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Arlington Planning Commission is set to discuss Missing Middle housing in a blockbuster pair of meetings this week.
The first is happening tonight at 7 p.m., in the County Board room at Arlington County government headquarters (2100 Clarendon Blvd). County staff are set to give a presentation before the floor is opened to public comment from dozens of speakers.
Then, on Thursday, a second meeting is planned for members of the Planning Commission to discuss the current Missing Middle housing proposal, which has sparked a fierce community debate.
Planning Commission members are set to provide guidance, including on the scope of the Missing Middle proposal, to the County Board for its vote on advertising public hearings on the topic. That will precede additional Planning Commision and County Board votes on the final Missing Middle proposal, which are currently likely to happen at some point in early 2023.
Ahead of the meetings tonight and Thursday, of which we will have coverage the next day, we asked the GPT-3 artificial intelligence writing model to weigh in on the pros and cons of the Missing Middle issue, below, in what might be somewhat of a preview of the public comment.
Admittedly, the AI did not discuss trees, which have been a hot topic among many Missing Middle opponents.
Write an essay describing the pros and cons of re-zoning residential neighborhoods of Arlington, Virginia to permit lower density multifamily housing, such as townhouses and duplexes, also known as Missing Middle housing.
The debate over re-zoning residential neighborhoods of Arlington, Virginia to permit lower density multifamily housing, also known as Missing Middle housing, is a controversial one that has been debated for many years. On one side, there are those who argue that re-zoning residential neighborhoods to allow for the construction of Missing Middle housing represents a positive step in creating a more diverse and affordable housing market. On the other hand, there are those who oppose the idea, arguing that it will bring about changes to their neighborhood that they do not want or need. To understand the potential pros and cons of re-zoning residential neighborhoods of Arlington, Virginia to permit lower density multifamily housing, it is important to look at both sides of the argument.
The primary argument in favor of re-zoning residential neighborhoods of Arlington to allow for the construction of Missing Middle housing is that it could provide much-needed affordable housing in an area that is increasingly becoming unaffordable. In addition, it could create more diverse neighborhoods by allowing for a greater variety of housing types and styles. Furthermore, it could increase the local tax base and provide economic benefits to the area by creating more jobs and businesses. Finally, it could also help reduce traffic congestion by providing people with more options for living closer to where they work and play.
On the other hand, there are valid arguments against re-zoning residential neighborhoods of Arlington to permit Missing Middle housing. One of the primary concerns is that it could lead to an increase in traffic and congestion in the area, as well as an increase in noise and other nuisances. Additionally, some fear that it could lead to an increase in crime or an influx of renters who have little or no interest in being good neighbors. In addition, it could lead to an increase in property values, which could make it difficult for those who already own homes in the area to afford to remain there. Finally, there is also concern that it would lead to a decrease in the quality of life of existing residents, who may feel that their neighborhood is being changed in ways they do not want or need.
Ultimately, whether or not re-zoning residential neighborhoods of Arlington to permit Missing Middle housing is a good idea depends on the individual situation and the desires of residents. While there are potential pros and cons associated with this type of zoning change, it is important for local authorities to carefully consider all perspectives before making any decision.
In another preview of tonight’s rhetorical battle, the Washington Post weighed in on Missing Middle over the weekend, examining how the terminology used helps to shape the debate.
A proposed left-turn lane off of N. Glebe Road in Ballston could be the smallest, yet most scrutinized traffic change in 10 years.
As part of the planned redevelopment of the Ballston Macy’s, Insight Property Group proposes to add a left-turn option at the intersection of 7th Street N. and N. Glebe Road. It will be for drivers going southbound on Glebe who want to turn onto a proposed private drive abutting the planned grocery store, which will be located at the base of Insight’s proposed 16-story, 555-unit apartment building.
“It was the most thoroughly vetted transportation scenario in the time that I’ve been with Arlington County,” transportation planner Dennis Sellin, who has worked with the county for 10 years, told the Planning Commission last night (Monday).
During the meeting, the Planning Commission gave a green light to the redevelopment, which will go before the Arlington County Board for approval later this month.
After the Transportation Commission voted to defer the project solely on the basis of the left turn, Planning Commission members supported a condition for the project that county staff work with Insight and the Virginia Department of Transportation to come up with more pedestrian-oriented options for the intersection.
“I do not think it’s reasonable to hold up the project for this, given that there’s apparently continued good faith work on the intersection to improve its pedestrian-friendliness,” Commissioner Jim Lantelme said. “I want to make clear that the Planning Commission… expects that any option possible to make this intersection more pedestrian-friendly will be pursued.”
Sellin said a half-dozen staffers, including two top transportation officials, have thoroughly vetted the left-turn lane. They published a 64-page memo justifying the turn lane and will study how the grocery store changes traffic before adding any pedestrian mitigation measures.
“There’s a recommendation to not allow any right turns on red at any of the lights in the intersection,” he said. “That’s a movement we’ll take under further consideration. Our primary concern is safety, our secondary concern is operations.”
The left-turn lane is a non-negotiable for the grocer, who has otherwise been “insanely flexible” as the project has changed throughout the public process, according to Insight’s Managing Principal Trent Smith.
“We’ve shrunk their store, changed their ramps, taken away their parking… we changed their loading, we’ve done eight or nine things that took all sorts of reworking and they’ve stuck with us and have been great, reasonable partners throughout,” Smith said.
Insight’s attorney, Andrew Painter, says the unnamed grocer required the left turn based on “decades of experience in urban configurations.” He added that for a decade, the grocer has desired to be in Ballston, which already has a Harris Teeter nearby on N. Glebe Road, a quarter-mile away.
Some Planning Commissioners noted their regret that the project does not do more to provide on-site affordable housing.
“This space here, in the heart of Arlington, in Ballston, where there’s access to transit, and now a grocery store, we have nothing,” Commissioner Devanshi Patel said.
(Updated at 3:50 p.m.) The Missing Middle housing debate fueled a tense confrontation and a spat over campaign financing during the Arlington County Board meeting Saturday.
Leading up to the meeting, proponents and opponents rallied outside of county government headquarters in Courthouse. Advocacy group leaders spoke to attendees and NBC 4 over the clang of construction on a new apartment building across the street.
The County Board is gearing up to consider whether to amend the zoning code to allow for buildings with two to eight units on lots that are currently zoned only for single-family detached homes. The Planning Commission and County Board could consider amendments to the proposal over the next few months.
Proponents say the move would give homebuyers more choices in more neighborhoods in a broader range of prices, and help undo the lasting impacts of historically racist zoning policies. Opponents counter these changes will actually displace lower-income residents, won’t decrease home prices, will reduce Arlington’s tree canopy and strain its infrastructure and schools.
In the County Board room this weekend, a resident interrupted the conclusion of an anti-Missing Middle speech to hand each County Board member a rolled-up, printed-out copy of a petition opposing the changes, which had more than 4,460 signatures as of publication.
“No, no — sir, sir, sir — excuse me, please, please, please don’t approach the Board,” said a distressed and frustrated sounding Board Chair Katie Cristol. “Please, can you please go to our Clerk? Sir? Thank you.”
Missing Middle advocate Charles Day then took the podium to say that the status quo — redevelopment of starter homes into larger, multi-million-dollar homes — increases competition for existing market-rate affordable housing, like the garden apartment on Columbia Pike he and his wife live in, thus displacing lower-income families.
“It’s not lost on us that because of lack of starter homes, couples like us are taking up an apartment that a lower-income family might need,” he said. “Unfortunately, most young people don’t have a lot of options… There’s no silver bullet to solve the housing crisis overnight but rents continue to rise and the starter home is becoming a thing of the past.”
After him, independent County Board candidate Audrey Clement, speaking via Zoom, took a shot at the Sun Gazette’s endorsement of her opponent, incumbent Matt de Ferranti. She argued that de Ferranti supports Missing Middle because he’s taking money from construction workers.
“About $50,000 of de Ferranti’s large donor intake is from people and organizations outside the county, mostly outside the state, including $13,500 from construction trade unions destined to benefit from the Missing Middle building boom,” she said. “If the donations from those with no vested interest in the county were subtracted haul, his receipts would shrink to $19,000 and the election would be more competitive.”
According to Virginia Public Access Project, de Ferranti has received roughly $15,000 this year from unions representing construction workers, around the same amount as he received from a single, billionaire-funded education nonprofit.
De Ferranti said he refuses donation from developers and that donations from unions do not change his policy stances.
“I don’t take a dime from developers. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I learned that one donation that was submitted online had an association with a developer — and I returned it,” de Ferranti said in response. “I have no promises to any of the unions, I merely seek to fight for working people. Let’s have a debate on policy, let’s have a debate on equity, let’s do it civilly, please.”
(Updated at 4:35 p.m.) The Arlington County Board is eyeing December for a vote on residential zoning changes suggested by the county’s Missing Middle Housing Study.
But changes to the study’s draft framework — for allowing multi-family homes with up to 8 units on properties currently zoned only for single family homes — seem likely.
The Board discussed the often-contentious community feedback to the proposal and possible modifications at a work session Tuesday afternoon. As they talked with county staff and amongst themselves, residents — many with signs supporting or opposing the proposal — packed the Board room and watched with interest.
The feedback, county staff said in a presentation, has been mixed but more negative than positive. Of note is the split between feedback from residents of single-family detached homes and those who live in apartments, condos and townhouses.
Asked whether any housing types, from townhouses to 8-plexes, should be removed from the proposal, 78% of single-family detached home residents who provided feedback said yes, indicating opposition to the current proposal, while 70% of those who live in other housing types said no, indicating support.
Arlington has about 29,000 single-family detached homes and 79,000 townhouses, apartments, condos and other housing types, the staff presentation said.
Though critics of the missing middle proposal have been calling for more public outreach and feedback, county staff argued that they conducted extensive outreach, including 150,000 postcards, nine pop-up events, six walking tours and an online feedback form.
The online feedback form received 2.5 times as many negative comments as positive comments, the staff presentation said, though feedback at the pop-up events and through emails and letters was more positive, with roughly 2.5 times more positive comments as negative via email.
County staff noted that the vast majority of those responding to the feedback form said they own a single-family detached home and reported “white” or “prefer not to respond” under “race and ethnicity.”
Given the overrepresentation of white homeowners in providing online feedback, staff said they used the county’s “equity lens” and decided to hold pop-up events in areas with renters and minority residents, so as to gather more feedback from those groups.
All told, staff told the Board that it has received “strong” interest and extensive input from the community about the proposal.
“The feedback was fast and furious and ongoing,” said Dept. of Community Planning, Housing and Development Communications Manager Erika Moore.
Following the staff presentation, the Board discussed aspects of the proposal and posed questions to staff.
Board members Libby Garvey and Matt de Ferranti — who is up for reelection in November — both expressed concern about putting eight housing units in the footprint of a single-family home in an otherwise single-family home neighborhood.
“The eight units makes me kind of uncomfortable,” Garvey said
“I share the concern with the 8-units for this specific reason, I think it will result in more small half bedroom units,” de Ferranti agreed, joining other Board members in expressing support for “missing middle” homes with more bedrooms, which could house a family.
There was also discussion of whether missing middle zoning should be limited to transit corridors, which received pushback from some members.
Sparks flew during the County Board meeting on Saturday (June 18), where supporters and opponents of the proposed missing middle housing framework faced off.
Supporters of the proposal like YIMBYs of Northern Virginia, which supports denser housing options, filled rows of seats at the meeting. They held up signs saying “Missing middle yes,” “Arlington is for everyone” and “Won’t you be my neighbor.”
Meanwhile, opponents like Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future (ASF) — an advocacy group against increased housing density — packed the other side of the room. They held up signs saying “The Arlington way has gone astray” and “Save our neighborhood. No upzoning here. No duplexes+ here.”
Wells Harrell, who spoke in support of the proposed changes to housing policy — which would allow smaller-scale multifamily housing in neighborhoods currently zoned only for single-family homes — said it gave more people the choice to live in Arlington. He said the policy was also popular among renters, people of color, and younger generations like Millennials.
“We see 170 homes torn down every single year, do you choose to let some of those homes be replaced with missing middle homes that add more variety, increase more capacity and cost less than the big expensive mansions that would go up instead?” he said during the County Board’s public comment period.
Proud to have been at this meeting to support an inclusive Arlington! @yimbyaction https://t.co/RkKsbhemSY
— Kathleen Otal ☮️ (she/her) (@KathleenOtal) June 19, 2022
On the other hand, Anne Bodine, who spoke on behalf of ASF, said increasing housing density would displace long-term residents with an influx of “mostly whiter and wealthier newcomers” and raise housing costs “through inflated land values.”
“We ask you to postpone the missing middle work session until September, project total population increase of maximum missing middle buildout along with other density measures taken since 2018, and prepare forecast comparing impacts of current zoning on the environment, the budget and demographic outcomes,” she said.
In a subsequent press release, ASF said its supporters “berated the Board” for “a pursuit of ‘density first’ [that comes] at a very great social and financial cost.”
Emotions ran so high as to elicit boos and shouts for speakers like Harrell and for County Board Chair Katie Cristol, when she cut off another speaker for violating the “one speaker per topic” rule.
(Other speakers were able to get around the rule, however, by talking about their concerns on the effects of increased housing density on schools and the county budget.
Residents Blast Arlington Board for Lack of Development Planning —
County Board Shuts Down Public Comment on Density
The Arlington Way Has Gone Astray https://t.co/3593b7rDS6 pic.twitter.com/UEWVFDcF8n
— Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future (@asfvirginia) June 21, 2022
Stacy Meyer, representing the Arlington County Civic Federation, said her organization would like to see the County Board reach out to adjacent neighborhoods and their civic associations when reviewing upzoning proposals and General Land Use Plan amendments.
The Civic Federation believes upzoning “frequently entails encroachment into lower density residential neighborhoods” and that “residents have no approval rights and little leverage for negotiation” in the face of proposed upzoning, according to a resolution passed by the organization.
A draft missing middle housing policy framework calls for allowing multifamily housing from townhouses to eight-plexes, depending on lot size, provided the building does not exceed the size currently allowed for single-family homes. Current zoning in Arlington restricts most residential land to building only single-family homes.
The County Board did not respond to the arguments raised on the proposed housing policy during the meeting. A work session on the policy is scheduled on Tuesday, July 12, according to the County Board’s website, while the online feedback form for phase two of the Missing Middle Housing Policy is open, according to the study’s website.
Missing Middle update: Work is underway to compile and analyze public feedback collected so far, but you can still share input via this form: https://t.co/8A061VxGgG. For more info, visit https://t.co/kbONmLmDDk. pic.twitter.com/Uy9sr0NPrg
— Plan Arlington VA (@planArlingtonVA) June 17, 2022
Should the Board vote next month to advance to the next phase of the Missing Middle Housing Study, it could set up a vote on zoning changes by the fall.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”