Arlington, VA

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

(Updated at 10:25 a.m.) This year has certainly not been normal. Between the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on black and brown communities in our country, we continue to need to dig deep and to understand the why, to reflect, and to do better.

I watched the split screen of President Trump advocating the usage of our military against protesters across the country in his Rose Garden address, with another screen showing Arlington County Police on the front lines advancing against peaceful protesters prior to curfew in D.C. I was dismayed and broken-hearted. This was so inconsistent with the images I had been seeing of ACPD helping to block traffic and handing out water to peaceful protesters.

Thankfully, Arlington’s leadership quickly responded and acknowledged the problem. They took decisive and immediate action, and have vowed to re-evaluate the agreement that led to this situation to ensure our policing efforts better reflect the values of our community.

Changing course in inherently flawed systems isn’t easy, but it is necessary. This step was necessary and in a time that many leaders are unable to see a problem in their system, own it, and fix it we are lucky to have leadership with the willingness to do so. This applause though is not for a mission accomplished. This is just the beginning of a larger conversation.

First, we should continue our community conversation about policing. We need to support the national NAACP in their push for:

  1. A ban on the use of knee holds and chokeholds as an acceptable practice for police officers.
  2. Clear rules on the escalation for the Use of Force Continuum.
  3. A ban on shielding from the public officer misconduct information and disciplinary histories in each state’s Open Records Act and denial of recertification credentials for police officers if it is determined that their use of deadly force was unwarranted by federal guidelines.
  4. Implementation of Citizen’s Review Boards in municipalities to hold police departments accountable and build public confidence. Arlington NAACP also supports this and states that over 70 communities across the country, including Fairfax, already have one.

Additionally, we should continue our conversation about economic inequalities and building black wealth. When looking for a black-owned business for dinner this weekend I ran into a wall. After crowdsourcing on Arlington Neighbors Helping Each Other Through COVID-19, I found four Arlington black-owned restaurants where I could order dinner, six if I included one coffee shop and an ice cream store.

We must also continue our conversation about diversity within our state representation. Currently, of our seven state delegation members, all are white with the exception of one person of color. Our Human Rights Commission is currently the only commission or working group with a black person or person of color as chair (starting next month that will change with new leadership that includes people that are both black and other people of color).

Furthermore, we should continue our conversation about racial health inequalities now during COVID-19, as well as during less tumultuous times. How do we make sure black and brown people are not dying at disproportionate rates in our community?

Finally, we must continue this conversation about race and white privilege, on every front in our community: from policy to policing, to zoning, healthcare, to school boundaries, small businesses. So many of us are asking what we can do. We can listen, we can ask why, we can do better — we can actively work for change.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.


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

The Centers for Disease Control updated guidance to slow the spread of COVID-19 by suggesting multi-unit buildings such as apartments and condominium buildings:

“Clean and disinfect shared areas (laundry facilities, elevators, shared kitchens, exercise rooms, dining rooms) and frequently touched surfaces (e.g. tables, hard-backed chairs, doorknobs, light switches, phones, tablets, touch screens, remote controls, keyboards, handles, desks, toilets, sinks) using EPA-registered disinfectants more than once a day if possible.” April 25, 2020.

Two-thirds of Arlington households are in multi-unit buildings. From anecdotal feedback, buildings ranging from luxury to affordable have done almost nothing to change their normal cleaning habits unless a COVID-19 case has been identified.

“Every day when I go down the elevator to walk my dog, I am in a gigantic petri dish,” one person told me. “I am in an enclosed space, touching hundreds of people’s germs on buttons and door handles. We are in a viral pandemic and our building has still not changed our once a week cleaning schedule”.

As Northern Virginia plans to reopen in the next few weeks, we will collectively increase our chances of germ spreading. Part of Arlington and Northern Virginia’s path for reopening should include CDC recommendations for multi-unit building cleaning and disinfecting as a part of their plan.

Arlington County has already done an impressive job collecting information about building managers for their effort to inform landlords about courts being closed for evictions and renters’ rights during COVID-19. This contact information data can and should be used in a proactive effort to remind buildings about CDC recommendations to clean multi-unit building high-touch spaces multiple times a day. This seems like a little, easy, accomplishment that we should be able to get done and might be able to save lives upon our reopening.

Contrary to public belief, people of all ages live in multi-unit buildings. With the knowledge that a significant amount of virus carriers are asymptomatic, we should not be waiting for residents to proactively tell management that they are sick to trigger regular cleaning of common spaces. Extraordinary measures that the CDC has laid out in their guidance should be taken when you have over 1,000 people living in one building sharing the same front door.

Between dog care, groceries, and taking a mental health break, it is inevitable that people will need to go outside. It is in the interest of public health for the majority of Arlingtonians that live in multi-unit buildings to have a safe home to walk in and out of. I hope the Department of Community Planning, Housing, and Development can work with the communications and public engagement team to get the word out to apartment and condominium management about updated CDC guidelines for disinfecting as part of our reopening plan.

Resources if you are in need of assistance:

Do not feel ashamed to ask for help.

If you are in need of assistance for rent, food security, help filing for Medicaid or unemployment benefits go to this website: Department of Human Services Assistance, call 703-228-1350, or if necessary visit 2100 Washington Blvd in Arlington. Someone will work with you to get the help you need.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.


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

Congratulations to Takis Karantonis for his victory in the Arlington County Democrat’s special election nomination process. Takis is a longtime leader in our community having served as the executive director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, the president of his civic association, and is genuinely a person of good character. I will be proud to support him in the upcoming July 7th special election.

Fill out your absentee voting application here. Due to COVID-19 you may cite “my disability or illness” as your reason for voting by mail.

Governor’s Decision to Re-Open

COVID-19 cases in Arlington hit a peak just four days ago. There is no significant downward trend in Arlington or other northern Virginia jurisdictions such as Fairfax. While the number of statewide cases has begun to decrease in just the past week, we are not part of that collective improvement.

All of this as Virginia ranks #48th in the country for testing rates.

Governor Northam’s decision to reopen the state seems premature and potentially dangerous to us here in Arlington. On Wednesday, Northam seemed to backtrack by saying “If local governments, based on the situation in their own localities, feel that they need to maintain additional restrictions on gatherings or business operations we will allow that and work with the localities.”

If history is any indicator, Arlington had a very difficult time acting on its own accord to implement restrictions prior to the Governor’s order for closure. This is largely due to Virginia being a Dillon Rule state.

I hope the Governor’s office has learned from that disconnect and will be responsive to local government’s requests for authority. If localities such as Arlington decide to implement their own restrictions, I hope the Governor is vocal in relaying that information in his public statements to make it clear what the rules are for various jurisdictions are to the public.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.


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

It has been a strange few weeks. While life seems to stand still, so much is happening in our community.

Close Street Lanes

Maintaining your mental health during these odd times cannot be understated. Getting in regular exercise to kickstart your endorphins is important and recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Whether you are running, pushing a stroller, or walking with a loved one, sometimes our sidewalks are just not wide enough to keep a distance of 6 feet. A majority of people are trying to make enough space but it is oftentimes near impossible.

I would propose closing one lane of traffic in each direction where there are two lanes available in major corridors.

These connective roads could include: Wilson Boulevard, Walter Reed Drive, Glebe Road, George Mason Drive, Lee Highway, and more.

Traffic has decreased significantly and this would not be an undue burden on travelers.

Provide Unemployment Filing Hotline Help

It would be helpful if the Arlington Employment Center or another relevant entity could help residents with phone assistance while the state phone lines are being overwhelmed. While this is not normally a service that Arlington would provide, it would be of great public benefit.

The online filing form for unemployment in Virginia and Washington, D.C. is not set up for shift or gig workers. I add D.C. to this because many Arlington residents’ last job was in D.C. and would thus file for unemployment there. There are case-specific questions that don’t make sense and if answered incorrectly can delay vitally important payments.

About 150,000 filed for uninsurance in Virginia last week, and Governor Northam has stated that the helplines are overwhelmed. If localities can provide their own hotline help this might alleviate some stress on the system and get more people properly filed. Read More


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

Coronavirus in Arlington has increased ninefold in just ten days. This is all with extremely limited testing resources. We need more tests and we needed them last week.

America just hit the highest number of individuals filing for unemployment in history. Unemployment insurance filings in Virginia jumped from just 2,706 last week to 46,885 this week — a 17-fold increase. People are losing their jobs and they’re losing them quickly.

The response of our community during this unprecedented health crisis has been heartening, however.

Virginia Hospital Center’s (VHC) COVID-19 testing site has gained national attention. President Obama shared the work of the Maywood Community Association’s effort to help the elderly and at-risk neighbors. Some restaurants like Good Stuff Eatery, Bayou Bakery, Medium Rare, and Good Company Doughnuts and Cafe are offering free meals to school-age kids or at-risk seniors. Arlington was the first in Northern Virginia to encourage bars/businesses to close prior to St, Patrick’s Day and encouraged the Governor to make a statewide announcement, apparently facing opposition from leadership in Fairfax County.

While our spirit remains resilient, our new normal has not yet appeared. Arlington has the second-largest coronavirus infections reported in Virginia. Virginia received 44,000 new filings for unemployment last week, and small businesses and restaurants are having to make hard decisions about their future. VHC’s drive-through testing requires a doctor’s note, which is difficult for those who are recently unemployed, uninsured, and particularly service workers who unknowingly interacted with infected patrons. Local doctors have reported turning away hundreds of patients who needed testing due to lack of tests.

My fear is that our reporting of infected persons is being vastly underreported due to a reluctance of doctors to issue a note for recommended testing because of limited testing resources.

Short Term Response: Safety

Ensuring the safety of our community always comes first. We have heard from VHC and other hospitals in the region that we don’t have enough testing.

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

(Updated at 2:15 p.m.) Tax and budget season is upon us. County Manager Mark Schwartz has released a recommended budget of $1.396 billion, including increased tax revenues from increased assessments and increased county expenditures.

While I will not go into specifics of this year’s budget, I would like to begin a dialogue about systemic changes that the County Board should consider in the long-run about how we levy taxes.

Have Commissioner of Revenue Assess and Collect All Taxes

Currently, the county assesses and collects taxes on real estate and the Commissioner of Revenue assesses and collects every other tax including vehicular, personal property, and business license taxes. Two-thirds of our revenues come from real estate and one-third from everything else. This means a vast majority of the tax revenue is based on assessments that their own employees determine, rather than the elected independent Commissioner of Revenue, Ingrid Morroy.

In almost every election, Commissioner Morroy has advocated for this power. The argument is that having the same people setting the budget responsible for assessments is an inherent conflict of interest, and the move would provide better transparency and customer service for those who believe they’ve been overassessed.

The Virginia Code also says that the County government should only administer assessors if the Commissioner of Revenue will not consent to doing assessments, which is obviously not the case (note: I am obviously not a lawyer, but this seems to be the intention). This is used in almost every Virginia jurisdiction as a best practice when a Commissioner of Revenue exists.

Incentivize Lower Vacancy Rates

I would encourage consideration of a vacancy tax on office and storefront retail properties. For the last several years we have made it a goal to reduce commercial real estate and office vacancy. This is prioritized because when space remains vacant, the property is assessed at a lower value and we receive less tax revenue, making it harder to provide the services that our community expects. Each percentage of vacancy represents $3.4 million in lost revenue.

Intuition might tell you that if you cannot fill a space, owners would lower their rent to attract more tenants. Oftentimes this is not the case. Property owners will intentionally leave office and retail space vacant for a number of reasons. One is to wait for a large tenant to anchor the building, and avoid the build-out costs associated with leasing to smaller businesses along with the higher overhead needed to piecemeal tenants together. Another is that vacant space means lower taxes because of their low assessment.

Together this leaves very little pressure for owners of office and retail space to lower rents to the benefit of small businesses or fill vacant space to the benefit of the county’s tax revenue.

Other jurisdictions such as Washington, D.C. and San Francisco have developed a version of their own vacancy taxes. The intention of each is different, for example, San Francisco’s vacancy tax is only on storefront retail to maintain street-level vibrancy, and Washington D.C.’s vacancy tax is on office, retail, and residential, but based on the class of real estate to prevent general blight. Our real estate vacancy problems are unique to us and should be considered by our own stakeholders to frame a solution that prevents unintended consequences.

There has been some debate on whether Arlington has the authority to levy this type of tax. I would argue that there is precedent based on the tax exemption programs that we currently provide. If this is still deemed an unavailable tool in our toolbox based on state law, it might be worth restructuring the incentive in the form of a fine that we do have authority to enforce or for our government affairs team to push for this authority in the next General Assembly session.

Having the Commissioner of Revenue begin assessing taxes would likely save homeowners and commercial building owners in taxes, but would likely decrease overall county revenues. Levying a vacancy tax would benefit small businesses looking for office space, create a better restaurant and retail vibrancy, and increase county revenues, but would likely adversely impact commercial property owners. My hope is that further dialogue on these topics will benefit homeowners, small businesses, and on balance, our entire community.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.


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

(Updated at 2:45 p.m.) Mental health wellness is something that has unfortunately been a scapegoat or justification for a number of policy issues to become “unfixable.”

From gun violence and suicide prevention, to long-term healthcare, to test taking and education, a binding thread is a need to focus on mental health. Without the ability to change our national system, what is it that we are doing here, and what are opportunities for improvement?

At the last Civic Federation meeting, there was a panel that focused specifically on adolescent mental health. To prepare the panel, Public Safety Chair Jackie Snelling and President Sandy Newton visited over 50 people from departments and nonprofits in the county to get a comprehensive understanding of the issue.

This included Health and Human Services, Police Crisis Intervention Team, Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth & Families, Northern Virginia Alliance on Mental Illness, school counselors, in-school and out-of-school social workers, student resource officers (SROs), and students.

In-School Resources

Right now APS has an initiative to have “one trusted adult” in each student’s life. This is undeniably important, but not all trusted adults know what to do when a child is in crisis or suffering. In-school resources are imperative to connecting services to those in need. There is an interesting dichotomy that presented itself in this discussion that came from the student on the panel.

Often teachers and SROs refer students to their counselors for help. School counselors are writing your college recommendations and recommending your coursework rigor. Students seem to feel they are not a fully trusted outlet to discuss mental health struggles because of that inherent conflict of interest.

Social workers and psychologists are generally seen as more confidential, but our ratios of students to those kind of staff are very high at 1:905, and 1:1123 in high school. While school counselor ratios are expected to be decreased to 1:350 by law via HB 1508, it will not have the same impact on social workers/psychologists, which I believe to be the bigger asset for mental health assistance in our school system. It might even be helpful to rename counselors “academic advisors” and make social workers and psychologists “counselors” to properly define their roles.

Not Enough Adolescent Beds

For those in crisis, there are not enough beds for kids (or adults for that matter). There are only 99 inpatient beds including 48 beds provided by the state for adolescents in all of Virginia. Each facility is wildly over capacity and individuals in crisis often have to wait for a bed and drive far lengths to receive services.

As we look at the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) this year, it would be worth considering mental health beds and/or facilities as a public infrastructure need. Perhaps a one-stop-shop specifically for mental health to reduce barriers to getting help.

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

As we head into Crossover (learn what that means here) in the General Assembly, I have a sense of pride about the great legislation that will likely become law during this session. I also maintain a massive fire of anger about a continued ambivalence towards ethics reform.

No substantive ethics reform will take place in the general assembly this year. At least one of our own Arlington legislators voted against every campaign finance reform measure presented to the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections, leading to its death in committee, including campaign contribution limits of $20,000 (SB 488), and prohibiting contributions from a public service corporations such as Dominion Energy or Washington Gas (SB 25). In the House, all four campaign finance bills (HB 111, HB 851, HB 895, HB 848) died by not being voted on in Committee.

My State Senate campaign and other primary campaigns across the Commonwealth almost had ethics at the forefront of our campaigns. That seems to have fallen on deaf ears. I bang my head against a wall knowing that the “Virginia Way” will prevail as we continue in a system that is set up for ethics failures.

I believe this to be true due in large part to the part-time nature of the legislative body. Session is less than two months long and the pay for Delegates is $17,640 and for Senators is $18,000. I could say the same for local offices such as Arlington County Board and School Board offices that are truly full-time jobs with Board meetings year-round, including weekends, and salaries of $55,147, significantly under the average individual income for north and south Arlington.

As much as we may give grief to these elected officials, you must acknowledge the financial decision these officeholders have taken in order to serve the community that they care so much for.

For this same reason, it is difficult for us not to follow the money. In the legislature, with the glorified stipend you are given, most electeds must work another job. While they are doing that other job, the full time lobby shops in Richmond that make a majority of incumbent donations and send dozens of mailers for their GOTV reelection efforts, are shaping legislation for the next session as soon this February is over.

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

Arlington is a beautiful community with so much to be proud of.

For my last column of the year, here are some things that have been special to me, that I recommend, or that I want to acknowledge.

Arlington Heros

For 37 years Kip was a staple in thousands of Arlington student’s lives. In athletics he ran the Patriot Girls Hoops Summer Camp, coached Yorktown girls basketball, boys baseball, and the Special Olympics unified track and basketball teams.

More notably, he was a good friend. I don’t think many people knew his actual job, but as I have grown older I realized how important it was to have a non-parent adult at APS that you could always go to without judgement, and Kip was that person. Happy retirement, Kip.

Arlington County Police said goodbye to one really good boy this year. Koda was one of the best bomb sniffers in the region and spent time with his SRO handler welcoming students. Rest in peace and thank you for your service, Koda.

Civic Organizations

A powerful and consistent voice for our tree canopy. Arlington’s trees are what make us less of a concrete urban jungle and more of a livable, sustainable, and aesthetically pleasing community to live in.

  • Black Parents of Arlington

If you didn’t read their Washington Post Op-Ed, I highly recommend it: Why black parents of Arlington are joining forces 

Date Ideas

Make sure you or the person you are with knows how to tie a figure 8 knot and belay! Rock climbing is a great way to cheer someone on, overcome failure, and get your endorphins running.

  • Neighborhood events

Local organizations provide great events like Fridays at the Fountain in Crystal City, Rosslyn Movies in the park, and more. Find a full list for your neighborhood: Ballston BID, Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, Crystal City BID, Lee Highway Alliance, and Rosslyn BID,



A Grateful Dead sound and some killer guitar solos. Having played with Junior Marvin of the Wailers these native Arlington twins are sure to get you grooving. Next local concert: Jan. 21 7:30pm @ Jammin’ Java.

With over 1 million Spotify streams on their hit, Tired Boy, this local rap group of Arlingtonians is truly a group to keep an eye on.


You can see this Arlington local’s work at the newly opened Open Road Grill in Rosslyn with his district vibrant portraits of Ryan Zimmerman and Bruce Springstein.

Queen of the “polka daub” you can see her art at local gift boutique, Covet.

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

‘Tis the season for holiday parties — and the season of wine and beer bottles, sauce jars, you name it.

It is somewhat of a misconception that Arlington recently stopped recycling glass. We really have just started recycling glass in a different and more efficient way.

This year I am thankful that the Arlington County Board voted unanimously to join forces with the City of Alexandria, Fairfax County, and Prince William County to make our glass recycling more environmentally-friendly and cost-effective. Loudoun County voted this week to pilot the program.

There are two ways to properly dispose of glass since the change:

Preferred: Bring glass to the “Purple Bins”

In this process our glass is broken down and turned into pavement for Northern Virginia roads, bedding for drainage and stormwater pipes, and new glass materials, among other sustainable resources. This process is done at Fairfax County’s glass processing machine “Big Blue,” where 20 tons of glass can be crushed per hour to various grades of sand and gravel.

There are five Purple Bin locations to drop off glass for Arlington residents and businesses:

  1. Quincy Park (Orange/Silver Line Metro corridor accessible)
  2. Trades Center (Shirlington/Four Mile Run area accessible)
  3. Aurora Hills Community Center (Blue/Yellow Line Metro corridor accessible)
  4. Cherrydale Library (East Lee Highway area accessible)
  5. Lee Community Center (West Lee Highway area accessible)

Pro Tip: At the Trader Joe’s checkout there are dozens of wine boxes that you can take home with you, and at other grocery stores you can ask for a box for free. This will help you store glass safely and separately without anything breaking before your next trip to the Purple Bin. You can also keep a separate reusable grocery bag dedicated just to glass.

Put Glass in Your Curbside Trash Bin

Before the policy change, when you “recycled” your glass it was sorted out of the recycling facility and taken to the trash facility. By putting glass directly in the trash you save the county money by skipping the step of going through the recycle facility just to be transported by diesel truck to the trash facility it could have been at if you put it in the trash in the first place.

At the facility your glass is melted, mixed with combusted ash, and put in a landfill. In a bit of irony, if you do not take your glass to a Purple Bin it is better to put it in the curbside trash than in the blue recycle bin.

I am excited about this new program for two reasons:

  1. It exemplifies the best of what is possible in a green economy. It produces materials that are carbon intensive and generally used in public works or construction projects. The process also currently pays for itself making it cost neutral and potentially cost positive
  2. Our region worked together to create an economy of scale to the benefit of us all. Northern Virginia in the past year or two has begun partnering on everything from economic development and housing to waste disposal. Our continued coordination in various sectors will result in a more resilient region.

So far, the Big Blue glass recycling machine has processed 1,400 tons (2.8 million pounds) of glass, and Arlington has delivered 200 of those tons through our Purple Bins. I challenge our community to become a bigger percentage of that glass in the new year, and why not start with your holiday parties. Putting out that new wine box or reusable bag to collect your glass is the first step to start new habits, so try it out!


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