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Progressive Voice: The Way Forward

Larry Roberts

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 their organization or ARLnow.com.

For decades, Arlington residents have enjoyed outstanding schools, parks, recreation facilities, libraries, public safety enhancements, transportation options, and a strong social safety net. All of these attractive features and others as well have been heavily subsidized by a strong commercial sector.

The strength of that commercial sector was due in part to: Arlington’s ideal location close to the nation’s capital and close access to the Pentagon; the buildup in federal spending over decades; and Arlington’s ability to attract and retain highly educated residents prized by employers.

We have also benefited from wise planning decisions and infrastructure investments that included, for example, multiple Metro stops that have become increasingly attractive to employers. We have managed to have a transportation system that helps people move around in Arlington and through Arlington while largely preserving single family neighborhoods.

For much of that period of time, Arlington’s ideal location and the educational achievement of its residents made Arlington largely immune from competition from other area jurisdictions.

Unfortunately, those days are gone.

Federal cutbacks are here to stay.

One need only see the dramatic transformations taking place in the District and in Tysons Corner to see how the public sector – working closely with the private sector – can attract commercial tenants, help increase revenues to support valued services without depending more heavily on homeowner taxes, and through planning and zoning measures help create more public space and better transportation options as part of those redevelopments.

Our residents are more critical of County spending and more sensitive to tax increases than has been true in the past 20 years. Yet many individual residents want the County to increase spending on items that matter most to them – for some that is schools, for others parks or open space, for others better pay for public safety personnel, for others it is added transit capacity, others want to ensure that housing is more affordable to young people, lower-wage workers, and those want to age in place. Others want more spending on services for mental health services. And others want expanded recreational facilities and community centers to meet growing demand.

Are we as County residents prepared to make difficult choices among these competing priorities? Will the answer be that services important to me should be maintained or enhanced, but spending important to others should be cut? Will housing prices continue to escalate and the tax rate be maintained? If so, there will be more revenues for the County government to provide services favored by residents. But it will also mean current cash flow challenges for many homeowners who won’t realize the profits from home price increases until they sell their homes.

The best answer in the past has been to rely on a thriving commercial sector to pay 50 cents of every dollar spent by the County.

That can still happen in Arlington, but only with a strong economic development effort and a dedicated effort to reduce commercial vacancy rates in the County.

Our commercial vacancy rate is somewhat deceptive. With a few exceptions, vacancies are concentrated in older buildings and those with fewer amenities or floor plans that require major adjustments to accommodate the needs of today’s workplace.

If we want to reduce those vacancies and leave more money available for school capacity and other priorities desired by Arlington residents, we will need Arlington’s economic development experts working closely and creatively with the private sector to identify the types of companies and actual prospects that can make use of Arlington’s existing inventory or we will need to find ways to encourage redevelopment of those dated or lower quality structures that are not likely to be successful in today’s marketplace.

Arlington is taking steps along this path. Those efforts should be encouraged. It is our best chance to keep services that residents strongly support and enhance our quality of life without adding to the burdens of homeowners.

Larry Roberts is an attorney in private practice. He chaired two successful statewide campaigns and served as Counselor to the Governor in Richmond. During his term as Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee, Democrats won every election in Arlington.

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