Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.
By: Nicole Merlene
For decades, Arlington has been at the forefront of community planning and development trends in the D.C. metro region, leading to significant economic successes.
For example, we advocated for and helped finance an underground Metro system along the Wilson Boulevard corridor that spurred development in areas like Ballston, once known primarily for car dealerships, and Rosslyn, which had problems with gang crime – turning them into leading neighborhoods in the County.
ART was created in 1998 to provide intra-County transit and affordable access to Metro hubs. After these milestones, we still have important work to do to achieve new heights as a leader in regional economic vitality.
To do so, Arlington should be more proactive in our approach to build on the successes we have created and move forward successfully. We are in need of honest self-reflection about our role and place in the DMV.
First, we should exercise greater leadership roles in regional planning discussions. A more active and consistent role by Arlington representatives with these stakeholder groups is essential to both our County and regional economic development goals. Too often we are presented with options rather than formulating and presenting them.
Second, with Arlington’s physical size restrictions, a commercial vacancy rate near 20%, a population considered fully employed, and housing prices that have been skyrocketing for decades, it is imperative that we provide a state of the art transitive community to move people as easily as possible into and out of Arlington to entice major employers to move here.
Commercial real estate taxes provide almost half of Arlington’s revenue, so we should be creative in finding ways, including net positive incentives and expenditures, to lower the commercial vacancy rate. Greater and more sustainable economic development will increase the county’s resources and the community benefits that we enjoy in Arlington.
Third, we need a widely-known and available “economic development toolbox” for developers, employers, and other community stakeholders to access and easily understand incentives for doing business in Arlington.
Our highly-educated population has been a potent tool in driving development to date, but there are programs at the local, state, and federal level that have been underutilized. At the federal level, programs such as New Market Tax Credits incentivize new development in areas that include census tracts surrounding areas like Ballston and Crystal City. On the state level, many programs remain largely untapped.
With a fully integrated economic development toolkit, we can maximize the accessibility and impact to our community.
If we are not proactive and innovative we won’t merely stay the way we are, we will lose out to competing localities that are more active in pursuing major employers aggressively – including federal agencies.
Other major cities have taken on and successfully contracted creative solutions for economic development incentives. New York City, for example, has taken on a $20 billion initiative for 2025 — OneNYC — to improve infrastructure, environmental, and social service assets across the city. They are relying on public-private-partnerships with private capital firms that invest in infrastructure and finding other creative financing solutions that benefit the both residents and business interests.
Various West Coast cities are developing plans with Uber to create large scale ride-sharing that is affordable for their respective metro regions.
At the same time, we should not only be looking at new possibilities, but also maximizing existing assets – ensuring that ART bus routes are highly efficient, Metro is properly maintained, and we are also taking seriously other infrastructure priorities such as the Arlington Memorial Bridge. We cannot merely wait for the federal government when faced with systemic failures.
There is little progressives and conservatives can agree on these days, but if Senator Schumer and President Trump are serious about getting an infrastructure deal done then our Congressional delegation needs to be sure it works for Arlington. In the same vein, Arlington needs to be ready to assert viable infrastructure options in anticipation of an infrastructure deal that may well be on the table.
To assure that we are heavily engaged in discussions on all levels, we also need to forge consensus within our County. Of course no solution pleases everyone – especially without consideration of multiple options guided by proactive initiatives for receiving community feedback.
In addition to our County Commissions, we should be attentive to conversations in forums such as the Civic Federation, various Business Improvement Districts, and more. Proactive and innovative idea communities can also serve as a great way to get more people more fully engaged.
Nicole Merlene is a member of the Board of Directors of the Arlington Young Democrats and the North Rosslyn Civic Association. She is Associate Director of Public Policy for Invest in the USA.