Arlington, VA

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

On September 15, The Arlington County Board approved a $3.8 million contract to design an ART operations and maintenance facility. Initially part of the Board’s non-public-comment consent agenda, this contract and its accompanying staff report had a lot to hide.

Background

The County purchased 2631 and 2635 Shirlington Road in 2018 for $24M with plans to use the space for a public facility. The 2018 Four Mile Run Valley (4MRV) Area Plan recommended the space optimize density (up to 120′) due to its strategic location adjacent to I-395.

Also, in 2018, the Board adopted a new community engagement strategy to integrate better public insights into community projects thus achieving better outcomes and controlling costs associated with late-in-plan changes.

The Green Valley Civic Association (GVCA) has repeatedly taken the County to task for its lack of community engagement, communication and resource allocation. During the 4MRV planning process, residents of this area offered comments like these to ARLnow.com: “[T]he county’s “engagement process was lousy from the beginning.” “[T]he county has indeed held plenty of meetings, it’s the quality of those meetings that [are a] concern.” In a June 2020 letter to the editor of the Sun-Gazette, GVCA leaders concluded: “It is no longer acceptable for the County to say “we’ll try to do better” or we’re “for equity.” [I]t’s past time to prove it.”

Community engagement

This new ART facility proposal designates public engagement at the county’s “involve” level, yet the county’s transportation department actions to date have fallen short on public engagement for this project. At the September 15 Board meeting, Chair Libby Garvey disparaged resident engagement thereby underscoring the county’s disdain for what the community brings to the planning process. Garvey apparently forgot that only two years ago she had proclaimed: “We need always to work to build trust that we are listening to our residents.”

Arlington County has been lauded in many surveys as having one of the most highly educated group of residents. Yet, this ART facility project demotes public input to just the “aesthetic elements.” Sadly, the county isn’t taking into consideration that community members may have better, and perhaps more strategic and innovative, ideas than the county about the use of scarce space.

The Board’s vote to hire an architect for $3.8M to prepare a concept plan with insufficient public consultation is likely to increase the costs of an already expensive project. The county now can reject any suggestions for improvements to the design due to the timing and cost to make changes.

Disregarding community comments

At both a September 14 GVCA meeting and the next day’s Board meeting, community public comments highlighted the inadequate engagement process and the unoptimized use of the parcels, traffic implications, stormwater planning, colocation options, and the siting of a four-story county parking garage on Shirlington Road, despite these being addressed differently in the 4MRV plan.

The Board’s questions to staff were trite and dismissive of public commenters’ concerns. There was no commitment to thinking outside the box or optimizing the site. For example, infrastructure of this new ART facility could be fitted for electric vehicles and onsite solar electricity generation, but the county isn’t slated to review electric vehicles until 2022.

Staff tried to rationalize its planning, claiming that the architects have to start immediately and the community will have opportunities to provide feedback, but only on the “perimeter treatment.” What the staff and County Board failed to address were the core, substantive concerns of Arlington residents that the primary conceptualization of the use of the property is too limited and short-sighted.

Conclusion

The Arlington County Board previously approved a community engagement plan and a 4MRV Area Plan. Arlington residents bring talent and insights that transcend the silos and bureaucracy of the Arlington county government. Staff has stated repeatedly that they intend to “bring [the community] along,” but this reasonably can be interpreted as rubber stamping staff’s plan. It’s time for the Board and staff to follow through on their prior commitments and plans, and leverage the talent of our community to think outside the box to maximize our overextended 26 square miles.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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