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What’s Next: Infrastructure Based Growth

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

There is somewhat of a false dichotomy in our community right now about growth. Are you pro-growth or not?

Plainly, an economy does not succeed without growth. It is my belief, too, that for long-run economic success and stability, growth must be built on sustainable infrastructure.

I would define infrastructure as anything that we issue a bond for. In the past decade that has included schools, transportation, parks, and miscellaneous for projects such as fire stations; in years prior it has also included utilities and government buildings. Bonds theoretically support assets that last ten years or longer.

TLDR: We need growth to provide housing and office space for our growing economy. This does not preclude us from proactively planning for that implication on our schools, parks, transportation, utilities and basic infrastructure needs.

How Do We Track Growth Impacts

I asked the County Board what steps are in the site plan review process for new development to measure the impact on infrastructure.

Christian Dorsey gave a nod to a useful tool, the quarterly development tracker, that shows every development by sector, units, and square foot.

Matt de Ferranti noted that in the site plan review process there is an accounting for estimated number of seats added to designated school districts from new housing development. In my research there is also typically a requirement for a developer to create a Transportation Management Plan that includes items such ongoing payments to Arlington County Commuter Services and loaded SmarTrip cards for new tenants.

All of this is intended to help various departments plan for the future. Unfortunately that information from the site plan review process is not included in the development tracker and doesn’t include future planning outside of schools.

There was an acknowledgement that we do not measure the long term fiscal impacts of development like other Northern Virginia jurisdictions, but that “smart growth” studies support the notion that we will receive net positive benefits.

To understand that process between the planning and budget departments, I asked the county’s Budget Director about the communication between their offices. He indicated that beginning this year they had more frequent and informal discussions about what projects are in the pipeline and how it would impact revenues. There was not a mention of how it would impact infrastructure or future expenditures.

 Growth Impact Varies

Growth’s impact on Arlington varies by development type. This seems to not be acknowledged in current planning processes.

For example, apartment buildings are taxed as commercial buildings, not residential buildings. How we assess taxes on commercial and residential buildings are different and the fact that over half of residential units in Arlington are rented means that the distinction of if a development is going to be condos or rentals has an impact.

Single family homes statistically produce more children than apartments. Urban areas have less green space and more people (and dogs that need to do some business). Significant multi-unit projects being built on a non-Metro corridors like Lee Highway or Columbia Pike would impact ART bus route planning and should change our capital project asks to WMATA.

There is no coordinated, public-facing, way currently that we look at these impacts.

It is my belief that we do need to build more to achieve stability in housing prices. It is also my, and I will emphasize this — theory — that market rate affordability is generally achieved by a building just getting old. The more units we have, the more of a chance that we will have some aging housing supply coming in the future. I will expand on this hopefully more fully in another piece.

What Can We Do to Plan

County Board (Members Garvey, Gutshall, Cristol, Dorsey, de Ferranti):

  • Create a system to quantify the infrastructure impact of every type of development and add this information to the site plan review process and quarterly development report.
  • Have a coordinated relationship between the planning and budget departments on both revenues and expenditure implications of development.

Legislature (Senators Ebbin, Favola, Howell, Delegates Hope, Levine, Lopez, and Sullivan),

  • Legislatively reform the 2016 Proffer Bill that tied Arlington County’s hands in their ability to have discussions or negotiations with developers on the fiscal impacts of development.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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