What’s Next: Consider Schools in Development Planning

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

This Sunday is the last day to provide feedback on “Plan Lee Highway“, a multi-year planning process for the corridor that has now produced specific proposals for development levels, street improvements, stormwater impact, and other significant changes.

My biggest piece of feedback on Plan Lee Highway and every ongoing area and sector plan is the lack of consideration for our schools. We should be including school generation factors in our area and sector planning process.

Plan Lee Highway is one of three ongoing planning processes for entire areas of our county in addition to Pentagon City Planning and the Clarendon Sector Plan. For background, I am currently serving on Pentagon City Planning which has allowed me to dig into the “why” of this situation.

Background on Student Generation Factors

An average generation factor is available in the annual Arlington Profile and school facilities staff can further refine that generation factor based on neighborhood. For example, an apartment building in Crystal City will generally produce slightly more children than an apartment building in Rosslyn.

On average, a market rate apartment with an elevator produces .066 students per unit whereas a single family detached home produces .489 students. This means single family homes generally produce 7.5 times more than one apartment building unit.

In terms of Plan Lee Highway, I will use two examples of how these factors impact the planning process:

  • If we consolidate 10 single family homes into one 5-7 story elevator apartment building that has ten units per floor we would reduce our students generated from 4.98 students from the single family homes in that area to 3.3 – 4.62 students from the new apartment building. This is an example from Area 3 at the north east intersection of Lee Highway and Old Dominion.
  • If we transform a zero population shopping center into two 7 story elevator apartment buildings with 10 units per floor, we increase the number of students in that area from 0 to 9.24 students. This is an example from Area 2 in the south east corner of Lee Highway and George Mason.

While each example either increases or decreases expected school seat generation, it is at least a known quantity. We have the data to produce a seat generation factor and the Planning Department should be able to ballpark the estimated number of units we can expect in these study areas over the next few decades.

Contemplating Schools in Area/Sector Plans Rather Than a Building by Building in the Site Plan Review Process

We are reviewing school impact too late in the planning process.

Right now, we determine the school seat impact each time a new construction project is brought to the Site Plan Review Commission. That means that those new anticipated seats will be brought on in a year or two. As a result, we have a seemingly biannual fire drill about how to shift kids around to accommodate changing enrollment projections.

If we contemplate changes to school seats in the area/sector plan process, we can anticipate the number of seats added decades in advance instead of our usual fire drill situation.

This is also important for the reservation of limited public facilities and open space. In a 2019 memo county manager Schwartz identified a number of potential new school sites which is a useful tool to use in these area/sector planning processes.

In the chance that we do not have the land availability in the future for new schools, we also need to know that. Will we need to develop a fund for land acquisition? When? These are the types of answers we would only know with this long-range perspective found in area and sector planning.

Precedent for an Imperfect Estimation for Infrastructure Impact

We already have estimated infrastructure impact equations in the Comprehensive Planning process as it relates to transportation. In my capacity on the Pentagon City Planning group we had 2-3 meetings on the “level of service” calculation for roads/public transportation and almost an entire meeting for bike infrastructure level of service. All of these projections are important infrastructure considerations, but also produce an imperfect result that we can generally accept.

With schools constituting almost half of our operational budget and a significant amount of our capital improvement plan’s bonding, it seems negligent to not include these calculations in the same way we calculate other infrastructure impact in our comprehensive plan.


My opinion is not against increased density around major transportation corridors such as Metro and state highways like Lee Highway. Encouraging growth along corridors with accessible public transportation and lower commuting times is better for the environment and a diversity of housing supply will help create varying housing costs (see page 5 in the Arlington Profile 2021 for varying housing type costs).

I would find it hypocritical though to advocate for this added density without also advocating for sufficiently planned infrastructure to support that added density, and encourage us to incorporate schools in our comprehensive planning.

Nicole Merlene grew up in Arlington County and has been a civic leader in both policy and political arenas. She has been an Economic Development and Tenant-Landlord Commissioner; Community Development Citizens Advisory Committee, Pentagon City Planning Study, Rosslyn Transportation Study, and Vision Zero member; Arlington County Civic Federation and Rosslyn Civic Association Board Member. In 2019 she sought the Democratic nomination for the 31st District of the Virginia State Senate. Professionally Nicole is an Economic Development Specialist where she works to attract businesses to the region. She lives in an apartment with her dog Riley and enjoys running and painting.