Arlington, VA

by Vernon Miles September 10, 2019 at 3:30 pm 0

Arlington County Board incumbents fought to hold their ground against independents over Amazon incentives and housing topics at a debate Monday evening.

At the Arlington Chamber of Commerce’s candidate forum at U.Group in Crystal City (2231 Crystal Drive), Democratic incumbents Christian Dorsey and Katie Cristol faced off against independent challengers Audrey Clement and Arron O’Dell.

One of the moments of back-and-forth criticism among the candidates came over the redevelopment of a number of market-rate affordable housing complexes in the Westover neighborhood. Clement has frequently criticized the County Board for what she said was the “preventable demolition” of the Westover garden apartments.

The redevelopment was by-right, meaning the developer did not need County Board approval. But Clement said the County Board could have designated the apartments part of a historic district and preserved the homes.

Overall, Clement argued that development drives up costs to build housing and that even dedicated affordable housing units come at a steep cost.

“The average cost of a new [Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing] unit is in excess of $400,000,” Clement said. “Most of the units are not affordable. Because the units are not affordable, the income-qualified people who move in, 30 percent of them have to have rent subsidies to pay the nominal amount of rent that they do pay. The taxpayers are hit twice, they have to pay their own rent and their own mortgage and they have to pay someone else’s because the cost of building that unit was astronomical.”

Dorsey fired back that rather than use the historic district designation, the County Board is working to change the regulations to protect affordable communities from redevelopment.

“In the Westover reference that Ms. Clement talked about, while she thinks the Board has done nothing, what we did do was take a courageous stand… and stopped the perverse incentive that led people to take affordable communities and turn them into by-right townhouses,” Dorsey said. “We paused that option and put it into the special exemption process so that we created options to preserve that housing.”

“We’re studying ways that can be better purposed to provide long term, market-based affordable housing,” Dorsey added. So you have to figure out where you’re doing harm and stop doing harm to create new options to preserve affordability both through direct subsidies and through the market.”

O’Dell, meanwhile, said the County should do more to accommodate for “tiny apartments” aimed at people moving to Arlington immediately after college, who may need an affordable place to live but not a lot of space.

“When you talk about housing affordability, you need to have a variety of types of units,” O’Dell said. “We should look at the lower incomes that fall into the 60 percent bracket and give them opportunities to possibly move in and look at places to live.”

Cristol said the County should work to open the door to other types of housing, pointing to the recent legalization of detached accessory dwelling units as an example and noting the large amount of land in Arlington zoned for only single-family housing.

“One of the most important things we can do is legalizing alternative forms,” said Cristol. “There are so many housing forms that could offer folks not only an opportunity to rent but [also to] buy and it’s literally illegal to build them in huge swaths of the county… There’s room for creative ideas, this is an area where we need partnership in the private sector, particularly for those who develop housing.”

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by Airey August 20, 2019 at 10:10 am 0

The Arlington County Civic Federation is set to hold its annual candidate forum next month.

On Tuesday, September 3, residents will be able to hear the candidates for local office answer questions from the public and make the case for why they should be elected or re-elected.

The event is taking place at Virginia Hospital Center’s Hazel conference center at 1701 N. George Mason Drive. A reception with the candidates will kick off the evening at 6:30 p.m., following by the forum starting at 7 p.m. Both events are free.

The Civic Federation’s forum marks the unofficial start of the fall campaign season for the November 5 general election.

Several candidates running for office this year will attend the event, including Arlington County Board members Katie Cristol and Christian Dorsey, both of whom faced no opposition in the Democratic primary.

The Board members will be joined by their independent challengers, Audrey Clement and Arron O’Dell, who hope to oust the incumbents based on a more aggressive pursuit of affordable housing and opposition to the Board’s salary raise, among other issues.

Also slated to attend is Del. Alfonso Lopez who defeated Democratic challenger J.D. Spain, Sr. in the June primary with 77% percent of the vote after amassing a sizable warchest and a number of campaign endorsements.

Lopez is now being challenged by independent candidate Terry Modglin, who opposed the delegate’s recent legislation intended to expand access to abortion, but did agree with his stance on gun reform.

The candidates running for the 32nd Virginia Senate district, incumbent Democrat Janet Howell and Republican challenger Arthur Purves, are also expected to participate. The seven-term state senator ran unopposed in this year’s Democratic primary and previously told ARLnow that her top accomplishments this year included budget bumps to foster care, affordable housing, and teacher pay.

The event will be recorded by local cable access and community radio station, Arlington Independent Media.

by Airey April 18, 2019 at 3:30 pm 0

Disagreements over campaign contributions and criminal justice reform during a debate last night revealed fault lines between some of the Democrats running for the party’s nomination.

Six candidates running for Commonwealth’s Attorney, state Senator and Delegate who sparred during the Wednesday night debate agreed on green energy and defeating Republicans. But their disagreements on other topics showed that even in an all-Democratic playing field there are shades of blue.

One area of disagreement was campaign contributions.

Sen. Barbara Favola was asked by a moderator why she continued to accept contributions from the controversial Advanced Towing company in light of complaints about employees allegedly towing a vehicle with the owner’s pet still inside.

The state senator called the story “extraordinary unfortunate” but said that the solution was for people “to go back to the landowner and complain about the contract” they have with a company.

Her challenger, Nicole Merlene hit back by referring to the 2017 NBC 4 report that Advanced Towing gave Favola $1,500 in campaign contributions after she voted to loosen towing regulations and allegedly convinced then-Governor Terry McAuliffe to do the same.

Favola said she voted “with the county” and that “what Governor McAuliffe had decided to do is Governor McAuliffe’s prerogative.”

Both candidates spoke in strong support of increasing affordable housing and paying interns.

A flash point Wednesday night was the issue of criminal justice reform.

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by Alex Koma February 12, 2019 at 1:30 pm 0

Arlington leaders are starting a planning process to chart out the future of the Lee Highway corridor in earnest tonight (Tuesday), setting the stage for a lengthy debate over how the county allows development along the many neighborhoods lining the highway.

Officials are holding a community kick-off for “Plan Lee Highway” at 6:30 p.m. at the newly renamed Washington-Liberty High School (1301 N. Stafford Street) tonight, giving anyone interested in the corridor’s future a chance to learn more about the process and offer their thoughts.

A group of dozens of community leaders, known as a “community forum,” has already begun some initial discussions on how the process should go forward. In essence, officials are hoping to sketch out a new “area plan” for a five-mile stretch of the highway, guiding future public and private development from the East Falls Church Metro station to the Lyon Village neighborhood near Rosslyn.

The question of how much more density planners allow along the highway will likely come to define the ensuing debate.

Though many shopping centers and apartment complexes sit on the highway itself, most of the neighborhoods just off the roadway are reserved for single-family homes. Officials are now examining a variety of “nodes” on the highway that could someday become home to mixed-use developments or different types of housing, a focus that will become all the more important as Amazon moves in and puts a strain on the county’s supply of available homes.

The future of those shopping centers will be another key concern, as the county weighs how best to transform them to protect existing businesses thriving on the highway while also luring in new development.

Planners also hope to focus on transportation along the corridor, as the county considers ways to ramp up bus service on the highway and make it a bit more walkable as well.

County officials are expecting the planning process to stretch over the next three years, given the size and scope of what leaders will examine.

The Lee Highway Alliance, a group of businesses and other concerned citizens living along the roadway, will hold regular design studios over the coming weeks to accept more community input, with another “public workshop” tentatively scheduled for September.

by Alex Koma February 5, 2019 at 1:30 pm 0

New school enrollment projections have reignited the long-dormant debate over the wisdom of building a fourth comprehensive high school in Arlington, as officials plot out the best strategy to educate a student population that won’t stop growing.

The issue reemerged in earnest late last month, when Arlington Public Schools planners unveiled some startling new data that could upend the School Board’s long-term construction plans.

It was not exactly breaking news when planners revealed that the school system’s enrollment is projected to grow by about 24 percent over the next 10 years. APS has added an average of 800 students annually for the last five years, after all.

But school leaders were a bit surprised to see that growth continuing apace, after initially expecting the number of students flowing into the county start falling through 2028, not rising. Even more notably, the new projections show about 2,778 additional elementary schoolers set to enroll in Arlington schools over the next 10 years, about 1,000 more than school planners projected just a year ago.

Considering how young those students are, that number could demand a major reexamination of the school system’s plans to add new high school seats.

The Board decided back in 2017 to build room for 1,300 high schoolers split between the Arlington Education Center and the Arlington Career Center, avoiding the expensive and difficult task of finding space for a fourth comprehensive high school in the county. But these new projections have some Board members wondering if that will be enough to meet these enrollment pressures.

“One of the bottom lines of this is that the 1,300 high school seats is not enough,” Board member Barbara Kanninen said at the group’s Jan. 24 meeting. “This looks, to me, like we’re really going to need that full, comprehensive high school after our Career Center project. And, to me, that means we need to start thinking about what that package of high school seats is really going to look like.”

New County Board member Matt de Ferranti also raised some eyebrows by suggesting in his introductory remarks on Jan. 2 that the county should fund a new high school, but not all of Arlington’s elected leaders are similarly convinced.

Superintendent Patrick Murphy urged the Board to “take a breath, look at this one year, and see if these patterns begin to play themselves out over a long period of time,” and some members agreed with a more cautious approach to the new projections.

“APS enrollment is growing faster than the available funds we have to address our growth, for operating needs (teachers, textbooks, buses) as well as for capital projects (building and expanding schools),” School Board Chair Reid Goldstein wrote in a statement to ARLnow. “It’s important to remember that student enrollment and projections are just a snapshot of one major factor. That’s why we will continue to emphasize flexibility in our planning so we can be responsive and adaptable to address our future community and operating landscape.”

But, for some parents who have long demanded a new comprehensive high school in the county — joining Wakefield, Yorktown and the newly renamed Washington-Liberty — the new projections only underscore the urgency of what they’ve been asking for this whole time.

“I think the data have been suggestive for quite some time that Arlington will need a fourth high school, and it seems to make the most economic sense to do that project all at once and not in pieces,” Christine Brittle, a market researcher and APS parent who has long been active on school issues, told ARLnow via email.

But Brittle did add that it was “surprising” that Kanninen sees a need for a new high school even after the Career Center project is finished.

It remains an open question just how the Career Center will look once the school system can add 1,050 new seats there, work that is currently set to wrap up by 2025 or so. As part of deliberations over its latest 10-year construction plan last year, the Board agreed to build some of the same amenities at Arlington’s other schools at the Career Center.

But the county’s financial challenges meant that the Board couldn’t find the cash to build all of the features to make the Career Center entirely equivalent to a comprehensive high school, and a working group convened to study the issue urged the Board to open it as an “option school” instead of requiring students in the area to attend a school without the same amenities as others elsewhere around the county.

Accordingly, Brittle would rather see the Board simply expand its plans for the site instead of setting out to build a whole new school.

“I’m actually agnostic about whether the Career Center is the correct location for a [fourth high school], so perhaps APS is going to revisit that decision in light of these new projections,” Brittle said. “However, assuming they are going forward with the Career Center project, it certainly makes the most sense to do that project now as a full, fourth high school.”

Such a switch would come with its own complications — as the school system’s Montessori program leaves Drew Model School, it’s currently set to move into the old Patrick Henry Elementary, which sits next to the Career Center. Any move to transform the site would likely require finding a different home for the Montessori students instead, at least in the long term.

“It would be far cheaper to find some additional, offsite-but-nearby field space, add a pool to the already robust Career Center plans, and find another building to repurpose for elementary Montessori, rather than building a large choice high school, which they may or may not fill, and then having to turn around and build a fourth comprehensive high school elsewhere (with money Arlington does not have),” Megan Haydasz, an APS parent who’s advocated for more amenities at the Career Center, told ARLnow via email.

However, Kristi Sawert, the president of the Arlington Heights Civic Association and a member of the Career Center working group, pointed out that APS is already pretty far down the path when it comes to moving the Montessori program to the Henry building. The Board recently agreed to reprogram hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate the building to prepare for the Montessori students’ arrival, which she sees as an admission that “APS has no plans to tear it down to create a full-scale fourth high school (especially given that APS has a huge money deficit).”

“But I could be wrong,” she wrote in an email.

Still, that sort of option may well be on the table. Some Board members saw a need for more high school seats, but they didn’t share the same conviction that a fourth comprehensive school is the only way to achieve that goal.

“We’re going to have to put [these students] in a high school,” said Board member Nancy Van Doren. “1,300, 1,400 seats, that’s not enough, and we don’t have a school for all those kids in the [Capital Improvement Plan].”

Yet part of what drove Kanninen’s conviction that APS needs both new seats at the Career Center and a new high school is her belief that the county’s 10-year enrollment projections don’t tell the whole story.

Many of the new students planners expect to see in the coming years are young enough that they won’t be reaching high school by the time 2028 rolls around, convincing Kanninen that the data don’t paint a full picture of the school system’s in the distant future.

“The future kindergarteners you’re projecting won’t be in high school in 10 years, it’ll be 20 years,” Kanninen told APS staff at the Jan. 24 meeting. “We’re not seeing in this projection how many high school seats we are going to need… We need another high school down the road. We really need to clarify that story, and it’s really clear from this data in a way it never has been before.”

File photo

by Alex Koma February 4, 2019 at 3:30 pm 0

Arlington leaders agree that Amazon’s impending arrival in the county demands urgent action to address housing affordability — but there’s a lot less agreement on what sort of policy response is necessary to hold down the area’s skyrocketing housing costs.

Some of the changes officials are envisioning are relatively modest ones, expanding on existing efforts that began long before the tech giant announced its plans to bring 25,000 workers to the area. After all, many have argued that the new headquarters set to pop up in Crystal City and Pentagon City won’t prompt the sort of explosion in gentrification that Amazon’s opponents fear.

Other experts see a need for more ambitious tactics, like allowing more development in Arlington to flood the market with more homes. That could well be a politically explosive change in the county, particularly if it means increasing density in Arlington’s oldest residential neighborhoods.

Or perhaps there’s a need for a more creative approach — some progressive activists are championing the creation of a “community land trust,” a strategy embraced elsewhere around the country to allow for the communal ownership of affordable homes.

It presents local leaders with a series of choices that could well define the county’s destiny for decades. And with Amazon’s workers set to start arriving by the thousands next year, officials won’t have long to make up their minds.

‘We should never let a crisis go to waste,” said County Board member Erik Gutshall. “Amazon is bringing a sharp focus to these fundamental issues, and it’s providing us with the opportunity to double down on the sort of planning we’ve done for decades.”

Building on existing efforts

County Board Chair Christian Dorsey agrees that the urgency of addressing housing affordability has been “magnified” since Amazon’s momentous mid-November announcement.

But, fundamentally, he says “the world, as I see it, in terms of housing strategy is not very different than it was” before officials knew they’d won a new Amazon headquarters.

“We’ve identified the tools we’d like to deploy,” Dorsey said. “Now we have to do the hard work of deploying them.”

For instance, the county has long relied on its “Affordable Housing Investment Fund” to provide loans to developers building affordable homes. Those projects often include apartments guaranteed to remain affordable to renters, known as “committed affordable” homes, that are most valuable for people at the lowest end of the income scale.

The County Board allocates cash to the fund each year, and that contribution has recently hovered around $15 million annually. The county is facing a budget squeeze in the coming fiscal year, but as tax revenue from Amazon’s new properties and workers trickles in over the next few years, Gutshall believes the Board should “earmark some of that specifically” for the loan fund.

Similarly, he notes that the Board will also be able to force Amazon to send cash to the program as it builds new offices (most of which will be located in Pentagon City), as developer contributions are the Board’s main tool for seeding the fund with money.

But as market forces persistently push the costs of new development higher, researchers believe the county also needs to preserve the affordable homes it already has.

“Buying up and preserving existing middle-income housing, that stretches public subsidy dollars much further than trying to build stuff from scratch,” said Jenny Schuetz, who studies housing policy with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “The county should be doing more of that preservation work and they should be focusing on that area near the new headquarters.”

The Board has indeed worked to preserve some affordable homes already by setting up “housing conservation districts” to protect older, “garden apartments” designed to be affordable to middle-income renters. Officials first passed the policy in 2017, with plans to eventually allow developers to replace protected homes with even larger affordable developments, but there’s been little movement on the issue since then.

Gutshall argues that the county needs to “accelerate” some of that work, as it seeks to expand “missing middle” housing, commonly understood as homes that fall in between apartments and single-family houses. The Board already loosened some of its regulations for accessory dwelling units, or “mother-in-law suits” on the same property as another home, and Gutshall wants to further tweak zoning rules to allow for more duplexes and small apartment buildings to be built around the county.

“We need to be thinking about how we can keep the character of residential neighborhoods, but still open up housing types and allow for better transitions on the edges,” Gutshall said. “At the same meeting we vote on the Amazon deal, I would love to see a ‘missing middle’ directive… to really identify key areas where think we can make some rapid progress addressing this.”

Touching the ‘third rail’?

Yet the scale of the affordability challenge confronting Arlington has convinced many experts that such changes aren’t enough.

Many observers see a clear and urgent need to ramp up the supply of housing more rapidly, even if that means the construction of the same sort of high-end apartments that are already commonplace in the county. Those homes themselves might not be affordable for low-income renters, but experts argue that any new apartments will have a positive impact on the market as a whole.

“People moving into those new homes come from somewhere,” said Eric Brescia, a member of Arlington’s Citizens Advisory Commission on Housing, who also works as a Fannie Mae economist. “Think of it like the market for cars. A lot of poorer people buy used, not new, at first. New apartments help free up the older stock for people of more modest means.”

But the question becomes where those new apartments will fit, and that leads to some very thorny debates for local leaders.

Anyone walking along one of Arlington’s Metro corridors can see that neighborhoods like Rosslyn and Ballston are already jammed with high-rise developments. Most of the rest of Arlington is reserved for single-family neighborhoods — as much as 87 percent of the county is zoned only to allow for that type of development, according to one recent analysis — but officials might need to reverse that trend as Amazon ramps up the pressure on renters.

“Many people are saying it’s time to look at this exclusive, single-family detached development and how wasteful it is in terms of land use,” said Michelle Krocker, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance. “But if anything is going to shake communities to their core, this will be it.”

Schuetz points out that these are often wealthy neighborhoods, full of residents “that turn up in large numbers and vote” if they fear encroaching density. But she doesn’t see any choice for the county but examining the prospect of allowing more development in a wider variety of places.

“You have these neighborhoods within a mile, walking distance, of the Metro, but they’re only zoned for single-family homes,” Schuetz said. “It’s just not efficient.”

Dorsey acknowledged that such discussions have always been a bit of “a third rail,” politically, and he understands the impulse of homeowners who might “worry about what more density would look like in their neighborhood.”

“I don’t fault people for wondering if we’re intending for the same density as in Ballston to come to every low-density neighborhood,” Dorsey said. “I get that… that’s why we have to talk about this with real specificity.”

And Dorsey says the Board isn’t considering any sweeping changes to zoning rules across Arlington, even if advocates favor such a move. Instead, he expects a more modest first step is increasing density along some sections of Lee Highway, where the Board is already gearing up an extensive study of its plans for the corridor.

“The potential we have in Arlington is along our major transportation corridors, Lee Highway in particular, where there is more than enough opportunity for substantial amounts of new housing,” Gutshall said. “If we’re able to unlock that, that will carry us through our next 30 to 40 years.”

Following in Bernie’s footsteps?

Beyond these debates about zoning and density, some activists see room for another, very different path for the county to pursue as Amazon looms.

Tim Dempsey has been working with advocates and local leaders on the idea of a “community land trust” since first coming across the idea while reading a bit more about Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during his 2016 presidential bid.

While he was still just the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders helped create a land trust, among the first of its kind in the nation. In the unusual arrangement, a nonprofit buys up available land, then builds homes atop it.

Anyone can then move in and pay a mortgage on the homes themselves, while the nonprofit retains the ownership of the land. That protects home prices from wild fluctuations, particularly the sort of speculation that could follow Amazon’s arrival in the county, Dempsey said.

“This prevents the land from falling into a speculator’s hands in the first place,” said Dempsey, who sits on the steering committee for the Sanders-inspired group Our Revolution Arlington

And more than just providing low- and middle-income people with a place to rent temporarily, Dempsey believes this method “allows people to have many of the benefits that come with home ownership, like building equity, tax deductions and having very stable housing.”

“They might not get the full value of owning a home, but they probably would never be able to get into homeownership to begin with, otherwise,” Dempsey said. “This could address long-standing social justice issues when it comes to home ownership.”

Without such a model in place, Dempsey fears Amazon will push already skyrocketing home prices higher and force people out of Arlington. That’s why he’s already brought the idea to many Board members and other local affordable housing advocates, where he says it’s largely earned a warm reception.

That’s significant, because Dempsey believes the county has a key role to play in setting up the trust — the county would likely need to provide the cash to get the effort off the ground, and could take a leading role in acquiring land for any future nonprofit.

Dorsey says he’s certainly willing to examine the issue in more detail. But he urged the trust’s proponents to strive for the true “end game” of such a program, rather than getting hung up on setting up a trust, per se.

“I don’t want to get so focused on the prospect of a land trust that we don’t look for the true essence of this opportunity: how do we acquire property that can be made into affordable housing?” Dorsey said. “It could be a land swap, or allowing an entitlement to build something that’s more dense to get a different opportunity elsewhere.”

Where Dorsey and Dempsey can agree is that such a trust would be most effective if it’s a regional effort.

Indeed, with Amazon’s workers expected to settle all throughout the D.C. area, experts of all stripes are unanimous that Arlington can’t hold down housing prices on its own, no matter which strategies leaders pursue.

“Arlington can obviously play a part in this, but housing markets are regional,” Brescia said. “And we need more collaboration across the region.”

File photo

by Alex Koma December 7, 2018 at 1:45 pm 0

Eight South Arlington elementary schools will soon see changes to their attendance boundaries, now that the School Board has signed off on a final map and put an end to a contentious, messy debate over boundaries that roiled several school communities over the last few months.

The Board voted unanimously last night (Thursday) to approve a boundary map drawn up by school officials just a few days ago, a move that could send as many as 413 elementary students to new schools starting next year.

Arlington Public Schools officials designed the boundary process to meet a series of different concerns. Not only is the school system facing rising enrollment numbers across all of its schools, but officials needed to account for the opening of Alice West Fleet Elementary School next year. The school system is also gearing up to convert Drew Model School into a “neighborhood” school, drawing its attendees primarily from the communities surrounding the Nauck building, and move its Montessori program to the building currently serving as Patrick Henry Elementary.

Accordingly, the process involved drawing new boundaries for both Drew and Fleet, while shifting some students primarily from Oakridge and Long Branch to those schools, as well as Hoffman-Boston.

But APS leaders and Board members have come under fire from virtually all sides as they’ve managed this complex series of moves.

Many parents at Henry felt betrayed by proposals that would send roughly a fifth of the community to Drew instead of Fleet, even though they felt school officials had long promised to avoid such a change. Others at Drew fretted that the boundary changes wouldn’t do enough to even out demographics at each South Arlington school, while Abingdon parents were alarmed by a prior proposal to move some students in Fairlington to Drew instead.

Even still, Board members expressed confidence that the map they’ve approved will best serve the needs of the entire school system, despite the acrimony that marred the process.

“It’s a solution we need to have happen at this point because of our rising enrollment,” said Board Chair Reid Goldstein. “This boundary change is not perfect. No boundary change is perfect.”

Yet plenty of parents arrived at Thursday’s meeting to decry the entire process, with many lamenting that the Board has managed to break their trust that future efforts will be managed competently.

“You’re failing Drew and Fleet,” parent Susan Hampton told the Board. “I don’t know why you’d willfully increase economic segregation… I’ve lost my faith in the process.”

Notably, even some Board members expressed regret that they couldn’t do enough to better spread out students eligible for free and reduced price lunch (a key indicator of their family’s economic means) across the eight schools. While the new map will reduce FRL rates at some schools, Barcroft, Drew and Randolph will all still have at least 50 percent of their student bodies eligible for free and reduced lunch.

“I certainly didn’t meet all the goals we laid out for this,” Goldstein said.

But Board member Monique O’Grady argued that the new map still took major steps toward addressing racial inequality in the county, primarily with how it will transform Drew’s future. She noted that the Nauck community has long hoped for a “single-focus neighborhood school,” though students there have been constantly bused away from the area, dating back to the days of the Jim Crow era.

While some parents at Henry proposed transforming Drew into a countywide “option” program as one way to avoid more boundary changes elsewhere, O’Grady stressed that converting Drew into a pure neighborhood school is the best way to meet the community’s needs.

“Now Drew will follow in the footsteps of Oakridge and Abingdon… which now enjoy huge support from the families they serve,” O’Grady said. “I believe Drew will enjoy similar success.”

Other parents were similarly pleased that the Board’s map will keep the entirety of the Fairlington community together at Abingdon, even though it will leave the school a bit overcrowded for now. The Board chose to leave some schools a bit under-capacity — including Fleet and Drew — to allow for growth over the years, and avoid more boundary changes. Then, it hopes to address any remaining issues in the 2020 boundary drawing process.

“[This map] acknowledges that our neighborhoods continue to fill with elementary-aged children who want to take advantage of our excellent schools, and gives our county and our kids room to grow,” said Claire Rosenberger, an Abingdon parent.

But many remain nervous that the 2020 changes will proceed similarly turbulently, and warned parents to be vigilant moving forward.

“Successful civic engagement does not require that everyone agree with end result, but it does require transparency and accountability,” said Joe Everling, a Henry parent who has been fiercely critical of the Board’s process. “To my utter amazement, that has not happened here… there is no oversight for this board, except for the citizen voter.”

by Alex Koma December 4, 2018 at 4:45 pm 0

Arlington school officials will soon decide on a name for the new middle school to be built on the site of the Stratford School building in Cherrydale — but the complex history of the building, and its original name, has divided the community over which option is best.

A naming committee settled on three options for the 1,000-seat school in October, ahead of the building’s planned opening next fall. But that collection of parents and community members hasn’t been able to settle on a definitive recommendation as the School Board gears up for a vote on the matter.

The 28-member committee was instead split down the middle on two options for the building: naming it simply “Stratford Middle School,” or dubbing it “Dorothy Hamm Middle School at the Historic Stratford Building.”

The group initially considered “Legacy Middle School at the Historic Stratford Building” as an option, but that choice fell out of favor as the process advanced. The committee even floated the compromise possibility of naming the building “Stratford-Hamm Middle School,” but stopped short of recommending such an option.

The building, located at 4100 Vacation Lane, currently houses the H-B Woodlawn program, but was once the site of Stratford Junior High School. That’s believed to be the first school in Virginia to admit black students following the momentous Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, lending plenty of historic significance to the site and its name.

But the “Stratford” name itself comes from a considerably darker part of the nation’s past. The name is derived from Stratford Hall, the plantation home of Robert E. Lee and his family in Westmoreland County.

Considering that the school system is in the midst of a contentious process to strip Lee’s name from Washington-Lee High School, any association with the Confederate general has the potential to kick off a new firestorm of controversy in the county. Accordingly, some members of the naming committee championed naming the building after Dorothy Hamm, a civil rights activist who helped lead a court challenge to Arlington’s school segregation policies, leading to the eventual integration of Stratford.

“The event signified the end of massive resistance in the commonwealth of Virginia and dealt a powerful blow to the opponents of racial equality nationwide,” Ellen Smith, the incoming principal of the new middle school, wrote in a letter to the Board. “While Hamm was the community activist at the forefront of the campaign to integrate Arlington Public Schools, she was not the only community activist that was determined to integrate Arlington schools so that all students would have the opportunity to receive an equal education.”

Smith noted in her letter that the committee was determined to see “Stratford” remain part of the name somehow, in order to maintain “the clear connection between the name of the school” and its historic integration. But by including it only as addendum beyond Hamm’s name, Smith wrote that some on the committee fear it will be “dropped from regular use.”

That’s why many would much rather simply name the school “Stratford.” The county’s Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board endorsed such an option, castigating the school system in a letter for even considering the possibility of a name other than Stratford “without any apparent prior consideration of the uniqueness and the historical and cultural significance” of the site.

A special committee convened by Superintendent Patrick Murphy to debate “Historic Interpretation at the Former Stratford Junior High School” reached a similar conclusion, noting that the school has earned inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.

“That the Stratford name comes from the birthplace of Robert E. Lee is an uncomfortable part of the history, but not the most important part,” Susan Cunningham, the co-chair of that committee, wrote in an email to ARLnow. “As community historian Dr. Arnold Taylor reminds us, ‘We have to understand where we are coming from so we can appreciate where we are going’… Names matter. History matters. At Stratford, the civil rights history matters most.”

Smith urged the Board to consider the opinions of both the commission and the review board, but otherwise would not take a firm position beyond suggesting one of the two names.

The Board will discuss naming options for the first time on Thursday (Dec. 6), with a final vote set for Dec. 20.

by Progressive Voice September 21, 2018 at 2:45 pm 0

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Cheryl Moore

In August, I travelled to Dilley, Texas, to volunteer for a week with immigrants who are seeking asylum. The South Texas Family Residential Center, 80 miles south of San Antonio, houses 2,400 women and children, most from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, who were apprehended by border patrol agents when trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t speak Spanish very well, but when I heard from an attorney friend about this opportunity, I felt compelled to go. With so many stories in the news about family separation, detention and the cruel treatment of immigrants at the border, this was my chance to “do something,” even if I didn’t know exactly what I would be doing. I wanted to be a witness to what is happening to immigrants coming to the U.S. amidst this unwelcoming political climate.

Along with other volunteers with the Dilley Pro Bono Project, my mission was to help women prepare for their Credible Fear Interview (CFI) with asylum officers. Receiving a “positive” after their interview means they are freed from detention (after paying a bond or submitting to wearing an ankle monitor) and can begin the long process of seeking asylum, as is their legal right under U.S. law.

It was not an easy week. We worked 12-hour days, filled with non-stop activity, noise and, often, tears.

For much of the week, I helped women fill out basic forms. As I showed them where to write their name, date of birth and other details, I learned part of their story. The answers to questions on the forms also offered clues about wrenching decisions some of the women had had to make when deciding to leave their country.

Some mothers asked, “Do I only put the name and birthday of the child who is here with me?” Clearly, many had had to leave another child behind. As a mother myself, I couldn’t imagine making that choice.

Other volunteers spent the week helping women prepare for their CFI by asking them to recount the testimony they would tell the asylum officer. Why did they leave their country? What persecution did they face there? What might happen if they went back home?

The extreme danger and violence our clients described was appalling — gangs, rape, death threats, kidnapping, extortion. We learned more about the culture and government of the countries that these women were fleeing, and about the extreme poverty and inequity that contribute to crime and lawlessness. It was clear that these women were escaping from systems that would never protect them. They were victims, not criminals; yet they were in a detention center.

With many CFI interviews looming toward the end of the week, I was asked to do some CFI preps on my own, working with an interpreter by telephone. Thanks to the in-depth training we received and wise counsel from the Dilley Pro Bono Project legal staff, I was able help two clients. It is not often that I feel I’m holding someone’s fate in my hands, but I did that day.

After I returned home, their faces swam before my eyes as I tried to go to sleep at night. Fortunately, I was able to check on their status and it appears that they both have been released from detention, and presumably are now with family or friends as they proceed through the asylum-seeking process.

While I may have helped some women start a new chapter in their lives, I will never know how their stories unfold. As with all mission work, the difference is in me. The women I met are part of my story now.

Back in Arlington, I will never look at the woman from Central America standing next to me in the supermarket line without contemplating her story. I will wonder what happened to make her leave her birthplace, and I will pray it wasn’t as bad as some of the stories I heard in that Texas detention center.

Above all, my week at the detention center reminded me that immigrant detention and family separation are more than just policy issues. They are human issues.

Cheryl Moore has lived in Arlington for 35 years. She has been a volunteer for Arlington Public Schools, her church, civic association, the Arlington Community Chorus, and many nonprofit organizations serving the Northern Virginia community. She continues to work on her Spanish language skills.

by Alex Koma August 30, 2018 at 4:45 pm 0

Arlington Democrats say they’re pushing for an open debate down in Richmond on a redrawing of some of the state’s electoral lines, but hope seems to be fading among state lawmakers that a special session convened on the issue will yield many results.

Gov. Ralph Northam reconvened the General Assembly today (Thursday) for its second gathering outside of normal business this year, with the avowed purpose of approving a new map governing district lines for 11 districts in the House of Delegates.

A three-judge panel on a federal court ruled last month that those districts, concentrated in the Richmond and Norfolk areas, were improperly drawn to pack African American voters into safely Democratic districts. The court gave lawmakers an Oct. 30 deadline to correct the problems it identified, or else it will appoint an independent arbiter to do so.

House Democrats introduced their own attempt at crafting a new map yesterday (Wednesday), but Republicans have so far declined to do the same. They’re appealing the federal court’s ruling on the districts all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, with the GOP’s slim, 51-49 majority in the House potentially hanging in the balance ahead of next November’s elections.

“We just feel Republicans are delaying, delaying on this,” Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49th District) told ARLnow. “The fact is, we’ve gone through four cycles with racially unconstitutional maps, and that’s eight years too long. It’s high time that we changed these maps.”

Republicans have charged, however, that Democrats haven’t engaged in the process in good faith. They argue that the map lawmakers presented is simply gerrymandering the map in the direction of Democrats, claiming that it would imperil five Republican-held districts while further shoring up margins of four Democratic districts.

“It’s clear that this is hypocritical partisan power grab that would fail to pass legal muster,” House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-15th District) wrote in a statement. “For almost a decade Democrats have pushed for so-called independent redistricting commissions. Yet when they had the chance to do so, they drew a partisan plan in secret without any input from the public or Republicans.”

Yet local Democrats like Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48th District) point out that Republicans controlled the General Assembly by wide margins when these lines were first drawn back in 2011, creating these “constitutional infirmities” in the first place.

Lopez, who doubles as House minority whip, believes there are a whole host of reasons why the Democratic proposal is worth considering — arguing it creates districts that are “compact, contiguous and protects community interests” — but he also notes that Republicans have so far declined to offer their own alternative.

“They’ve shown indication they’ll propose their own map,” Lopez said. “Even the court is calling them out for stalling, so we are in an interesting place right now. Hopefully, it’ll all work out.”

House Republicans agreed to debate the Democratic map in committee this afternoon, and Lopez and Sullivan would both like to see them bring it to the floor for debate in the coming days.

Yet Lopez’s hope is flagging on that count. The Supreme Court has already sent back a previous appeal of a ruling on the district lines to a lower court, but that was before then-Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement. With President Donald Trump’s nomination for a replacement, Brett Kavanaugh, expected to receive Congressional consideration next month, the GOP could hold out for a hearing from a court with a newly replenished conservative majority — and Lopez added that Democrats proposed setting a firm date to return and debate the maps, but Republicans defeated that measure.

“It’s up to the call of [Speaker Kirk Cox] for when we come back for next steps,” Lopez said. “We just don’t know right now.”

Sullivan, however, is a bit more hopeful. While he’d greatly prefer to see an independent commission of some kind draw district lines instead, he claims that Democrats are committed to “address the court’s concerns until the process changes.”

“I’m sort of a cockeyed optimist,” Sullivan said. “I would hope that the Republicans would engage on this issue, would debate the map we put in or put in one of their own. The court has asked them to do that, I think the citizens of Virginia want them to do that, and hopefully that’s what they’ll do.”

File photo

by Alex Koma August 28, 2018 at 1:45 pm 0

Plans for a new parking lot at the large “PenPlace” development in Pentagon City are shaping up to cause a bit of friction between county staff and the project’s developer.

JBG Smith is hoping to build a temporary, 204-space retail parking lot adjacent to the development, located on a nine-acre plot of land along S. Fern Street and just off Army Navy Drive. But Arlington officials would much rather see the developer construct a lot roughly a quarter of that size, over fears that so much parking would contribute to a car-dependent culture in the area.

The real estate firm argues that the parking is necessary to meet demands of the up to 50,000 square feet of retailers who will someday occupy the development, noting that the lot will only be a temporary necessity. Yet county staff have repeatedly insisted on changes, marking another dust-up over the development after officials previously expressed skepticism about JBG’s desire to significantly scale back the size of some buildings planned for the site.

The County Board approved the project back in 2013, when it was proposed by Vornado before the company spun off its D.C. holdings in a merger to form JBG Smith. Original plans called for three office buildings between 20 and 22 stories tall, an 18-story, 300-room hotel and a 300-unit apartment building between 16 and 18 stories tall.

JBG decided earlier this year to spread the residential space among two seven-story buildings instead, shifting the hotel rooms to some of the other buildings on the site, which prompted a new round of county scrutiny of the project.

Documents prepared for the project’s Site Plan Review Committee over the last few months show that county staff remain concerned about the reduced density on the site, citing the “dramatically lower heights and scale” of the seven-story buildings as especially problematic given their potential to house people close to the Pentagon City Metro station. Arlington planners previously called it “highly unusual” that a developer would seek to build something less dense than originally approved, though JBG executives have said the change was meant to “improve the pedestrian experience in the area.”

The newest debate centers around the parking lot proposed for a new segment of 11th Street S., which would sit behind two of the buildings to be built along S. Eads Street.

JBG argues that its plans for copious new retail in the area make the new lot essential, at least until another 1,600 parking spaces become available as the developer builds garages alongside the office buildings it has planned for the area.

“In addition, the applicant has claimed that a larger amount of parking is necessary due to the type of retailers being sought,” county staff wrote in a July 23 SPRC report on PenPlace. A JBG executive did not respond to a request for comment on the exact nature of the developer’s plans.

But to add so much parking for the new buildings, JBG needs an exception from the county’s zoning ordinance, which only lets developers construct one space for every 1,000 square feet of retail space. JBG’s proposal, by contrast, works out to about one space for every 196 square feet.

That’s a problem for county officials, who believe the parking lot “encourages auto traffic to the site, and proliferates surface parking.”

JBG has offered to shrink the size of the lot slightly, adding a 10,000-square-foot temporary dog park to cut the number of spaces to 180. Arlington planners wrote in the July 23 report that such an offer is an “improvement,” but lament that the change “does not address comments from staff regarding confining parking lots to future building footprints.”

So far, the SPRC has met four times to discuss the PenPlace plans, but does not yet have another meeting scheduled to hash out this dispute. Plans will ultimately need to go to the Planning Commission and then the County Board for final approval.

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