose adequate cost controls or caps on Arlington’s long-term commitment to affordable housing;
- the adverse impact of all of the foregoing trends on Arlington’s ability to fund basic social safety net services, and
- why all of the foregoing trends lead to the conclusion that Arlington needs to re-focus its budget to ensure that core government services are given priority for funding.
The County Board is treading water at a time when it needs to swim vigorously and resolutely in a better direction.
Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.
Three Vying for County Board Nod — Three candidates for the upcoming Arlington County Board special election kicked off their campaigns at last night’s Arlington County Democratic Committee meeting. Among them are Alan Howze, president of the Highland Park-Overlee Knolls Civic Association; Peter Fallon, former Planning Commission member; and Cord Thomas, who helped found Envirocab and Elevation Burger. All three will compete in a two-day Democratic caucus, to be held Jan. 30 and Feb. 1. [Sun Gazette, Washington Post]
Remembering the Ballston Skulls — Up until the 1940s, the Ballston Skulls, a semi-pro football team, played at Ballston Stadium, on the site of what’s now Ballston Common Mall. The Washington Redskins also conducted work outs from the facility. [Ghosts of DC]
Attorney General Recount to Start Dec. 16 — The recount process in the election of the Virginia Attorney General will take place from Dec. 16-19. Currently, Democrat Mark Herring has a 165 vote lead over Republican Mark Obenshain. [WJLA]
Flickr pool photo by @ddimick
Along with discussing recommendations for the Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 budget, the County Board closed out the FY 2013 budget at its meeting on Tuesday. As it turns out, the county was left with a $25 million budget surplus.
The surplus is due, in part, to savings by both the county and the school system, in addition to higher than anticipated tax revenues. Many of the funds will be re-appropriated to FY 2014.
County Manager Barbara Donnellan gave a presentation to the Board outlining the carried-over funds and recommendations for re-appropriation, noting that several of the funds have dedicated revenue sources which restrict their use.
“With all of the economic uncertainty, the federal government shutdown, sequestration and BRAC, Arlington continues to be fiscally responsible,” said Donnellan. “I am recommending that we add to certain pots to ensure that we are prepared for an uncertain economic environment.”
She added that the county anticipates keeping its triple-A rating.
Carried-over funds were allocated to reserves, previous commitments, and priority projects. Some of the one-time allocations are detailed below:
- Additional $5 million to the economic stabilization fund in light of federal sequestration and BRAC impacts.
- One-time $3.3 million employee compensation contingency, in case employee step/market pay adjustment is not included in the FY 2015 Budget. Another $1.5 million to fund ongoing comparative pay studies.
- Affordable housing initiatives for FY 2015, including $2.9 million to Affordable Housing Investment Fund and $1.5 million to housing grants.
- Additional funding of $1.7 million for Artisphere, for both FY2014 and FY2015.
- Other FY 2015 set-asides, including a $3.0 million unallocated contingent to provide flexibility for the Board and funding various one-time projects primarily in the technology, planning and safety areas.
Donnellan specifically addressed the issue of what to do with Artisphere, which came in over budget for FY 2013. Donnellan had handed down a warning about Artisphere in February but seemed more optimistic on Tuesday.
“This is a facility that came online just as the economic environment was turning. For the arts to be successful, it needs participation from attendees, donors and local or state support. Very few arts facilities like Artisphere can exist without some form of government support,” Donnellan said. “I want the Artisphere to be successful, and I think many others in our community want it to be successful as well.
Donnellan recapped her previous decision to shift half of Artisphere’s funding from ongoing to one-time. She then made a recommendation for the future, highlighting the arts center’s recent increased attendance, better programming and increased revenue from rentals.
“I’m recommending that we use some of the closeout funding to shore up this facility for this fiscal year and next. I told the Board that FY 2014 would be a transition year for Artisphere,” she said. “We’re beginning to see real signs of progress toward our goal of creating an arts and cultural center that will draw thousands of people from our county and across the region into Rosslyn, generating economic and cultural benefits for our entire community.”
Last fall, Donnellan imposed a hiring slowdown to provide expense savings in light of the budget gap faced in FY 2014. The county credits the hiring slowdown with helping departments achieve a higher amount of savings than in previous fiscal years. The slowdown is expected to continue indefinitely in order to achieve savings in FY 2014.
According to the county staff report, three departments did not achieve expenditure savings in FY 2013:
- County Attorney’s Office (-$485,626): The over expenditure was primarily the result of increased legal costs and expenses including consultants, expert witnesses, filing fees, court reporters, copying costs and outside legal counsel related to law suits and other transactions the County was involved in during FY 2013.
- Office of the Treasurer (-$146,731): The over expenditure was due to increased printing expenses and full staffing, which did not enable the Office to achieve a budgeted expense that assumed savings from vacant positions.
- Economic Development (-$83,647): The over-expenditure resulted from personnel costs exceeding budgeted amounts, including temporary help for Artisphere
After Donnellan’s presentation, the Board voted unanimously to approve the recommended re-appropriation of funds carried over from FY 2013.
The Right Note is a weekly opinion column published on Thursdays. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
According to the report accompanying the County Board’s agenda, tax revenue once again came in well ahead of predictions, by $27.9 million. The largest contributor to the surplus was real estate revenues, to the tune of $15.3 million. In percentage terms, real estate tax revenues ran 2.6% ahead of budgeted amounts.
In April, the County Board passed a 3.6 percent real estate tax increase. To justify it, the County Manager and the County Board cited a FY 2014 budget “shortfall.”
As it turns out for the 2013 fiscal year, and virtually every fiscal year in recent memory, the county underestimated the revenues that would be generated by the tax rate. Even if you agree with all of the spending priorities passed by the County Board in its annual budget, the surplus suggests your real estate taxes alone could have been 2 percent lower. And just as in previous years, the $27.9 million underestimation of all revenues was enough to actually lower your real estate tax rate even further.
The board also spends millions each year reclaimed from budget savings — adopting the federal government approach of “use it or lose it.” For FY 2013, the budget over-estimated the costs of government activities for the year by $25.3 million, but the money was still spent on other items. Among those items was $1.7 million in additional subsidies to the Artisphere, which was supposed to become self-sufficient by now.
In so doing, the board can say that they spent all that was budgeted in the prior fiscal year. This keeps the baseline of spending on an upward trajectory in order to help create another budget “shortfall” for FY 2015. You can find more information for next year’s budget in this report. County Manager Barbara Donnellan preliminarily estimates the “shortfall” will be $7.7 million. However, if you used this year’s actual surplus of excess revenues plus savings for comparison, that “shortfall” could actually become a $45.5 million surplus.
Granted, the county manager’s report also notes the schools could have up to $16 million in additional costs caused by higher enrollment. However, based on the consistent underestimation of revenue and over-estimation of costs, we can safely assume the FY 2015 revenues will more than cover school needs. And, it will still leave us with room to spare without necessitating another tax increase.
The board did give its budget guidance on Tuesday as well, and did not recommend a tax rate increase for next year. At the same time, your tax bill will still rise with your assessment by an average of $300 per homeowner. And, the Board regularly ignores its initial guidance.
Chairman Tejada’s comments that tax increases were still on the table in the budget process means the chances anyone on the board will propose the real estate rate cut the county could afford are somewhere south of slim-to-none. But, it is important to understand these numbers if the board comes to you in the spring and asks for another tax rate increase.
Mark Kelly is a former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.
The board voted unanimously to advertise for a public hearing before the Planning Commission Dec. 2 and the full board Dec. 14. The proposal would allow large media screens — colloquially known as “jumbotrons” – to be approved through the use permit or site plan process on buildings in mixed-use neighborhoods and in some parks.
Deborah Albert, an Arlington County planner, said the proposed ordinance, if passed, would prevent the screens to be used for commercial purposes.
“Staff has envisioned the screens could be used show public information, news, or in emergencies,” Albert told ARLnow.com. “The intent is really to enable the opportunities to consider another such sign, but not necessarily to encourage them to proliferate, so we’ve crafted careful standards to allow them in certain places but not to allow and over-proliferation.”
County staff recommends that the “jumbotrons” be limited to heights below 40 feet, screen sizes of less than 750 square feet and to take into consideration surrounding residences. They would only be allowed, through special exception, within a quarter mile of transit stations and in so-called public service districts, like Long Bridge Park.
Board Member Mary Hynes suggested the screens could be used much like they are at stadiums at ballfields: next to the scoreboard, showing a simultaneous broadcast of the game for the benefit of spectators in a crowd.
The WJLA screen is the only large media screen in the county, and all other screens are currently prohibited by county sign regulations. Albert said the conversation over “jumbotrons” arose during community meetings when the county updated the sign regulations last year.
At its meeting on Tuesday, the Arlington County Board gave direction to County Manager Barbara Donnellan for developing the proposed Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 budget. The Board recommended the County Manager close a projected $20 to $25 million budget gap while maintaining the current tax rates.
Although this is the sixth consecutive year the county expects a gap between revenues and expenditures, Board members note the gap for FY 2015 is not as severe as in recent years. It’s smaller partially due to higher tax revenue projections — mostly from an increase in residential property assessments — but a significant gap still exists.
“It’s not something to ignore,” said Board member Chris Zimmerman. “There may be tough choices that have to be made.”
An average increase of 5.5 percent for residential real estate assessments is expected to boost the overall real estate tax base 2.6 percent. Commercial assessments are expected to remain flat or decline slightly. Real estate taxes are the county’s largest source of revenue.
Board members recommended Donnellan does not increase the tax rate, which currently stands at $1.006 per $100 of assessed value.
“I for one, could not give guidance to the manager today to raise the tax rate, knowing that we project an increase in real estate on homeowners and not on commercial,” say Board member Jay Fisette. “With all of the issues out there that we will have to grapple with, now is not the time to do that, in my view.”
The Board requested continued funding for services that protect residents’ health and safety, investments in affordable housing and environmental sustainability, and adequate support for public schools. That includes funding for an expected increase in school enrollment. Board members spent much time discussing the need to maintain school funding.
Costs are expected to increase for items such as county employee compensation, funding for Metro and debt financing for major capital projects. New costs are expected for projects such as the new homeless shelter, the Long Bridge Park aquatics center and investments in the ConnectArlington fiber network.
The Board members repeatedly pointed out that this is simply an initial recommendation and more input is necessary before Donnellan presents the proposed budget in February.
“This is the very beginning of the budget process,” said County Board Chairman Walter Tejada. “There’s a whole lot more information and data that we will be getting over the next few months.”
Board members acknowledged the potential to discuss additional cuts should the economic climate worsen. Measures could mimic Donnellan’s previous cost cutting measures, such as the county hiring slowdown that began in 2012.
“Our guidance to the Manager begins a months-long conversation with our community that will involve tough decisions,” Tejada said in a subsequent statement. “With the increase in residential property assessments costing many homeowners close to $300 more per year, we have directed the County Manager to assume no tax rate increase; however, we recognize that this is a time of continued financial uncertainty. If the economic environment changes, we expect the Manager to give us options that may include further budget cuts and/or revenue increases.”
The Board approved the guidance by a 4-1 vote, with Libby Garvey offering the opposing vote.
Arlington Economic Development organizes the contest and residents vote for their favorite businesses in each category. The winners were announced at this afternoon’s County Board meeting. This year’s winners are:
- Best Bargain Restaurant — Lost Dog Cafe
- Best Boutique — Trade Roots
- Best Brunch Spot — Liberty Tavern
- Best Coffee Shop — Northside Social
- Best Cultural Group or Venue — Signature Theater
- Best Customer Service — Arlington Public Library
- Best Dessert — Pastries by Randolph
- Best Family Friendly Spot — Arlington Public Library
- Best Fine Dining — Ray’s the Steaks
- Best Gym/Fitness Center — Thomas Jefferson Community Center
- Best Happy Hour — Westover Beer Garden & Haus
- Best New Business — Trade Roots
- Best Outdoor Dining — Westover Beer Garden & Haus
- Best Pet Friendly Business — Dogma Bakery
- Best Pizza Place — Pupatella
- Best Salon/Spa — Smitten Boutique Salon
County Board Chairman Walter Tejada offered the reminder that the best way to support these and other Arlington businesses is to shop locally, especially during Arlington Small Business Day on Saturday, November 30.
Arlington’s projected budget gap for Fiscal Year 2015 is between $20 and $25 million, the county manager’s financial forecast shows.
County revenues are expected to increase 2.6 percent to $1.093 billion, thanks largely to higher residential real estate assessments. Residential real estate tax revenue is expected to increase 5.6 percent, while commercial real estate revenue is expected to stay the same or slightly decrease, due to weakness in the office market.
Expenses, meanwhile, are expected to increase, thanks to pay raises for some of the county’s 3,344 full-time employees, a rise in the county’s payment to Metro, and costs associated with new facilities like the year-round homeless shelter and the Long Bridge Park aquatics center.
Total county expenses are projected at $675.6 million, and that assumes cutting the county’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund and pay-as-you-go project financing in half, due to the removal of one-time funds. The county government will face a $7.7 million revenue/expenditure gap.
Arlington Public Schools, meanwhile, will see its budget transfer from the county rise 3 percent to $425 million. Still, the school system is expected to face a $16 million budget gap due to a rise in enrollment.
County staff caution that the figures are still preliminary at this point. FY 2015 doesn’t begin until July 1, 2014.
“Current projections rely on incomplete revenue data and preliminary cost estimates,” staff wrote. “Projections will change as more data becomes available and further analysis is completed. Cost estimates could increase and revenue projections could decrease, exacerbating the problem, or estimates could also improve.”
County Manager Barbara Donnellan will present her budget projections to the County Board at its meeting tonight (Tuesday). The Board, in turn, will provide budget guidance to the manager and her staff.
The Sun Gazette reports that “several dozen” supporters of the Foreign Language in Elementary School (FLES) program showed up for the public comment period of Saturday’s Board meeting. They asked the Board to find a way to work with Arlington Public Schools and the School Board to expand FLES to the 9 schools that currently don’t have the program.
Meanwhile, a group called FLES For All released an open letter to county and school leaders over the weekend. The group, which claims 25-30 active members “who work weekly to educate and advocate on this issue,” blasted “educational inequity” in Arlington and called on the County Board to provide a greater share of tax revenue.
The full letter, after the jump.
Image via FLES For All
The Arlington County Board unanimously approved the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City’s request to expand and offer outdoor restaurant seating at its meeting on Saturday.
The mall, owned by Simon Property Group, will add 51,000 square feet along S. Hayes Street — two stories with space for 5-7 retail tenants whose entrances would be on the street.
The expansion will be built on the east façade of the mall, adjacent to the entrance to the Pentagon City Metro Station. As part of the construction, the mall is expected to make pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements along S. Hayes Street, Army Navy Drive and 15th Street.
“This expansion plan for one of the region’s most popular malls fits perfectly with the County’s goal of making Pentagon City a more lively, walkable area,” County Board Chairman Walter Tejada said in a press release. “Bringing new shops and restaurants to S. Hayes Street will be good for the mall and good for the neighborhood.”
Image via Arlington County
The Latitude Apartments will be a 12-story apartment building with 265 residential units and 262 underground parking spaces, on the 3600 block of Fairfax Drive. It will feature a 2,800 square foot “cultural and educational space,” 3,100 square feet of retail space, a public plaza and pedestrian walkway, outdoor seating and a water feature.
Other community benefits include LEED Gold sustainability certification, 14 committed affordable units, a $75,000 public art contribution and funding of utility and transportation improvements.
The project received mixed feedback during the public comment period, with some residents speaking out for it and some against it. Those who opposed it said an office building, not an apartment building, should be built on the site, in keeping with the county’s original land use vision set forth in the 2002 Virginia Square Sector Plan.
Many on the opposition side were residents of nearby condominium buildings, who wore matching badges expressing their opposition. Concerns included added noise, traffic and pedestrian congestion, crowding at the Virginia Square Metro station, visitors parking in residential neighborhoods and other “quality of life issues.”
“My view is that an office building would be the better use,” said resident Anita Wallgren. “I live across the street. By taking action today in a decisive way to deny the applications, you would affirm the sector plan and improve the integrity of the county’s planning process.”
Those supporting the project said the developer, Penrose Group, has been responsive to residents. The development, supporters said, will be a net positive for the neighborhood.
“I love the design of the project from the renderings I’ve seen,” said Judd Ryan, a member of the Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association. ”Throughout this process I’ve struggled to understand the opposition to this project. The [office] vacancy rate is the highest I’ve seen since living in this market. No developer would build office here without a significant pre-lease.”
County staff spent time refuting claims that the apartment building will have a significant impact on crowding at the Virginia Square station. The station is one of the most under-utilized stations in Arlington, staff said, and the new building will only add about one additional passenger per inbound train during the morning rush hour. In keeping with rates seen at similar apartment buildings, about half of residents will end up driving to work, staff estimated.
The Arlington transportation and planning commissions sided with those opposed to the project, recommending against changing zoning for the site. The Arlington Chamber of Commerce weighed in with a letter, supporting the project and the principals of transit-oriented development. In the end, the Board voted 3-2 for the project, with Chris Zimmerman and Mary Hynes casting the dissenting votes.
Zimmerman said the project is attractive on its own, but that’s not justification enough for “throwing overboard a sector plan.”
“Do we disregard long-term plans because of the appeal of an individual project?” he asked. “That for me is the fundamental problem.”
Jay Fisette stated that he doesn’t “want to send a message that the sector plan isn’t important,” but said the county may have to reexamine its expectations for commercial office development given the current high vacancy rate and market changes like the Silver Line to Tysons and the increasing number of employees who work from home or in co-working environments.
“Conditions in the market are changing,” Fisette said. “Adjustments might be necessary in sector plans.”
Libby Garvey said a sector plan is a guiding document but isn’t dogma.
“The plan is a tool but it’s not something that tells us absolutely what to do,” she said. “Otherwise you wouldn’t need a [County] Board.”
Garvey dismissed concerns about noise — “I assume the people in that building are not going to make any more noise than you all in your building” she said — and crowding at the Virginia Square station — “one of the least-used Metro sites.” She said adding additional housing in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor will help keep housing costs down.
“One of the reasons housing is so expensive here is because there’s not enough of it, there’s unmet demand,” she said.