Progressive Voice: Spreading “Gentle” Density Across Arlington Benefits Everyone 

Progressive Voice is a bi-weekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

By Josh Kaplowitz

This middle-aged corporate lawyer, with a family of five and a recently renovated single-family home deep in suburban Arlington, is here to tell you that my neighborhood — and probably yours — needs more housing and density.

This issue landed at our doorstep recently when Arlington County presented scenarios that might allow roughly 5-to-7 story mixed-use development along my stretch of Lee Highway (which is likely to soon be renamed the more friendly Langston Boulevard) and smaller multi-family dwellings, including duplexes, triplexes, and townhouses, on the surrounding blocks.

I believe it will make my street just off Lee Highway — and all of the County — a better place to live. And I call on my friends and neighbors to consider what we would gain from spreading gentle density across the county, and what we would lose if we acquiesced to the status quo.

Change can be daunting, especially when it affects your home. And I know folks have concerns about the impacts of increased density on parking, traffic, schools, and noise. But in a growing region like ours, change is a constant. We can either decide to manage the change, or we can allow it to overwhelm us in unwanted ways. The Lee Highway Plan and the Missing Middle Housing Study are both examples of how we can thoughtfully manage the change and growth that is already coming to Arlington, while being welcoming to a range of newcomers.

A thoughtful increase in density will benefit our neighborhood in myriad ways. A lively, walkable commercial district would replace the auto-oriented mix of strip malls, parking lots, and gas stations that has remained mostly unchanged since the 1950s.

In exchange for allowing taller buildings, the County can require developers to include public green space, green roofs, and other stormwater mitigations that will mitigate the climate-fueled floods that increasingly inundate the surrounding neighborhoods. More density results in more people, and as density increases, the likelihood of using public transit increases, supporting the case for more rapid bus service along Lee Highway and other corridors. Such amenities could be attractive to an increasingly climate-conscious generation who will — ahem — buy our houses when we age out of them.

A more diverse housing mix, which could include dedicated affordable units, could make our neighborhood and schools, and those across the county, more inclusive, as people of varying incomes might be able to afford to live here — including teachers, police officers, firefighters and small business owners who serve our community. In so doing, we can also begin to undo Arlington’s racist legacy of exclusionary land use policies. And diverse housing options allow more older adults to right-size and age in place.

New market-rate apartments, condos, townhomes, triplexes, and duplexes could still be relatively expensive. Yet maintaining the status quo, where 73% of the residential land in the county is zoned for single-family, is almost guaranteed to result in extremely expensive housing. Arlington is desirable, and its original modest housing stock is quickly being swapped for enormous 6+ bedroom homes that sell for more than $2 million. If we fail to allow more diverse housing, most of Arlington will likely become an enclave for the uber-wealthy.

The victims of inaction include the thousands who could be shut out of a vibrant community and its thousands of jobs. They likely would have to live farther out, commute long distances, creating a much higher carbon footprint. Those of us who already live here will also pay a price. Research consistently shows that single-family zoning costs raises costs for everything, largely due to the need to pay higher wages just to retain people for local service jobs.

Finally, multi-family development is simply more fiscally efficient than single-family housing, with fewer miles of roads and utilities to maintain per taxpayer and more residents to support commercial development, which is historically about 30% of the county’s tax base.

We should reject the notion that increased density is a zero-sum equation pitting current residents against the unknown “other.” Rather, it’s a win/win that helps the “haves” and those who want in. So take action to support gentle density in Arlington by commenting on the Lee Highway Plan Scenarios by June 20, supporting the Missing Middle Housing Study, and telling our County Board members to enact changes to our land use plans and zoning codes to carefully and kindly welcome more neighbors to Arlington.

Josh Kaplowitz is an attorney who has lived in the Westover neighborhood for 11 years.