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Progressive Voice: The Community Conversation We Need

by Kathleen McSweeney October 16, 2014 at 12:00 pm 0

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Kathleen McSweeneyIn Arlington, we benefit from great schools, transportation options, unique neighborhoods, urban amenities, community centers, open space and recreational facilities. Many of us were drawn to Arlington because of these community assets.

They did not happen by accident, but from careful planning, wise investments and sound decisions less focused on the passions of the moment and based instead on longer-term thinking and a vision of positive changes to last a generation and more.

Having benefited from those investments and decisions, we now face a new set of generational choices needed to keep Arlington vibrant, diverse and livable.

Housing, schools, transportation, open space — all are inextricably linked. Arlington has lost 15,000 units of market rate affordable housing in the past decade, and with it many working families that helped build this community. Schools are over-crowded. Indications are that the Class of 2027, this year’s kindergarten class, will require more than an additional high school’s worth of seats. Arlington has several master plans — land use, transportation and open space — but not a master plan for new schools.

We need to seize this generational opportunity and have a broad-based conversation about how best to use and invest in public land in Arlington; how best to balance competing needs and functions; how best to accommodate the needs of schools, recreation, public safety, and affordable housing options for all incomes while protecting — and hopefully expanding — open space.

Fortunately, that discussion is starting to happen. I recently joined about 100 Arlington residents to provide comment on the County’s Affordable Housing Study — http://housing.arlingtonva.us/affordable-housing-study/. A key topic was the Public Land for Public Good site evaluation process that is open for public comment until Oct. 31.

Most participants wanted to explore solutions where park land is not lost, while recognizing the demand for community centers, health facilities, libraries, fire stations, parking lots, affordable housing and new schools.

I have also attended Working Group sessions considering whether an elementary school should be built on a portion of County-owned land abutting the Jefferson Middle School and Thomas Jefferson Community Center — http://projects.arlingtonva.us/plans-studies/land-use/thomas-jefferson-site-evaluation/tj-working-group/. This well-defined and run process has frustrated some because APS named TJ as the preferred elementary school site, seeming to preclude a conversation about whether other South Arlington sites projected to have the greatest population increases in the next 10-20 years.

My participation convinced me to urge a more comprehensive look at our needs and how best to address them from a land use perspective.

That is why I was pleased to see Alan Howze, Nancy Van Doren and Barbara Kanninen issue a joint press release calling for a “… broadly, inclusive community process to examine how best to use public land in Arlington to meet our community’s needs.”

They emphasized the responsibility to our children to provide a great education, to residents to protect and enhance neighborhoods, and to taxpayers to be frugal and make prudent investments.

We need to both be frugal and make investments. With student projections growing and our community’s desire to preserve open space and park land, some solutions will not come cheap. So we will need to look for efficiencies and shared functions as we consider new schools and other needed facilities. Yet, we cannot be penny wise and pound foolish as we consider the kind of County we want for this generation and the next.

Like Howze, Kanninen and Van Doren, I encourage Arlington residents to promote a broad public conversation by submitting comments on the Public Land for Public Good guidelines — http://projects.arlingtonva.us/plans-studies/land-use/public-land/.

Next, we should broaden the criteria for school siting to facilitate creative solutions and create more options such as Fairfax County recently converting an existing commercial building to a modern school.

I also encourage the County Manager to create a review board of residents representing each of the interest areas — schools, housing, open space, recreation, public safety and others — in a process more efficient than creating a new review group for each public parcel under discussion. This would allow for the consistent application of criteria and facilitate solutions that combine functions where appropriate without loss of open space and park land. Broad participation may be ensured by having seats at the table for potentially impacted neighborhoods.

Finally, I encourage our community leaders to heed the call for a more integrated and comprehensive process. The future of our community depends on it.

Kathleen McSweeney has been involved in affordable housing and schools issues for a number of years. She is the past chair of the Arlington County Housing Commission and former president of the Thomas Jefferson Middle School PTA. Kathleen has lived in Arlington with her family since 1989.

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