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Police on scene of a carjacking in Pentagon City (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Carjackings appear to be rising again in Arlington and across the D.C. area.

An uptick between 2019 and 2020 spurred Arlington County Police Department to focus prevention efforts on robbery, burglary and destruction of property incidents. Increased enforcement in 2021 resulted in fewer carjackings, after ACPD made two significant carjacking arrests, per ACPD’s 2021 annual report.

“The combination of the collaboration and the education and proactive work that ACPD did reduce the carjackings and then reduced the stealing of cars in general,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who participated in a regional effort to crack down on carjackings during that time. “With that reduction, less collaboration was needed, but we are working together to make sure that we’re doing the same coordination as before with other jurisdictions.”

But now the crime — in which a person steals a victim’s car by force, threat or intimidation — seems to be ticking up again, with five carjackings in January 2023 compared to zero carjackings in January 2022 and 14 throughout the 2022 calendar year, according to stats provided by ACPD.

Meanwhile, across the river in D.C., one Arlingtonian was carjacked near Union Station and another resident’s Rolls Royce was stolen near Logan Circle, according to police reports.

Dehghani-Tafti said the social science data shows the certainty of being caught is the strongest deterrent from people committing crimes, but deterrence can be harder with carjacking.

“These can be hard crimes to solve because people get away so fast and cars change hands so quickly, they take a lot of collaboration and coordination and proactive action,” she said.

Law enforcement and the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney say they’re devoting more resources to combat these crimes.

ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage says the department “continues to deploy increased police resources, to include both visible and non-visible assets, in Crystal City and the surrounding neighborhoods to address this crime trend.”

“The Arlington County Police Department remains a member of the FBI Violent Crimes Task Force which coordinates on offenses such as carjackings,” she said. “As part of our ongoing investigative efforts into these incidents, detectives are working collaboratively with our regional law enforcement partners to share information, identify trends, apprehend suspects and hold them accountable for their actions.”

Dehghani-Tafti, meanwhile, is meeting with a division of Virginia State Police on vehicle thefts, generally.

Two units in the VSP Fairfax Division are “partnering to take a more concentrated and analytical look at vehicle thefts within the Northern Virginia region,” state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said. “This is not uncommon for state police to do, as we consistently look for ways to address any crime patterns that develop and identify ways to strategically address and resolve them.”

Fact patterns 

Of the five reported carjackings last month in Arlington, four were in the Crystal City and Pentagon City areas — where many such incidents were concentrated during the last spree — and three involved BMWs.

“In recent cases, carjacking suspects have generally approached victims as they were inside their idling parked vehicles, brandished a firearm and demanded the victim’s keys and property,” per an Arlington police press release, sent in response to the uptick. “In some cases, the suspects approach the victim by pulling alongside them in a vehicle, which is later determined to be stolen. Reported incidents in Arlington have generally involved multiple suspects.”

While some are threatened with guns, other victims are attacked when they exit their cars.

On Jan. 27, a Columbia Pike resident was exiting his car near Union Station in D.C. to let out an Uber customer when he was attacked and the attacker drove away in his car. The victim and another driver idling behind him chased the alleged carjacker for nearly a mile. Stuck behind a dump truck, the suspect reversed the stolen car and hit the pursuing car. The duo apprehended the suspect but ultimately let go, citing fear for their safety and a growing crowd, according to a Metropolitan Police Department incident report.

The car was later returned to the owner.

Arlington police issued the following safety tips for residents in response to the recent spate of carjackings.

  • When inside your vehicle, keep your doors locked and windows up
  • Exit your vehicle and continue to your destination promptly after parking
  • Be aware of your surroundings when entering and exiting your vehicle
  • Limit your use of devices that may distract you, such as cell phones and headphones
  • Don’t leave items unattended or visible in your vehicle

One woman’s story

Some two-and-a-half years ago, then-Alexandria resident Lauren Brown was similarly attacked while waiting to turn left onto S. Glebe Road near the Harris Teeter in Potomac Yard. She told ARLnow her experience as a cautionary tale.

A group of 18-year-olds in a stolen car hit Brown. After pleading with her not to call the police — with whom she was already on the phone — they drove away. They returned, and one occupant hit her while the other got in her car and they drove away.

“It’s a really crazy thing what adrenaline does to your body,” she said. “I didn’t feel [the injury] until a few days later.”

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Sponsored by Monday Properties and written by ARLnow, Startup Monday is a weekly column that highlights Arlington-based startups, founders, and local tech news. Monday Properties is proudly featuring 1515 Wilson Blvd in Rosslyn. 

A relatively new app that helps startups navigate the labyrinthine government contracting process, collaborate with each other and land contracts has recently nabbed its third state funding round.

The goal of the app, called FedScout, is to improve the outcomes for companies that set out to work for the government. Of the 120,000 companies that register to sell to the government each year, about 60% drop out after the first year because of how difficult the process is, according to the app’s founder, Geoff Orazem.

Orazem founded the Eastern Foundry — a coworking incubator for government contractors that has since gone out of business.

“Ever since I left the Marine Corps and McKinsey & Company, this is what I’ve been trying to do: Make the federal government work with startups more effectively,” he tells ARLnow. “This is just the new chapter toward that goal.”

Orazem founded Eastern Foundry in Crystal City in 2014, later expanding to Rosslyn, adding space to its Crystal City location in 2017 and expanding to North Carolina in 2019. While these coworking spaces fostered collaboration between tenants of each space, he said Eastern Foundry just couldn’t encourage “cross-pollination” from Crystal City to Rosslyn for which he had hoped.

Eastern Foundry in Rosslyn in November 2019 (Staff photo by Jay Westcott)

“It turns out, even though [Rosslyn and Crystal City] are only 15 minutes apart, people are busy and it’s hard to convince people to drive, find parking and then pick up kids from soccer,” he said, adding that fostering collaboration between Virginia and North Carolina was an even taller task.

Then came the one-two punch of the rise and fall of WeWork — which, supported by large foreign investors, was able to pump out offices while hemorrhaging money — and the remote work shift caused by Covid. But by 2021, Eastern Foundry closed a checking account that contained $0 and court records indicated the coworking company had no cash and neither owned or leased any commercial property, according to the Washington Business Journal, which reported the company’s bankruptcy filings in 2022.

“WeWork distorted a market. The wake off their bow put a hole in us and then we went straight into Covid. I don’t think there’s a world where we could stay open. We were one of many operators that went under,” he said. “[That] was eight years of my pride, love and personal money. Eastern Foundry’s demise was a huge loss.”

His saving grace was a separate company he founded in 2016, called Federal Foundry.

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Permit Arlington logo (via Arlington County)

Nearly all land development permits that Arlington County issues are now online.

Following the launch of the online Permit Arlington in 2019 with 18 digitized permits, county staff have since added others. The last batch of land development permits — Certificate of Occupancy applications — are set to launch the week of Feb. 27.

Most recently, over last summer, the county migrated the building, trade and land-disturbing activity permits, which are “some of our highest volume permits,” says Dept. of Community Housing, Planning and Development spokeswoman Erika Moore.

“We issue about 16,000 building and trades permits and conduct about 60,000 inspections, annually,” she said.

Making this move caused some technical difficulties for both the county and users. There was an initial delay with issuing permits right after moving to the new system, but overall, “the processing time for permits has not increased,” she said.

“The work associated with these types of permits [has] a higher level of complexity due to the nature of construction projects,” Moore said. “Therefore, there was a large number of active permit applications that needed to be migrated to the new system, which presented technological challenges. Additionally, many applicants were new and not familiar with the system, which generated a high volume of requests for assistance.”

She says the Permit Arlington team has been working through issues submitted by customers. It has led to an increase in the size of the help desk team and, in response to customer inquiries, has added “how-to” documents to navigate the new system.

“With the phased launches of Permit Arlington, we are moving from a system with 1990 technology to a modern system,” Moore said. “We intentionally also made the decision to move all the data from the old system to the new system to have a full historical record of permits, rather than just focusing on active or new applications.”

Permit records are most up-to-date in Permit Arlington. The old permit search platform is only updated through June 27, 2022, when digitized building, trade and land-disturbing activity permits launched.

Ahead of the most recent Arlington County Board election, candidates praised Permit Arlington, adding that increasing the number of permits submitted through Permit Arlington and providing more funding for it would help local businesses.

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(Updated at 4:15 p.m.) A march against drugs drew a large crowd of parents and community members to Wakefield High School, where a student died this week.

Sergio Flores was found unconscious in the bathroom Tuesday morning and rushed to the hospital in critical condition. He died Thursday and his death is being investigated as a possible overdose.

Latino parents, mostly mothers, planned the march as a way to show love and support for their children.

Classes were canceled for Wakefield students today (Friday) after the overdose this week and a lockdown Thursday prompted by a possibly armed trespasser. Arlington County police have since arrested an 18-year-old man in connection with the trespassing incident.

Still, parents marched, carrying signs saying “Your community is here for you!” and “Queremos lo mejor para nuestros hijos,” Spanish for “We want the best for our children.”

The idea came from a community meeting held by community activists Elder Julio Basurto and Janeth Valenzuela — who wear many hats, but this time, were organizing under their organization, Juntos en Justicia. They have been advocating for more attention to opioids in Arlington Public Schools for more than a year through the organization.

https://twitter.com/ElderBasurto/status/1621615797981290496

Attendance swelled and other community members, as well as some School Board and County Board members, joined the march.

“It was very scary for me to read the student involved in the drug incident has died,” said Green Valley resident Frederick Craddock. “That just gives you an example: It’s in our neighborhood schools. It’s in the home somewhere, so then parents have a big role. It’s all got to come together. Maybe this will raise more awareness of the issue.”

Rebecca Brunner said three generations of her family have attended Wakefield. The high school needs police officers returned and the school system needs to be more transparent, she said.

“Don’t tell us there’s a medical emergency when a child ODed. Tell us the truth so we know what to tell our children, we know how to talk to them, we know to tell them, ‘don’t take anything,'” she said. “Fentanyl is out there.”

“Yesterday, I’m getting a video from inside the school of the SWAT team coming through the doors with assault rifles and they’re telling us, ‘Oh, we might have a possible trespasser,'” Brunner continued. “Yeah, something way more than that is going on.”

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A duplex in Halls Hill (via Arlington County)

(Updated at 6:15 p.m.) The Arlington branch of the NAACP — previously a champion of Arlington’s Missing Middle housing proposal — is claiming the proposal now being deliberated is in danger of violating federal and state fair housing laws.

After hearing nearly 200 public speeches and convening three meetings in mid-January, the Arlington County Board approved a request to authorize hearings on proposed zoning changes that would allow small-scale multifamily buildings with up to six homes in districts zoned exclusively for single-family detached homes.

In so doing, the Board removed an option to consider buildings with seven or eight units and retained an option to impose higher lot size minimums for five-plexes and six-plexes outside of major transit corridors.

NAACP Arlington Branch President Mike Hemminger, Housing Committee Chair Bryan J. Coleman and Secretary Wanda Younger decried the move in a letter released yesterday (Thursday) to Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey.

“The NAACP fiercely opposes these restrictions and urges the County Board to enact only the set of options that will supply our community with the highest number of attainable homes across all of Arlington’s residential neighborhoods,” they write. “The NAACP will not be a bystander as government policies recreate discriminatory effects of the past by preventing people of color from enjoying the same benefits as those living in the county’s wealthiest, whitest neighborhoods.”

Arlington County Board members say they support the zoning changes to partially undo the lasting impacts of housing policy decisions that excluded people of color from many neighborhoods, such as racially restrictive deed covenants, the decision to ban rowhouses — popular among Black people but deemed “distasteful” by local leaders at the time — and a physical wall white residents built to keep out Black people from the Halls Hills neighborhood.

But removing eight-plexes and entertaining lot size minimums are “land use policies that have significant, unjustified disparate impacts on people of color,” which the Fair Housing Act prohibits, the NAACP said.

These restrictions will result in more expensive new construction and create “unequal housing opportunities in the same neighborhoods from which people of color have long been historically excluded.”

These policies would result in more expensive new construction, they say, citing an Arlington County presentation indicating six- or eight-plexes would be attainable for households making $108,000 to $118,000, compared to the $124,000 to $160,000 needed for three- and four-plexes.

Expected housing costs for new construction, by income level (via Arlington County)

By its calculations, the NAACP leaders say, increasing the household income needed from $100,000 to $150,000 would result in some 44% of white households able to buy, compared to 20.3% of Black and 24.3% of Latino households.

That means the number of Black households who can afford Missing Middle homes would decrease by 43% and Latino households by 38%, compared to white households, 32%.

The issue of whether to allow seven- and eight-plexes split the County Board. Members Matt de Ferranti and Takis Karantonis and Vice-Chair Libby Garvey supported removing these options while member Katie Cristol and Chair Christian Dorsey did not.

De Ferranti has argued against it on the grounds that these are mostly going to be rental 1- and 2-bedroom properties, which are not the types of units that Arlington is aiming to build more of through Missing Middle.

But the NAACP maintains that this line of reasoning tacitly endorses “‘camouflaged’ racial expressions” made by members of the public. Read More

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Many drivers have circled around blocks in Arlington, looking for a quick parking spot to slide into and pick up a mobile food order.

Or they may have skirted around a car double parked in a bike or vehicle travel lane, hazards flashing, rather than waiting for a spot to appear.

During the pandemic, the county created temporary “pick-up, drop-off spots.” Coming out of the emergency, most of these spots were converted to short-term parking spaces, with input from business improvement districts and neighborhood stakeholders, Dept. of Environmental Services spokeswoman Katie O’Brien tells ARLnow.

Still, food deliveries and contactless ordering options are likely here to stay. Some businesses that are now more reliant on takeout and delivery are concerned they’ll soon lose revenue as curbside parking spots are repurposed for, among other uses, protected bike lanes.

The county says one solution could be adjusting parking times, armed with data that will be collected through new parking pilot program.

Brooklyn Bagel Bakery in Courthouse (2055 Wilson Blvd), for instance, says it has lost four spots to a bike lane that developer Greystar agreed to install during construction for the “Landmark” block redevelopment project across the street.

(There is also a small private parking lot behind the retail strip.)

Speaking on behalf of Brooklyn Bagel — as well as neighboring businesses Courthouse Kabob, California Tortilla and TNR Cafe — Dawn Houdaigui asked the Board on Jan. 21 for a compromise.

“We believe in the protected bike lanes that have already gone in, that are blocking our spaces now, but we need to understand how we can share the space in front of us and how things can be reconsidered,” she said during the public comment period. “This is super important to the businesses who changed our business model after Covid. We have a lot of deliveries, we have people who come run in out front.”

She asked for more notice of proposed changes as well as notice when spots will be lost.

“A letter went out — supposedly it was hand-delivered by someone having lunch at our bagel store — and supposedly an email went out the same day,” she said. “We missed the meeting. Only one person from the businesses were there.”

County Board Chair Christian Dorsey and County Manager Mark Schwartz referred her to the county’s ombudsman and constituent services.

In general, the county is looking into the twin issues of temporary parking and combatting double-parking both systematically and on a case-by-case basis, O’Brien said.

As for specific cases, like Brooklyn Bagel’s, the county follows a six-step public engagement process for projects that impact neighbors, businesses and property owners.

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(Updated on 02/03/23 at 11:55 a.m.) Many parents of children at Key Elementary School are outraged at the way a possible threat of gun violence by a student was handled by administrators.

The mother of the child who was targeted told ARLnow what happened the day the threat occurred, on Jan. 19, and the fallout. Parents say school leaders took too long to involve the police and are now providing piecemeal updates that raise more questions than answer them.

“They just really didn’t know what to do in this situation,” the mother, Katherine, said. “No one can tell me their threat response… It’s a lot of blanks.”

Arlington Public Schools says it has identified those involved and “taken steps to provide appropriate consequences and to protect the safety of all students,” spokesman Frank Bellavia said in a statement.

Meanwhile, it is reviewing the decisions that administrators made to determine if protocols need to be re-evaluated, per emails shared with ARLnow. On Tuesday, Acting Principal Iliana Gonzales took over for Principal Marleny Perdomo, a personnel matter on which APS said it cannot comment.

Katherine and other parents say they do not know why the the police were not immediately called and whether gaps in local and state statutes contributed to the delayed involvement of law enforcement.

APS says school leaders are instructed to “immediately call 911 or law enforcement when there is an imminent threat to student or staff safety.” State law and School Board policy, however, only require principals to call the police if a student is found with a gun, and APS maintains it did not have sufficient evidence to search students for one after the Jan. 19 threat.

The seemingly cautious approach at Key Elementary contrats with lockdowns and large police responses over reports of a potentially armed trespasser today (Thursday) at Wakefield High School as well as prior school shooter threats that later turn out to be false reports.

“A lockdown is determined based on established procedures and training that every staff receive at least annually. Lockdowns can be initiated by any staff member or law enforcement based on conditions at the school,” Bellavia said. “Searches are conducted when there is reasonable grounds and reasonable suspicion of a student or group of students. In this case, there was no search conducted.”

Principals are required to immediately notify parents of minor students who are the target of written threats, but Katherine alleges that many hours passed between when the note was found and she was called.

Parents say the decisions not to search for a weapon and not to immediately call the police are concerning following the Jan. 6 shooting in Newport News, Virginia. A 6-year-old boy was able to shoot and seriously injure a teacher because school administrators never called the police, removed the boy from class or initiated a lock down, despite multiple warnings from staff, a lawyer for the wounded teacher alleges.

“I’m so thankful it didn’t end in gunshots like it did in Newport News, but the school didn’t know it wouldn’t and the school didn’t do anything to make sure it didn’t,” a Key School mother told ARLnow, requesting anonymity for fear of retribution.

Administrators have admitted to parents that there were missteps.

“There were some misactions that happened in terms of the response to the threat and subsequently what took place in terms of communication. We acknowledge that,” said Chief of School Support Kimberley Graves during a meeting with Key parents last week, per a recording provided to ARLnow.

“We can’t go back and change what happened,” Graves continued. “There are going to be things that we do to help support this community and things we’re going to do to make certain every effort in place to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.” Read More

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Police and firefighters on scene of a reported overdose at Wakefield High School (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated at 9:55 p.m. on 2/3/23) A coalition of parents will be marching on Friday at Wakefield High School to encourage students not to use drugs and to demand a countywide response to in-school opioid use.

The planned silent demonstration responds to an apparent drug overdose on school grounds discovered yesterday morning (Tuesday). An unconscious student was found in a boys bathroom and taken to the hospital in critical condition. Medics evaluated four additional kids at the school and students were released early so police could conduct an investigation.

Parents who plan on marching came up with the idea during a Spanish-language Zoom call hosted by Juntos en Justicia (Together in Justice in Spanish), a community advocacy group, last night after the news of the overdose spread.

“We’re going to walk to Wakefield with signs of encouragement and love for students,” said Juntos en Justicia founder Janeth Valenzuela. “We want to let them know they’re not alone.”

She said co-founder Elder Julio Basurto intend to meet with Superintendent Francisco Durán. Kenmore Community Families in Action, a school community-based organization which she helped found, intends to host a meeting open to all parents on Thursday, Feb. 23 at Kenmore Middle School.

“Every community has this issue,” said Valenzuela, who previously sounded the alarm about opioids in a report ARLnow published last fall.

Last night, parents floated a number of APS responses, including an immediate increase in school security.

“You can improve your security right now. You can check the bathrooms right now,” said Basurto. “We continue to have reports about distribution inside the school, and usage in hallways, bathrooms and classrooms. We still have reports of… people coming in and out of buildings without being checked.”

They heard from parents that drug deals involving dealers from within and outside Arlington are facilitated via social media and that some students are, allegedly, bullied into taking drugs.

Many meeting participants expressed a desire for the return of School Resource Officers, Basurto and Valenzuela said. The Arlington School Board removed them from school buildings to decrease racial disparities in interactions with police inside school buildings.

Should SROs be reinstated — a process that the Arlington County Police Department have previously said could take years due to staffing shortages — Valenzuela said some feel the dynamic could be different because of recent policing reforms. Anecdotally, she said newer recruits “don’t treat us with disregard” during stops or when responding to 911 calls.

“Parents think that the respect for the uniform will alleviate the problems,” she said.

Parents asked about supervised after-school programming and suggested that the Arlington County Dept. of Parks and Recreation update existing programs to be more relevant to younger generations and do fresh promotion.

Some parents want more effective disciplinary action for students caught dealing drugs while others want the zoning code to prohibit vape shops from opening near schools.

Basurto says APS needs to evaluate the efficacy of existing drug abuse curricula in schools.

“Just because we have presentations doesn’t mean we’re having success,” he said.

Last year, APS published a newsletter summarizing the work by its six substance abuse counselors, staff and teachers and Arlington Addiction Recovery Initiative to combat the opioid crisis. These are some of the efforts to date:

  • Substance use counselors have trained more than 100 school staff on how to reverse an opioid overdose using naloxone, known by the brand name “Narcan”
  • AARI provided some 65 boxes of Narcan throughout school buildings
  • Counselors and AARI are developing resource folders and medication deactivation bags for families and have  provided community education at PTA meetings, school events and online
  • Counselors added a K-12 over-the-counter medication safety curriculum this year and provide regular education on avoiding use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs in the middle and high schools, as well as lessons for fourth and fifth-grade students

Last night, more than 100 parents tried to log into the Zoom meeting and Valenzuela constantly let in new people as others logged off. The demand for information and action underscores the longstanding concern among parents, Basurto says.

“We’ve been telling the schools for over a year now about the situation in Arlington Public Schools, we’ve shared concerns specifically about Wakefield,” he said. “This is a serious problem and we need to take immediate action on these issues.”

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Renovations to a pair of office buildings in Crystal City, including the construction of a new pedestrian plaza, are set to wrap up this spring.

Work kicked off last year at the Century Center towers, located at the intersection of Crystal Drive and S. Clark Street. Some older retail space between the buildings, previously known as Century One (2450 Crystal Drive) and Century Two (2461 S. Clark Street), was torn down to make room for the plaza.

Now, the upgrades to the 50-year-old buildings and the plaza between them are in the home stretch and set to be completed this spring, per an announcement from MRP Realty and LaSalle Investment Management. As part of the refresh, the towers are being rebranded simply as “Crystal & Clark.”

The exteriors and mall interior of the old Century Center buildings were “dated and washed-out,” per a press release. Now, the buildings “balance modern design with biophilic and organic touches” and feature “vibrant retail.”

The plaza, meanwhile, “is a reimagined central gathering hub between the two buildings,” per the release.  It will be lined by retail, including a new Primrose Schools Early Education & Care location and forthcoming retailers in casual and fine dining, medical care and boutique fitness, as well as a food market, according to the building’s website.

“Century Center was an outmoded design with limited amenities and much-needed indoor/outdoor spaces for the offices, further complemented by the retail-accessible pedestrian plaza shared by the two buildings,” said Frederick Rothmeijer, Founding Principal of MRP’s Development, Construction Management and Asset Management operations, in a statement. “Our strategic plan executed with Davis Construction brings a palpable vitality to this property, and to the neighborhood, located in the center of the burgeoning National Landing.”

As part of the renovations, the plaza has new outdoor seating and gathering areas while the buildings have increased street-level retail and restaurant spaces, as well as streetscape improvements.

Inside, refreshed features include a new lobby and “the largest office conference center in National Landing,” per the press release. That’s in addition to a fitness center with locker rooms, second- and third-floor terraces with indoor and outdoor meeting spaces and a “townhall” amenity space.

“With our keen appreciation of the National Landing neighborhood, we are pleased to see the redevelopment come to fruition,” said Shaun Broome, Managing Director at LaSalle Investment Management. “We believe it will be a significant draw for new tenants and an improved chapter for those who have been onsite for years.”

The renovations have already attracted a “strong contingent of office leases,” despite the difficult office leasing environment, per the release. Arlington’s overall office vacancy rate is currently above 21%.

Raytheon renewed the lease for its corporate headquarters at the Crystal City office complex in 2021, with 120,000 square feet of space on six floors across both buildings.

In total, 2450 Crystal Drive comprises 336,229 square feet of office space and 51,443 square feet of retail. Of that, 36,000 square feet are leased out or a lease is being negotiated. 2461 S. Clark Street has 232,969 square feet of office space and 5,000 square feet of retail now under lease of the total 18,980 available.

“Once prospective tenants visit the site and see this radically improved office and retail environment — especially the food and dining choices, along with a continuing vision set in the very center of National Landing, the value of this position will be undeniable,” said Gary Cook, Senior Vice President Leasing for Lincoln Property Company, in a statement. “The ‘office lifestyle’ here is a game-changer that I believe all current and future tenants celebrate as we seek to bring them new synergistic neighbors to the building.”

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Fairlington author Amina Luqman-Dawson has received two awards for her novel, “Freewater.”

The middle-grade book about a secret community of formerly enslaved people living in the wilderness received both the John Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Book Award from the American Library Association. The awards were announced yesterday (Monday).

“I think I cried, and then I screamed, and then I cried,” Luqman-Dawson tells ARLnow. “It was pretty bad for people on the phone. I was honored — absolutely completely honored and overjoyed… I can’t even put it into words and that’s what I do for a living.”

Luqman-Dawson is the first Black woman to win both the John Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award, per a press release from Arlington Public Library. The Newbery Medal is to the author of “the most distinguished contributions to American literature for children,” while the Coretta Scott King Book Award recognizes an African American author and illustrator of “outstanding books for children and young adults,” the release said.

“We are beyond happy for Amina Luqman-Dawson and her extraordinary achievement. ‘Freewater’ is an important story and deserves to be read by every middle school student,” said Library Director Diane Kresh in a statement. “On the eve of Black History Month, congratulations to our talented Arlington author. Thank you for sharing your voice.”

“Freewater” is a work of historical fiction is based on the history of Maroons: African Americans who escaped slavery and formed their own settlements in the wilderness, in seemingly uninhabitable locations like the Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.

“Maroons… found ways to live free, clandestine lives in the wilderness,” Luqman-Dawson said. “[The book] uses fiction to connect with those who were enslaved in the past — people who’ve found ways to resist and live lives full of complexity, joy and hardship in the midst of extraordinarily difficult times.”

“We have a history of avoiding, feeling awkward about and fearful of the history of enslavement,” she continued. “‘Freewater’ is a tool, a means — in a sort of thrilling, adventurous, fun, joyful way — to connect with this history. Hopefully, one that teachers and parents can use and kids can love.”

The cover of ‘Freewater’ by Amina Luqman-Dawson (courtesy photo)

Luqman-Dawson said the idea for the book came to her almost 20 years ago, inspired by an anecdote she heard in a Latin American studies class.

“I tell kids, ‘I know your teachers can be annoying, but listen to them — you never know when a teacher can change your life,'” she said.

After writing a few chapters, “life happened,” and she only picked up the project a decade later, after becoming a mother and wanting to share the history with her son. He is now a Wakefield High School student and she is a member of the advocacy group Black Parents of Arlington.

One one of her biggest influences is Mildred Taylor, a Newbery Award-winning American young adult novelist best known for “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.”

She says children’s literature can broach difficult topics in an engaging, but not sanitized, way.

“It allows you to hear voices — children’s voices — that are frank, honest, naive and wise, all in the midst of what an adult would recognize as perilous times,” she said. “[Children] don’t necessarily live in that space. It’s a safe space for us all to be there and hear them.”

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Arlington Assembly of God kitchen (courtesy of Stephanie Hopkins)

A new coalition will tackle how Arlington nonprofits and county government distribute food and support people who are food insecure.

The group held its kick-off meeting at Central Library last week, attended by 65 people. It will be focused on three areas: improving food access, increasing outreach to the community and making systemic change through policy advocacy.

The coalition “creates the infrastructure to systematically monitor the needs of Arlington’s food security system, allowing us to not only act more quickly when greater need arises, but also to identify and rectify systemic challenges earlier,” says County Board member Matt de Ferranti, who campaigned in 2018 on ending child hunger by 2022.

Although considered one of the wealthier localities in the D.C. area, several thousand Arlingtonians do not have consistent access to healthy meals and pantry and fridge staples. Arlington has historically supported these individuals through a patchwork quilt of nonprofit grocery and meal distribution programs, while county staff processed food stamp applications and Arlington Public Schools provided free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches.

That began to change when Arlington County hired a food security coordinator, Stephanie Hopkins.

“My job is to look at the bigger picture,” she tells ARLnow. “One of the things I found when I started was that there wasn’t a good centralization of resources. Arlington Food Assistance Center and smaller churches each promoted their services, while the county promoted its programs, but there wasn’t a list of everything that’s available.”

The first step, says de Ferranti, was hiring Hopkins to get a better baseline of food assistance needs in Arlington. She worked with the Urban Institute to release a study on food insecurity and stood up a task force — comprised of food pantries, community leaders, and school and county staff — to develop a strategic plan to address hunger over the next five years.

“A lot of folks worked adjacent to each other, knew each other, but had few opportunities to work together,” she said. “Through this process, they made friendships and professional relationships where now, if they need something, they call each other.”

But still, Covid and inflation have interrupted this work, de Ferranti acknowledged.

“There has been progress, with a couple of more food service sites that help children, but we have much, much more to do on the goal of ending child hunger in Arlington,” he said. “I am committed to that work and will work with APS, the School Board, and Bethany Sutton in particular on child hunger.”

The coalition is tasked with implementing the strategic plan, which was released in October 2022. By January 2024, Hopkins says she aims to have at least one new food distribution location, at least one new tool for committing resources to residents and more accurate data on meal and grocery distribution trends.

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