Arlington, VA

Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Any time Arlington County gets access to land within our 26 square miles is a cause for celebration. It also requires a firm commitment to make the best possible use of this extremely limited and valuable resource.

On December 14, the County Board may vote to acquire the benefit of a new piece of property just blocks from the Crystal City Metro Station. We need to make sure this opportunity isn’t undone by the cry for parking.

South Arlington’s Crystal House apartment complex, comprised of two 1960s-era high-rise buildings, is slated for infill development. The site plan will be on the County Board’s December 14 agenda.

The staff recommendation contains what Planning Commissioners called a “once in a lifetime opportunity” for achieving the Crystal City Zoning Ordinance’s affordable housing obligation. Instead of providing 47 units of committed affordable housing within the complex, Roseland is offering to convey one portion of their property, currently a surface parking lot, to the County. The understanding is that the County could develop this property with at least 81 units of committed affordable housing.

The benefits of this proposal are enticing.

First, by owning the land and working with an Affordable Housing developer, the County Board could create units that would remain affordable to low-income residents for 60 years, unlike the typical 30-year term for on-site affordable units within market-rate developments. Second, the location of this parcel at 22nd and Eads would provide excellent transportation access for the building’s residents. Third, by owning and developing the property, the County could provide a much-needed community facility for the 22202 ZIP code, in addition to the committed affordable housing, such as we see at Arlington Mill.

But these positive benefits are future opportunities that will require a commitment to realize. The only thing Arlington would get in the short-term is a surface parking lot. And it is a particularly contested parking lot. Business owners from the adjacent “23rd Street Restaurant Row” see these 96 spaces as the key to their business.

Any effort to build on the parking lot will continue to face pushback from the merchants. Roseland is offering this parcel not only to achieve bonus density on their site, but also to get out of the parking fight. By accepting the land, Arlington County is stepping into a battle that could stymie any effort to achieve affordable housing.

Parking will be the central conflict as development moves throughout the county. In this particular case, the desire to create affordable housing comes into conflict with the goal of “protecting and preserving” a string of businesses that hold nostalgia for some members of the community. At the Planning Commission meeting on December 4, an Arlington staff member referred to the site goals to both “deliver housing and accommodate public parking.” The County could be pushed to build 200 parking spaces for the restaurants, at great expense that would cut into their ability to maximize the affordable housing and other community uses.

This conflict is the product of the County’s disjointed parking policy. At the same time Planning Commission members are signaling sympathy for the restaurant owners’ surface parking, they are strongly pushing back against Roseland for including 62 surface parking spaces on the site. The Crystal City Sector Plan calls “Restaurant Row” a “major community asset…that should be preserved or protected.” But if the businesses are indeed “small, neighborhood oriented retailers,” then they should rely on foot traffic rather than parking. As a nearby resident, I avoid this block not because scarce parking, but because of unwelcoming sidewalks and an unpleasant streetscape.

If the County votes to approve this plan as staff have recommended, we need assurances that they will work quickly to build the housing units that our neighborhood needs and not let the site become a publicly-subsidized parking lot.

Jane Fiegen Green, an Arlington resident since 2015, proudly rents an apartment in Pentagon City with her husband and son. By day, she is the Development Director for Greater Greater Washington and by night she tries to navigate the Arlington Way. Opinions here are her own.

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