Arlington, VA

Morning Notes

County Scaling Down Capital Improvement Plan — “As the County continues to experience the economic impacts of COVID-19, County Manager Mark Schwartz intends to present the Arlington County Board with a short-term proposed Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) rather than the traditional 10-year plan.” [Arlington County]

Metro May Require Masks — “Metro riders may not see service fully restored until spring 2021, but the WMATA is now making plans to gradually get trains and buses running more frequently. News4’s Adam Tuss has learned that officials are considering requiring all riders to wear face masks on buses and trains and applying social distancing measures.” [NBC 4]

Real Estate Market Falters — “Home sales across the region took a tumble in April as the first impacts of COVID-19 were felt… The District of Columbia (down 31 percent) and Arlington (down 25 percent) were hardest hit, but all jurisdictions except the small city of Fairfax posted double-digit declines in closed sales.” [InsideNova]

APS Asks for Public Feedback on Data — “Beginning May 12, APS is inviting community members to review the data that will be used in the Fall 2020 Elementary School Boundary Process. This review of data by Planning Unit — the geographic building blocks APS uses to establish school attendance zones — will help ensure that the final data reflects what you know about your neighborhood.” [Arlington Public Schools]

Swim Season Cancelled — “With the logistics to pull off the 2020 Northern Virginia Swimming League season proving too numerous and complicated in a COVID-19 world, officials have pulled the plug on summer competition.” [InsideNova]

Photo courtesy of Peter Golkin

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Morning Notes

Ballston-Based E*TRADE Acquired —  “Morgan Stanley and E*TRADE Financial Corporation have entered into a definitive agreement under which Morgan Stanley will acquire E*TRADE, a leading financial services company and pioneer in the online brokerage industry, in an all-stock transaction valued at approximately $13 billion.” [BusinessWire, Wall Street Journal]

County Wants Feedback on Capital Projects — “As part of this year’s budget season, you’re invited to share your input on capital priorities for Arlington County Government. Where should we make investments? Which types of projects top your list? We want to know what you think. Your input will help guide development of the County Manager’s Proposed Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) Fiscal Years 2021 – 2030, which will be presented to the Arlington County Board in May.” [Arlington County]

More on Upcoming EPA Move — “‘Facing budget constraints during the past few years, the agency has tried to reduce impacts on its programs by using rent savings to absorb appropriations cuts,’ said the EPA spokeswoman. ‘The lease for [Potomac Yard South] expires in March 2021 and by not renewing it, the agency can expect to attain approximately $12.7 million in rent savings annually,’ she said.” [E&E News]

New AED Director Settling In — “Tucker is pledging not to lose focus on helping the county’s existing businesses, particularly its small, family-owned companies. Critics of AED have long accused it of pursuing large corporate tenants at the expense of supporting mom-and-pop shops, a perception Tucker is keen to reverse.” [Washington Business Journal]

AHC Returns $$$ to Affordable Housing Fund — “AHC Inc., an Arlington, VA-based affordable housing developer, deposited more than $710,000 this week into the County’s revolving low-interest loan program, the Affordable Housing Investment Fund (AHIF). This year’s annual repayment boosts AHC’s total repayments to more than $45 million since the AHIF program began in 1988. The payments vary from year to year. Last year, AHC returned $4.9 million to the fund.” [Press Release]

Saturday: Census ‘Celebración Comunitaria’ — “Join us at the Gates of Ballston Community Center for food, family activities, an art contest, a kid’s raffle, and information about the upcoming 2020 Census 2020! Event sponsored by Arlington County, Census 2020, Alfo-Conce, Producciones POPB’IL.” [Arlington County]

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The return of several bridges lost in last summer’s flooding will depend on the upcoming Arlington County budget, officials tell ARLnow.

Arlington homes, businesses, parks and some infrastructure suffered significant damage last year during the July 8 flash flooding. Among the casualties of the storm were seven bridges in parks throughout Arlington.

“There was one in Bon Air and Gulf Branch parks, and two in both Lubber Run and Glencarlyn parks,” Arlington Dept. of Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Susan Kalish said in an email.

A small pedestrian bridge at 38th and Chesterbrook, in the Old Glebe neighborhood, was also destroyed, but has since been replaced. Kalish said it was a simple wooden bridge and there was sufficient funding in the maintenance budget. None of the other destroyed bridges have been replaced.

While the six other bridges have been removed, Kalish said replacing them will be an item considered in the upcoming Capital Improvement Plan — a ten-year plan to address infrastructure issues. Discussion of the proposed CIP is scheduled to run from May to July following the adoption of the operating budget in April.

In addition to the bridges, the restrooms at Bon Air Park are also still closed, and will remain closed indefinitely, the county said in an update on Jan. 24. The update notes that following repairs “all of the [damaged] picnic shelters, volleyball courts and playgrounds are open.”

Staff photo by Ashley Hopko

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Though it comes with some painful cuts and delays a variety of anticipated projects, a 10-year, $3.4 billion construction spending plan won the County Board’s approval this weekend.

The Board unanimously signed off on a new Capital Improvement Plan, commonly known as the CIP, at its meeting Saturday (July 14), marking an end to its months-long work to wrestle with the county’s budget pressures and lay out a new blueprint for major construction projects through 2028.

Ultimately, Board members made relatively few changes to County Manager Mark Schwartz’s proposed CIP, but did manage to find an extra $1 million for the Neighborhood Conservation program.

That means the program, designed to fund local infrastructure projects like sidewalk improvements or new landscaping, will have $37 million to work with over the next decade instead of $36 million, even though community leaders still fear the $23 million funding cut will imperil Neighborhood Conservation’s future. The Board also formalized plans to study potential reforms to the program, in order to ensure its long-term survival.

By and large, however, the Board didn’t have much leeway to pump much additional money into the CIP, considering that the county remains constrained by challenging factors like a decrease in commercial tax revenues and an increase in the amount of cash it needs to send to Metro as part of a deal to provide the service with dedicated annual funding.

“It’s kind of a carrots and peas CIP, rather than a steak and asparagus CIP,” said Board member John Vihstadt. “It’s a realistic one for where we are at this point in time, given our economic circumstances and near-term challenges ahead.”

Board generally members struck an optimistic tone about the CIP Saturday, but there is little doubt that they’re already looking ahead anxiously to 2020, when the Board will revise the spending plan once more. By then, the county’s revenue picture could improve, or lawmakers in Richmond could answer Arlington’s pleas and tinker with the Metro funding deal to free up more money for Northern Virginia transportation projects.

“In two years, we’re either going to have a lot more money or we’re going to have a lot less,” said Board member Libby Garvey.

That’s why Board Vice Chair Christian Dorsey stressed that he looks at the CIP as “a two-year document and an eight-year math exercise.” He was particularly adamant that parents concerned about school funding shouldn’t view this spending plan with trepidation, even as debate simmers over how the school system builds new space for high schoolers at the Arlington Career Center.

The Board’s CIP includes $614 million to fund the school system’s own construction plan, and the county wasn’t able to find much in the way of additional money to fund some of the more ambitious construction plans the School Board considered. Yet Dorsey is broadly optimistic that this new, limited CIP is far from the end of Career Center discussions.

“When our needs become more clear in the coming years, whether it’s schools or county facilities as well, and we’re able to price them out more, we’ll figure out how to pay for it,” Dorsey said.

There are certainly plenty of other cuts in the CIP the Board hopes to someday revisit. For instance, the plan pushes out the construction of second entrances at the Ballston, Crystal City and East Falls Church Metro stations far into the future, and cuts funding for improvements on some of the county’s arterial roads.

The CIP also contains only limited funding for planning at the Buck and Carlin Springs Road properties, a pair of sites officials have long eyed as potential homes for new schools or county facilities someday.

However, the plan does maintain funding for previously approved capital projects like a new Lubber Run Community Center and a replacement for Fire Station 8 on Lee Highway.

Board members were also eager to reiterate their support for the Long Bridge Park aquatics center. The project isn’t funded as part of this CIP, yet the county’s strained financial picture has nonetheless convinced some in the community to agitate for the pool’s delay or cancellation, in favor of sending its funding elsewhere.

“To try to cancel the contract now is not reevaluating past decisions in light of new information,” said Board Chair Katie Cristol. “To cancel a contract that breaks ground in a week would be setting a toxic precedent.”

Vihstadt, the lone Board member to vote against a slimmed-down version of the project last fall, reiterated his belief Saturday that the project should be delayed. Yet he also signalled that he was willing to let the matter go, for now.

“We had a vote last December, I was in the minority, I acknowledge it and I accept it,” Vihstadt said. “But I have no doubt if this process were going forward today, or if there were a vote on this particular issue today by the voters of Arlington, it would fail.”

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Amid concerns about deep cuts on the way for the Neighborhood Conservation program, the County Board is kicking off a new effort to identify some potential reforms.

The Board decided Tuesday (July 10) to direct County Manager Mark Schwartz to draw up a process for studying the program in more depth over the next two years or so, in order to better understand how it can become more efficient and see where it might overlap with other county efforts.

“By adopting this, we’re saying, no, we’re not looking for a slow, or any kind of, death [for the program],” said Board member Erik Gutshall. “But we’re taking a moment here to hit the reset button and double down on the program, to invest the time and staff resources to study remaking the program to meet its original goals.”

Neighborhood Conservation was formed in 1964 as a way for communities to lobby for money to complete modest infrastructure projects, like new sidewalks or landscaping, but Schwartz targeted it for hefty cuts in his proposed 10-year Capital Improvement Plan.

In all, the program is set to lose $24 million over the next decade, leaving $36 million in its coffers to finish out existing projects selected for funding between now and 2028. Some civic association leaders have charged that such a steep cut amounts to killing the program in its entirety.

Others in the community have countered that the program may very well need to end, considering that the cost of projects funded through Neighborhood Conservation have shot up in recent years.

Tuesday’s decision by the Board essentially represents a middle ground between those two positions. The county’s tight financial position means it likely won’t be able to avoid some steep cuts to the program, but Board members also believe they can pursue some changes to Neighborhood Conservation to ensure its long-term viability.

“Hopefully, this keeps faith with the communities, while at the same time acknowledging the reality that the program has had some challenges,” said Board member John Vihstadt.

Vihstadt hopes the review of the program will provide a “holistic, countywide perspective,” including whether the county might be better served by directing Neighborhood Conservation funding to its “Complete Streets” program instead.

Schwartz is set to establish a working group and lay out a timeline for a review process by Sept. 30, with the ultimate goal of having results in hand by the time the Board reviews its next CIP in 2020.

In the near term, Board Chair Katie Cristol suggested sending a smidge more money to the program as “a show of faith.” County staff managed to earn an unexpected $1 million in state funding for some construction at one of Arlington’s group homes for adults with disabilities, and Cristol suggested using the savings to fund one additional Neighborhood Conservation project.

Yet the Board has plenty of other pressing needs left unaddressed by a challenging CIP, and Cristol’s colleagues didn’t immediately sign off on such a change.

The Board is set to finalize the CIP when it reconvenes Saturday (July 14).

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County Board member John Vihstadt is renewing his push to delay the construction of the Long Bridge Park aquatics center.

Vihstadt is waging a lonely battle against the oft-postponed project as the county’s budget picture grows increasingly grim. He says the $60 million the county’s set to spend on the new pool would be better spent on building new schools or buying additional park land, particularly considering that Arlington is feeling a financial squeeze at the moment.

Between sending more money to Metro and declining commercial tax revenues, the County Board is facing some challenging headwinds as it nears a final decision this weekend on a new, 10-year plan for construction spending. Vihstadt, the Board’s lone independent who is running for re-election this fall, thinks the 72,000-square-foot pool complex can wait a bit longer.

The project’s skyrocketing costs have convinced the Board to repeatedly adjust its plans it over the years, and Vihstadt made an effort to drive down its cost a key plank of his 2014 bid for office. But he still feels that even the facility’s reduced cost is too much for Arlington to take on right now.

“Times change, circumstances change, and I just don’t think it’s right to go forward on that project,” Vihstadt told ARLnow. “Schools have a higher priority. Parks have a higher priority.”

Yet, just as when he cast the lone vote against the project’s construction last December, Vihstadt appears to be in the minority on that position. His four colleagues on the Board all told ARLnow that they wouldn’t support any effort to postpone the Long Bridge project, even with the county’s money troubles in mind.

“Raising these issues when he first ran for election was an important contribution, because it shifted that narrative to value engineering,” said Board Vice Chair Christian Dorsey. “That success is something John ought to feel he positively contributed to. Now, it’s the responsibility of the rest of us to follow through.”

The pro-pool Board members all point out that the project has been in the works for decades, with the community formally signing off on money for the aquatics center as part of a bond referendum back in 2004, and would fill a void for such a facility in the Crystal City area.

But they also stress that the process of unwinding the work the county’s already done would be so costly as to make the effort pointless. County Manager Mark Schwartz believes that cancelling the county’s existing contract to build the facility would prompt extensive litigation, with financial consequences to follow.

“We cannot simply break the contract,” Board member Libby Garvey wrote in an email. “Likely there would be real financial penalties for us if we did, to say nothing of the damage to our reputation among builders. Companies bidding on our projects in the future would likely add extra cost because we could not be trusted to fulfill our contracts.”

The aquatic center’s proponents also see any move to reverse the Long Bridge decision as one that would send the wrong message to the community, or as an effort to “re-litigate the past,” as Board member Erik Gutshall puts it.

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Arlington likely won’t be able to add a second entrance at the East Falls Church Metro station until sometime in the 2030s, as county officials re-examine their funding priorities for the next decade.

The county has hoped for years to build a western entrance to improve pedestrian access to the station, particularly with plans to someday re-develop the parking lot and properties surrounding the station.

But the project’s roughly $96 million price tag makes it difficult to afford as officials grapple with a tight revenue picture. County Manager Mark Schwartz is proposing delaying any funding for the second entrance until at least fiscal year 2028 in his new ten-year Capital Improvement Plan.

“Given the pipeline of existing, high-priority stations, it really made sense to move this out,” county transportation director Dennis Leach told the County Board during a work session last Tuesday (June 26).

Schwartz is calling for the county to dedicate $8.8 million in state and regional transportation dollars for design work at the station starting in 2028, pushing back any construction spending indefinitely. The Board’s last CIP, approved in 2016, called for the planning process to start in fiscal year 2022, and construction to start in 2024.

As Leach mentioned, the county is eyeing second entrances at both the Crystal City and Ballston Metro stations as well, and officials are also struggling to fund those efforts as the county copes with increased Metro spending to provide the service with dedicated annual funding.

Complicating matters further is that the county was hoping the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, a group that hands out money for transportation improvements around the region, would be able to fund the bulk of the construction of all three projects. But the same dedicated funding deal for Metro involved pulling away about $80 million from the NVTA each year, meaning the group is scaling back how much money it can offer all but the most large-scale projects.

“We can’t do them alone,” Leach said.

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Supporters of Arlington’s Neighborhood Conservation program are warning county leaders that the steep budget cuts they’re contemplating could effectively kill it.

County Manager Mark Schwartz is proposing slashing $24 million from the program’s funding over the next 10 years as part of his new Capital Improvement Plan, dropping its coffers down to $36 million through 2028.

Neighborhood Conservation has long helped dole out money for modest community improvements, like new sidewalks or landscaping, yet the county’s grim budget picture convinced Schwartz to target it for some hefty cuts. That prompted several community activists and managers of the program to lobby the County Board to restore that funding at a public hearing last Wednesday (June 27).

“This is almost a death knell for Neighborhood Conservation,” said Bill Braswell, a former chair of the county’s Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Committee. “All the interest in it will dissipate, and it will take forever to get started again.”

County staff say that these proposed cuts would mean that projects already in line for funding will still move ahead, but any new applications from neighborhoods will go on the back burner. Accordingly, Phil Klingelhofer, deputy vice chair of the program’s advisory committee, believes that such a delay would mean that any “neighborhood with a recently proposed project should expect to wait 15 to 30 years for a project to come to the top for current funding.”

“If you decide to accept this… we recognize this is really the end of the program, and at that point, you should take the final step and end the program permanently,” Klingelhofer said.

For some in the community, that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. Some activists have started arguing that the program has outlived its usefulness, including columnist Peter Rousselot, who points out that it can already take five or 10 years for a project to move through the Neighborhood Conservation process.

County Board member John Vihstadt has similar concerns about the program’s efficacy, noting that those delays are often driven by “quality control or monitoring issues” with the county switching contractors for some projects two or three times each. That’s why he sees this CIP process has a chance to reform the program, and “mend it, not end it.”

“Things are not good right now, and we’re looking at what we’re going to do,” Vihstadt told ARLnow. “If we’re going to fund the program, it needs to be modified and reformed.”

Braswell and Klingelhofer both told the Board at the hearing that they’d be willing to study ways to make the program run more efficiently, particularly if the alternative is steep funding cuts.

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A new capital spending plan for Arlington’s burgeoning public school system calls for adding more than 4,200 seats through 2027.

The $631 million construction plan includes a new elementary school at the Reed School site and 1,650 new seats for high schoolers split between the Education Center site and the Arlington Career Center.

The Board has spent weeks working to strike a balance between the school system’s increasingly tight finances and its ever-rising enrollment figures, resulting in a new Capital Improvement Plan that left Board members optimistic, yet unsatisfied.

Debate over the plans at Career Center, in particular, dominated the Board’s discussions about the CIP. Parents living near the center, which is located just off Columbia Pike and will someday be home to another 1,050 high school students, raised frequent concerns that APS might not build the same amenities at the site as it has at its three comprehensive high schools.

“With all the pressures on the school system right now, some may say the plan is not perfect today,” said Board member Monique O’Grady. “But I believe it’s evolving in the right direction.”

The Board’s tight financial picture meant that it couldn’t quite meet all the parent requests, but members did work to speed up the construction of some features at the site by re-allocating some of the school system’s capital reserve money.

Under the version of the plan approved Thursday, the Career Center will now include a multi-use gym, a “black box” theater, a performing arts wing, a synthetic athletic field and a parking garage.

The field and parking garage will be constructed in 2o23 to make those features available to students as more high schoolers move to the site. APS will then simultaneously add an 800-seat expansion and the performing arts section in 2025.

That will address some of the concerns raised by local parents, including some who formed an advocacy group focused on the issue. But they remain wary of how the Board will ultimately decide which students attend the Career Center site high school — members have yet to decide if it will be a “neighborhood” school only for students who live nearby, or a countywide “option” school.

“No child should be zoned to this school described in this proposal,” said Christine Brittle, an organizer with Citizens for Arlington School Equality. “Arlington has never had a choice school of this size.”

Board members stress that such a decision is a long way off, and the county’s financial picture could someday improve and allow APS to add more amenities to the site. There’s broad hope among officials that tax revenues will rebound when it comes time for the next CIP update in 2020.

“When the inputs change, the plan will change,” said Vice Chair Reid Goldstein. “The CIP is a plan, not a promise.”

In the near term, the County Board still needs to sign off on the school system’s CIP as part of its own capital spending process.

County Manager Mark Schwartz has previously warned that the School Board was a bit too ambitious in its ask from the county, though at a work session Tuesday (June 19), he suggested the version of the CIP the Board passed “can work… with a few minor adjustments.”

The County Board is set to pass its CIP by July 14.

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(Updated at 3:25 p.m.) There may be a way to satisfy parent demands for equitable amenities at a new high school program near Columbia Pike — but it comes at a cost.

The School Board is nearing a vote on a new Capital Improvement Plan, which will guide the next 10 years of school construction, and that means time is running out for officials to tinker with plans for the Arlington Career Center. The site will eventually be home to an additional 1,050 high school students, but the Board has yet to settle on just how it will move forward with building on the property.

Parents in the nearby Arlington Heights neighborhood, in particular, have expressed concerns about how many athletic fields and parking options will be available at the Career Center, particularly when compared to the county’s other high schools.

Under the version of the CIP the Board reviewed at its meeting last Thursday (June 7), the school system would build an underground parking lot at the site with a synthetic field on top — but that will only happen in 2026, two years after space for 800 students is set to open up at the Career Center.

For some parents, such a delay seemed worrisome, particularly as students search for open field space for sports. Accordingly, the Board reviewed a plan at a work session Tuesday (June 12) that would ensure the garage and field get built by 2023, pushing off the 800-seat expansion, and simultaneous construction of a performing arts wing, until 2025.

“The community really needs us to define what wrap-around supports we’re going to provide there to make it an equitable experience for high school students,” said Board member Nancy Van Doren.

The plan would also address some of the Board’s funding concerns. Initially, Arlington Public Schools was set to pay for all this construction using bonds, a process that would’ve piled up more debt than school budget minders are usually comfortable with. This revised proposal calls for APS to shell out $24 million from its capital reserve fund to help pay for the Career Center work, cutting down a bit on the school system’s debt load and shifting the reserve money from future elementary and middle school projects.

Board members did express some consternation about drawing down a reserve fund so substantially — Vice Chair Reid Goldstein suggested he had plenty of “heartburn” over the prospect that the Trump administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminum could jack up construction costs in the future, meaning those reserves could come in handy down the line. Yet most expressed a willingness to embrace the proposal, all the same.

“I see the tradeoffs,” Van Doren said. “But we need to fund as many seats as possible out of our own pocket right now.”

That’s because the County Board has its own money troubles to worry about, and likely won’t be able to help APS fund additional school construction.

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A group of parents who could someday send their kids to a new high school program at the Arlington Career Center remain frustrated by the school system’s plans for the site, and they’re planning a new effort to make their voices heard.

Concerned parents, largely hailing from the Arlington Heights neighborhood around Columbia Pike, are banding together to form a new nonprofit called “Citizens for Arlington School Equality.” The organization, which will lobby the School Board to include a broader range of amenities at the school site, is planning to kick off its efforts with a march from Patrick Henry Elementary School to the Board’s meeting tonight (June 7) at the Syphax Education Center (2110 Washington Blvd), with a rally to follow.

The Board has yet to finalize just how it will build 1,050 new high school seats at the Career Center, but it is nearing a consensus on a new Capital Improvement Plan that would dictate how the construction proceeds over the next decade. A final vote on the plan is set for June 21, but the Board seems to be nearing agreement on a proposal to build the seats by 2024. Under the proposal, amenities at the site would include a multi-use gym, a “black box” theater, a performing arts wing, a synthetic athletic field and a parking garage, all to be added by 2026.

Yet that plan has done little to satisfy some Arlington Heights parents, who are concerned that the Career Center site wouldn’t offer the same features as the county’s other comprehensive high schools. They’re particularly concerned that the Board’s proposed design would fundamentally disadvantage students who live near the Career Center in South Arlington and are most likely to attend the new program.

“I want this for my kids, but I want to make sure I live in a county that cares about the education of all kids equally,” Jennifer Milder, the parent of two students attending Henry right now and one of the new group’s organizers, told ARLnow. “And the needle has moved very little on the inequality spectrum so far. There are still not adequate fields, still not adequate parking, or an adequate gym.”

Board members have spent plenty of time wrestling with how they can beef up amenities at the site, and examined several plans that would’ve added more amenities to the program and sped up their construction so they were available as the facility opened its doors.

But all of those proposals would have put a serious strain on the school system’s finances and were ultimately cast aside. Even the Board’s current plans will strain Arlington Public Schools’ borrowing capacity, and the county’s similarly challenging financial picture means the County Board may not be able to help, either.

Yet Milder and some her fellow parents believe both boards should view fully funding amenities at the Career Center site as a priority important enough to force a re-ordering of the county’s long-term construction plans.

“The county is doing all these things to attract businesses and people to Arlington, then not backing it up by supporting students they’re bringing here,” said Megan Haydasz, another Arlington Heights parent involved with the new group.

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