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

On Nov. 16, County planning staff briefed the County Board on Phase I of the Missing Middle Housing Study.

Prior to the pandemic, County planners asserted that up-zoning to enable new Missing Middle (“MM”) housing would be a major contributor to ease Arlington’s affordable housing crisis.

But by the time Phase I was launched, the County had been forced by cascades of data to abandon this false claim.

Misappropriating the language of civil rights advocates, County planners’ latest rationale is that up-zoning to enable MM housing is necessary to provide diversity of building types in certain neighborhoods, noting for example that each of two new $900,000 duplexes is more “affordable” than a $1.6M single-family house that might otherwise occupy the same lot.

As a leader of Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future (ASF), I reject the notion that County planners’ preferences for more luxury buildings in certain neighborhoods deserves much weight compared to the preferences of the residents who live there now.

Prominent Arlington activist Suzanne Smith Sundburg points out that if more density were the key to affordable housing, more densely populated places like New York City would be more affordable than Arlington.

Arlington lacks adequate infrastructure and environmental plans for its current zoning

Arlington forecasts a total population of 301,200 in 2045 compared to 234,200 residents in 2021. These additional 67,000 residents are coming to Arlington under current zoning. Can Arlington’s infrastructure and environment sustain them?

For starters, where, exactly, are we going to put the new school facilities that will be required? In November 2019, the County Manager sent a letter to the acting APS superintendent offering County properties — including parks — to be turned into school properties. But those same parks are needed to support the park and recreational needs of these new residents. The Manager’s awkward overture reveals that the County has not planned adequately for either additional school capacity or additional parks.

Moreover, we regularly see water and sewage pipeline breaks in our old systems. Infrastructure problems are acute in many other areas, including flooding, power failures, building integrity, tree maintenance and protection, bridges and competition for parking spaces as population increases.

The County and APS have failed to adopt an internally consistent plan for all major public facilities, i.e., a Public Facilities Master Plan, despite the fact that six years have passed since the 2015 recommendation of the Community Facilities Study Group that such a Master Plan was critical to Arlington’s future. Many potential sites for important public facilities have been lost permanently to private development during those six years of dithering.

Generational transformation

Arlington County has not quantified the full costs of critical capital expenses that will have to be incurred as our population increases. In fact, the Manager told the County Board in his message of Nov. 12, 2020: “[G]iven that we are undergoing a generational transformation in how we provide services and use facilities, this is the wrong time” to support a proposal from the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission for long-range planning.

How then can this be the right time for an action like major MM up-zoning that could have a huge, irreversible, net-negative impact on Arlington’s future?

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

Arlington County government should increase substantially the amount of Arlington taxpayer dollars devoted to providing housing for our lowest income Arlington households — those living on 30% or less of Area Median Income (AMI).

The most fiscally responsible way to fund this increase is first to redirect taxpayer dollars that currently are used to provide housing subsidies for those at the highest AMI levels.

Arlington housing trends by income levels

A 2020 Housing Needs Analysis shows far too few housing units available for our most needy Arlington residents.

The supply of rental units available to those households living on 30% or less of AMI, or $37,800 for a family of four in 2020, was far outstripped by the number of households seeking such units. (Updated data show that 2021 AMI in Arlington is now $129,000.)

The 2020 Housing Needs Analysis established that from 2012 to 2018, there was a significant decline in the number of these low-income rental households–from 9,067 to 8,077. By contrast, the number of households in the highest income categories (100% of AMI and above) increased from 27,667 to 30,955.

Many members of Arlington’s lowest-income households work multiple jobs such as hospital aides, office cleaners, and construction and food service employees. They play a vital part in our economic success and provide our diverse community fabric.

These residents are all just one emergency away from job loss or eviction. The statistical trends discussed above document the steady displacement of Arlington’s lowest-income households.

We have a moral obligation to assign the highest priority to stabilize these lowest-income families and putting them in the position to contribute to the social and cultural fabric of our community as both residents and employees.

Arlington Community Foundation (ACF), in collaboration with the national Shared Prosperity Partnership, has been a leader in advocating for our community to take bold steps to prevent the involuntary displacement of our lowest-income renters. We should support this ACF initiative with a substantial increase in taxpayer funding.

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

The Arlington County government urgently must act to help ALL tenants at AHC’s Serrano apartments who wish to move.

ARLnow.com exposé

In a May 6 exposé, ARLnow.com reported on deplorable conditions at The Serrano — an affordable housing complex at 5535 Columbia Pike, financed with Arlington taxpayer dollars, and managed by the Arlington Housing Corporation (AHC).

ARLnow revealed numerous health and safety issues, including:

“Mice and rat infestation. Balconies with broken glass and rust. Dirty HVAC units with water damage underneath. Shoddy maintenance.”

Housing Commission recommendations

After ARLnow published, the Arlington Housing Commission held a hearing focused on The Serrano’s long-standing maintenance problems.

Subsequently, the Commission sent a scorching letter to the County Board Chair, including these recommended corrective actions:

  • Immediate Safety of Residents: County staff should conduct an immediate analysis of the ventilation system and rodent infestation. Should the County determine that any units are not currently habitable, County staff should work with affected residents to relocate them to new units, including but not limited to using County financial resources to assist them.
  • Review of AHC Properties: County staff … should begin a review of other AHC properties within the county … to determine if a more thorough review of AHC’s property management policies, procedures, and practices is warranted.
  • Future Development Agreements with AHC: County staff should consider taking into account the failures of AHC … in maintaining their properties when reviewing any future proposals for development and/or County assistance.
  • Sufficient Resources for CAF Oversight: The County Manager should prepare a recommendation to the County Board to increase resources dedicated to code enforcement, compliance, and tenant assistance to address the issues at AHC.

County government appears to have begun to take some of these actions, but has promised help only to those Serrano tenants who are receiving additional federal or local housing rent subsidies (Section 8, housing grants or supportive housing grants), not ALL Serrano tenants who wish to move.

How and why we got here

County government has known about serious maintenance problems at The Serrano and other AHC properties for many years, but County government has failed to take effective steps to fix those problems.

The minutes from a 2018 Tenant-Landlord Commission meeting are illustrative:

Ms. Spencer a resident of Serrano apartments suggested that attention should be given to evictions at affordable housing properties to see the pattern and determine whether there was a problem, and if specific policies may be needed to address this.

BU-GATA reports… in conversations with AHC concerning various properties… issues are primarily, customer service, frequent staff turn-over, violation notices, building maintenance issues across several properties. [M]eetings [should] be reinstated to hear from tenants, for example at Harvey Hall, Gates of Ballston.

But well prior to the pandemic, the County was very solicitous of AHC’s financial health.

County government reduced the interest on at least two AHC loans (AHIF, HOME and CDBG) because AHC was not making a sufficient return. Examples are here, and here (Berkeley/AHC, Shelton/AHC and Cameron Commons/APAH: interest rate reduced).

The County’s loss of this interest income reduced the amount of capital being returned to the AHIF revolving loan fund.

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

Arlington is flying blind regarding the costs of future critical capital expenses, including seats to accommodate APS enrollment growth and the increase in the ratio of Arlington’s population to permeable green space available for parks and storm water absorption.

The County Manager has warned correctly that our budget is under severe stress from COVID-19 impacts, and some of these impacts may be transformational.

The Manager has concluded that it is too difficult to engage in long-range fiscal planning in these dire circumstances. But during five pre-COVID-19 years, he resisted utilizing fiscal planning tools to measure development costs versus anticipated revenues.

The Manager recently revealed that County government is working to develop a model to measure fiscal impacts of development–but only by retroactively combining many different projects. It’s unclear whether this model will enable prospective measurement of the fiscal impacts of any single project or how useful it will be otherwise.

Merion Pike West project demonstrates the utility of advance single-project analysis

In November 2020, the County Board unanimously approved Phase 1 of the Merion Pike West site-plan development at 843 S. Greenbrier St.

The Board authorized the developer to build new apartment buildings containing 400 units. The new buildings will replace older buildings containing 90 market-rate-affordable units.

Local consultant Arlington Analytics prepared a fiscal analysis of this project, concluding:

  • This development will increase county spending $32-$37 million between 2022 and 2031.
  • The bulk of this new spending arises from the incremental cost of educating just over 100 additional APS students.
  • Incremental revenues, principally from real estate taxes, will increase by about $14.5 million over the same time period due to the higher assessed value of the property.
  • The County will need to tap revenues from other sources between $17 and $23 million through 2031 to cover the anticipated budget shortfall.

As part of the Board’s review of the project, this fiscal analysis was presented by Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future (ASF). Both staff and Board disregarded the conclusions, and did not present any comparable County government analysis because Arlington doesn’t engage in this type of planning.

Arlington needs to adopt new planning tools to ensure its sustainable future, and pump the brakes on gentrification.

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

APS continues its record of flawed planning with the 2020 Elementary School Boundary Process. The latest recommendations typify years of ineffectual boundary planning.

In 2018, APS recognized it had a problem: a mis-match of the geographic locations in which its elementary students resided and the locations of schools.  Further, APS identified the planning corridors (Rosslyn-Ballston, Columbia Pike, and Route 1) as the locus of the future enrollment growth, but the next new facility — Reed — was not being constructed where seats were needed.  Therefore, APS began internal deliberations to adjust county-wide elementary school boundaries (for school year 2021-22).

The objectives included:

  • create Reed and Science Focus (ASFS) attendance zones
  • address overcapacity at schools
  • maximize building capacity
  • make efficient use of existing facilities and resources
  • adhere to walk zones and balance demographics when possible

Last February the School Board voted to move Key Immersion to ATS, ATS to McKinley, and McKinley to Reed. Although this was and remains very controversial, the net result moved Option programs closer to areas with excess seats and freed up neighborhood seats at the Key site. However, because APS decided to limit additional stress during the pandemic, it hastily decided to abandon a first principle of any boundary process–to balance enrollment.

APS objectively has defined “preferred maximum” numbers of students at each school using Virginia guidelines. But APS has ignored its own analysis and excluded schools like Abingdon. Abingdon is projected to reach 930 students in 2022-23 with a preferred maximum of only 742. Other schools like ASFS, with a preferred maximum of 637 students, are included, yet ASFS is projected to enroll 662 in 2022-23 with the strong potential that up to an additional 80 will enroll if they elect not to move with Key Immersion. Others like Dr. Charles Drew–adjacent to Abingdon–has approximately 400 preferred maximum unfilled seats. And schools like Ashlawn and Tuckahoe (in this boundary process) have 200+ combined preferred maximum seats available through 2022-23.

The “minimal” boundary changes now proposed are unfair

Even for the small number of schools involved, APS’s latest proposal does not maximize flexibility nor does the proposal minimize impact on families as a foundation for the 2022 process. APS proposes moving several planning units from Ashlawn to ASFS even though future flexibility is needed there. At the same time APS proposes moving some students from McKinley to Ashlawn.  These moves should be delayed until 2022 to preserve flexibility.  Finally, APS leaves Tuckahoe well under-capacity. APS should use Tuckahoe’s excess seats to balance capacity from Ashlawn along the southwestern boundary of the County where future flexibility is less important.

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Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com

On July 14th, APS chose the best of a bad series of options by deciding to reopen schools 100% virtually.

All the options were bad because of a public health failure:

Outrage over schools’ inability to fully reopen should not, of course, be directed at schools themselves, but at the public health failure that makes it impossible for most of them to do so.

COVID-19 presents APS with a unique opportunity to take stock of what is working, abandon what is not, and creatively and equitably implement an effective 21st-century education for all.

Instructional and student achievement

Learning to read, spell, and write is a fundamental basis for all school learning, but APS’ reading achievement gap is widening. APS’ 2018/19 reading SOL pass rates by subgroups further prove that our minority communities (Black, Hispanic, Students with Disabilities, Economically Disadvantaged, and English Language Learners) will be the most impacted by APS’ virtual reopening. Their literacy skills lag behind their White, Asian, and Multiple Race peers (Black – 72%, Hispanic – 66%, White – 94%, Asian – 86%, Multiple Races – 92%, Students with Disabilities – 54%, Economically Disadvantaged – 63%, and English Language Learners – 38%.)

For students struggling to read and/or write, learning new content and demonstrating mastery in any subject area already was challenging in a 100% in-person learning environment. Students with poor literacy skills, who are required to work more independently in the virtual learning environment, will face even bigger challenges for APS to overcome.  Read More

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

The Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority (NOVAParks) owns and operates Arlington’s primarily natural Potomac Overlook, Upton Hill and W&OD Trail regional parks.

But NOVAParks seems to have lost the trail outlined in its own Mission Statement which emphasizes (at p.7) enriching our lives “through the conservation of regional natural and cultural resources.”

Arlington’s statistically valid resident park survey (at p. 4) found that our community’s three most desired park features are multi-use trails, hiking trails, and natural areas & wildlife habitats. Yet NOVAParks is now single-mindedly pursuing funding for a project to dramatically widen the W&OD trail to create an environmentally damaging commuter thoroughfare.

NOVAParks’ W&OD trail widening project

NOVAParks proposes replacing the two-mile-long, 10-12 foot-wide segment of the trail paralleling Four Mile Run between N. Roosevelt St. and North Carlin Springs Road. In many areas the new trail will be two parallel paved trails — a 12-foot-wide bike trail, an 8-foot-wide pedestrian trail, a 2-foot median and outside buffers — for a total width of at least 26 feet, equal to some residential streets! Elsewhere, the trail will be widened to 16 feet with outside buffers for a total width of at least 20 feet.

This project should be withdrawn

This project will destroy almost two acres of green space while adding almost two acres of impermeable paved surface, including within Chesapeake Bay Resource Protection Areas (RPA’s) and flood plain along Four Mile Run, threatening increased flooding in Arlington’s BonAir and Bluemont parks. NOVAParks has failed to conduct an “alternatives assessment” of less expensive and environmentally destructive solutions. Finally, NOVAParks has failed to conduct any safety assessment of whether its proposed wider trail, with potentially higher bicycle speeds and volume, will actually increase bicycle speeds, and therefore the frequency and severity of accidents.

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

The University of Virginia (UVA) and the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) have used their status and political power to prevent the Virginia General Assembly from taking action to enable the use of by far the most effective reading readiness screening test (RAN).

Instead, Virginia’s children are being tested using a much less effective test (PALS) from which UVA-associated individuals and organizations derive financial benefits.  The Virginia General Assembly will be investigating those financial benefits this year.

The VDOE – UVA literacy screening partnership

Since 1997, Virginia has been using the state-endorsed Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening test (PALS), created by UVA, to identify students experiencing or at-risk for reading difficulties. UVA and the VDOE worked in tandem to support and sponsor PALS.

PALS’ questionable effectiveness for identifying dyslexia and other reading disabilities

According to the International Dyslexia Association, “perhaps as many as 15-20% of the population as a whole–have some of the symptoms of dyslexia, including slow or inaccurate reading, poor spelling, poor writing, or mixing up similar words.”

Despite Virginia’s screening and intervention processes having been in place since 1997, children continue to be identified after 3rd grade as being dyslexic, when remediation is more intensive and costly to be effective. How many of these students could/should have received more effective K-3 reading interventions based on a timely identification, perhaps obviating their need for special education or remain unidentified and struggling in the general education system?

In the meantime, another test, RAN, (5-10 minute administration time) is “one of the strongest predictors of later reading ability” (p. 431).

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

Despite over five years of multiple contacts with County government, residents in the Arlington Forest and Bluemont neighborhoods are justifiably frustrated by the County’s lack of progress in protecting pedestrians crossing Carlin Springs Road.

The County has failed these neighborhoods in two respects. First, it has failed to take the decisive actions needed to protect pedestrians at several dangerous intersections. Second, it has failed to give sufficient weight to the views and knowledge of neighborhood associations and residents who offered highly relevant on-the-ground observations, surveys, and data.

For years, residents have been collecting their own survey data and examples of children and families being struck or nearly struck by vehicles.

Neighbors see a number of ingredients that contribute to dangerous risks for pedestrians including:

  • Increasing traffic from commercial and residential development in Ballston.
  • Lack of traffic signals that alert and stop traffic to allow safe crossing, paired with poor sightlines.
  • A history of lack of enforcement of the rules of the road

Carlin Springs Road background

In 2016, the Arlington Forest Citizens Association (AFCA) President spoke to the County Board about pedestrian safety concerns from Ballston to Route 50. At that time, former Board member John Vihstadt was assigned as the Board liaison to AFCA.

In 2016 and 2017, AFCA sent letters detailing accounts of children and families nearly getting struck by oncoming traffic. For example, Lara Doyle witnessed a pedestrian near-miss incident she described as a Kenmore Middle School student dodging cars — like the video game Frogger — while attempting to cross the road as yellow pedestrian lights were flashing. The Arlington Forest and Bluemont Civic Associations have formed pedestrian safety committees and have 40+ pages of emails, meeting notes, and formal letters documenting their direct engagement activity with the County.

In the summer of 2018, ARLnow reported on an accident in which a neighbor was struck by a vehicle while commuting to Metro. Neighbors at the time voiced public concerns:

“Yet [Lora] Strine says the area lacks clearly marked crosswalks or traffic calming measures to slow drivers, particularly on such a wide road, and she can’t understand why it’s taken the county so long to address the issue. ‘This accident is not really an accident,” Strine told ARLnow. “It’s really been years in the making.”

Eric Larsen, the accident victim, advocated before the County Board in a statement urging the County to protect pedestrians.

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

For years, County Board members have talked green about Arlington’s environmental problems.

Those issues include preserving our mature tree canopy, slowing impervious-surface increases and protecting Arlingtonians from development-and climate change-related flood risks.

But when it comes time to act green, they hide behind the Dillon Rule, claiming Arlington can’t enact stronger environmental protections without new state legislation.

Their claims are environmentally insensitive and legally incorrect. Last July’s catastrophic flooding underscores the urgency of addressing these environmental threats.

Arlington must begin using legal powers it already has to

  • preserve our remaining mature tree canopy and slow impervious surface growth

Preserving and increasing our mature tree canopy protects Arlington’s environment. Mature trees provide well-documented benefits in urban areas, including reducing energy use; removing air pollutants; improving water quality; reducing runoff volume; providing diverse wildlife habitats, increasing property values, and improving human health.

Mature trees naturally prevent stormwater runoff: their roots soak up water; their leaves intercept rainfall, and they re-emit water vapor to help cool the atmosphere.

Arlington should exercise these powers it already possesses:

Adopt a countywide stormwater utility fee (as Albemarle County already has). Stormwater utility fees are charged based on a property’s percentage of impervious surface cover, placing a greater burden on those who generate more runoff. See here and here. This fee should be enacted in addition to Arlington’s current service-district method to incentivize landowners to keep space open and green or to restore land to natural condition.

Enact a tree preservation ordinance to conserve trees during development based on Arlington’s status as an EPA-designated ozone nonattainment area. See here. Fairfax (also a nonattainment area) has such an ordinance. Passage in Arlington may help preserve trees located outside Chesapeake Bay resource protection areas (RPAs) — particularly if changes to current zoning would result in lower tree cover.

Enforce permit requirements on public sites. Arlington must stop giving itself and APS free passes when permit requirements are violated. When APS cut more trees than permitted on the Ashlawn Elementary School site, the County Board simply changed the permit terms instead of imposing penalties.

Stop relying on Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act loopholes for RPAs on public land. Projects at just 9 publicly owned sites accounted for the loss of 979 trees between 2014 and 2018.

Adopt a use-value assessment program (as Alexandria, Fairfax, Loudoun and others have) to reward property owners for keeping 5+ acre tracts of land open and undeveloped. Details here. While opportunities to take advantage of such a provision in land-constrained Arlington are quite limited, some of the pool clubs and other recreation associations might have sufficient land as does the Febrey-Lothrop House at Wilson and McKinley.

  • protect Arlington residents from development-and climate change-related flood risks

Leverage existing federal/other regulations to support tree preservation as a runoff-control tool. Example: Arlington’s Four Mile Run Flood Control Agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requires Arlington to limit “post-development peak runoff” and prevent increases in the Run’s “100-year peak flow.” See §60-11, subsection C.

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

In an October column, I explained why the Arlington County Government’s (ACG’s) four-year delay in developing a long-range, site-specific public-facilities plan has hampered APS’s ability to identify the costs for the new school seats APS projects it will need over the next 10-15 years.

In that column, I noted that successful long-range, site-specific public facilities planning should follow these principles:

  • publication of several alternative financial scenarios and their direct costs, opportunity costs, and benefits
  • soliciting and honoring the community’s priorities among those scenarios
  • specific goals and timetables by which critical decisions must be made
  • accountability for meeting those goals and timetables

Preparing a long-range, site-specific public facilities plan is critical for Arlington’s sustainable future. Such a plan will have to balance APS’s needs for new seats against other major public facilities’ needs (e.g., for parks, fire stations, community centers, stormwater infrastructure) to accommodate Arlington’s continuing population growth and increasing density.

What ACG should do now

While we wait for the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission to propose a long-range public facilities plan, there are some steps that ACG should take now to improve significantly the quality of decision-making regarding APS’s upcoming Capital Improvement Plan (CIP).

Two months ago, APS released an updated Arlington Facilities and Student Accommodation Plan (“AFSAP Plan”), and posted this presentation outlining it. This presentation contains APS’s latest estimates of enrollment growth and the new seats our community will need over the planning period to accommodate the substantial enrollment growth forecast.

In this new, expanded AFSAP Plan, APS has taken some important steps to define more accurately APS’s capacity/capital needs and to plan to address those needs. Page 43 of the AFSAP presentation provides an outline of APS’s current CIP priorities. For example, the AFSAP Plan recommends for Middle School (MS) 500+ new seats in 2024-25 and for Elementary School (ES) 700+ new seats in 2024-25.

Why ACG should provide APS with financial parameters now

In the last CIP cycle, ACG did not provide APS with financial parameters for the CIP until Spring 2018–only a few short weeks before APS had to provide the County with its final CIP recommendations. In 2018, ACG’s many months of delay in providing those financial parameters to APS led to discord and much-too-short-decision-making timetables once many in the community realized that projects they initially believed possible turned out not to be affordable. APS and the community together could have arrived at better, more accurate decisions two years ago if ACG had provided APS with those financial parameters earlier than it did.

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