County Asking for Feedback on Trades Center Ahead of Plans to Address Overcrowding

Arlington County and Arlington Public Schools are asking residents to share their thoughts about the Arlington County Trades Center, near Shirlington, as the county prepares to address longstanding space issues.

The online survey asks county residents questions about how close they live to the Trades Center, whether noise from the county-owned industrial site bothers them, asks for their feedback on services offered at the lot, as well as what residents would like to change.

Many county departments stored equipment and operated maintenance facilities on the 38-acre site since the 1950s.  However, the “siting of operations and offices developed when space was abundant. Now, room for growth is limited given the developed surrounding area, while service levels have increased in size and complexity” according to the county’s announcement about the survey

Residents will be able to fill out the survey until Thursday, April 4.

Currently the grounds are home to a bevy of county vehicles and offices including:

  • Arlington Public Schools (APS) buses and vehicles
  • Firefighting training site
  • Animal Welfare League of Arlington
  • Police impound lot
  • Solid Waste and Traffic Engineering offices
  • Road salt storage

The county has discussed ideas to free up space at Trades Center for years, particularly for APS which added 40 buses to its fleet between 2011 and 2016 as enrollment continues to grow.

County staff warned that overcrowding was “impacting service delivery” for APS buses and other vehicles in a 2016 presentation.

Last June the County Board approved a five-year agreement letting APS park maintenance vehicles and staff’s personal vehicles at the county’s “Buck site” property at 1425 N. Quincy Street in Virginia Square instead of the Trades Center. In May, the Board also greenlit a plan allowing APS to park its “white fleet” of special vans and buses at Buck site.

But shifting some APS parking to the Buck site was “not a long-term vision” to solve the chronic crowding at the Trades Center, Board Chair Christian Dorsey said after the 2018 vote.

The county has hired Canadian-based engineering consulting firm Stantec for help surveying Arlington residents and county employees to find that solution.

The Board is scheduled to present potential solutions publicly this summer, and following a several-month review period, is scheduled to present their final plan this fall.

Photo via Arlington County

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County Board Amends Zoning Regulations in Bid to Make Childcare More Affordable

The Arlington County Board has approved zoning rules they hope will help parents afford rising childcare costs by increasing local childcare options.

The Board voted unanimously during its Saturday meeting to change several zoning ordinances as part of a mission to overhaul the regulations on childcare centers, with the goal of making it possible for more providers to open up shop.

“These carefully crafted changes will be welcomed by our hard-working Arlington families who need access to high-quality child care,” said County Board Chair Christian Dorsey.

The amendments target regulations that childcare business owners and county staff have said makes it hard to run daycares or open new ones.

One change allows small, in-home daycare providers to care for up to nine kids by right, meaning providers no longer need to go through the county’s extensive use permitting process now reserved for homes caring for 10 or more kids.

Summer camps are now allowed to operate with by right process, rather than having to seek a use permit like a daycare provider, thanks to the Board’s Saturday vote.

The vote also reduces parking requirements for childcare centers after business owners complained they were expensive and county staff found parking spaces often went unused. Zoning ordinances previously required one parking space per employee, but the amendment will change that requirement to one space per eight children. The Board also approved a reduction in the parking requirement if the the daycare is near Metro or bus stations.

The Planning Commission’s Zoning Committee approved the amendments in January after they had been discussed for months. Now that they have the Board’s approval, the changes are set to go into effect on July 1.

A 2017 draft action plan noted there are “significant gaps between supply and demand” for childcare in Arlington, stating in its findings Arlington had 6,984 licensed spaces for 13,435 kids under the age of five.

Officials think the gap might be one of the reasons why the average yearly daycare bill for Arlington families is $42,705 — $2,000 higher than the average bill in D.C., and one of the highest in the country.

“The District has just as much supply-demand pressure, yet we’re more expensive,” Dorsey said in July. “I’m not interested in Arlington exceptionalism when it comes to this.”

More from a county press release:

The proposed changes arise from recommendations included in the Child Care Initiative Action Plan the Board accepted in July 2018, after a year-long community engagement process. The plan’s short-term recommendations include increasing flexibility in Zoning Ordinance provisions that regulate center-based and family-based child care programs in Arlington, and examining local child care regulations to incorporate Virginia state standards. The proposed changes are meant to eliminate perceived and actual barriers to child care in the County.

“The Child Care Initiative’s research, particularly the ‘Risk and Reach’ Study, confirmed that Arlington’s childcare crunch isn’t just an anecdotal challenge for individual families, it’s a systemic problem that affects Arlington’s economic competitiveness, and our goals of achieving equitable outcomes for all our kids and families,” said Board Member Katie Cristol, who proposed the initiative as the Board’s 2018 Chair. “These proposed changes to our Zoning Ordinance and Childcare Codes represent a coordinated, comprehensive approach to the problem, and reflect nearly two years of dedication, analysis and compromise among stakeholders in the initiative.”

The proposed changes are the result of a comprehensive outreach and engagement process that included parents, child care program staff, and other local stakeholders.

“The hard work of a lot of people in this community, in partnership with our Department of Human Services, has produced proposed changes to the Zoning Ordinance and County Code that, if adopted next month by this Board, will improve child care options in Arlington for all our families,” Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey said. “As a father, I know how stressful the hunt for high-quality, affordable child care can be. I am so proud of the creative, can-do approach of all those who participated in the Child Care Initiative. Arlington families, for years to come, will thank you for your efforts.”

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Morning Poll: What Do You Think of the Amazon Decision?

Over the weekend, the Arlington County Board voted unanimously to approve an incentive package that will help bring Amazon and its expected 25,000 or so jobs to the Pentagon City and Crystal City areas.

The approval followed impassioned public testimony from about 100 speakers.

Those in favor of the incentives, which include an estimated $23 million over 15 years from an expected rise in hotel tax revenues attributable to Amazon’s presence, says it’s a small price to pay for one of the biggest economic development prizes in a generation. Amazon, proponents say, will bring thousands of good jobs to the area and act as a magnet for other employers considering their next destination.

Those against the incentives say sending any tax revenue to one of the world’s largest companies, led by the world’s richest man, is a particularly egregious form of “corporate welfare.” That’s doubly so given Amazon’s oft-criticized treatment of its warehouse workers and the effect the company is having on brick-and-mortar retailers, critics say. Also, Amazon’s arrival may bring with it higher housing prices that could push out lower-income residents.

In the end, the Board decided that the benefits outweighed any potential negatives. Do you think they made the right decision?

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Morning Notes

TMZ Gets Rosario Dawson Scoop at DCA — “Rosario Dawson’s all in on Cory Booker for President in 2020, but she might be a little biased … because she just confirmed with us … they’re in a serious, loving relationship!!! The actress was at the Reagan National Airport in D.C. Thursday when our guy quizzed her on what’s been widely rumored.” [TMZ]

Board OKs Queens Court Loans, Again — “The Arlington County Board today cleared the way for replacing a 39-unit garden style apartment complex in Rosslyn, built in 1940, with 249 units committed to remain affordable for 75 years. The Queens Court property, at the corner of N. Quinn Street and Key Boulevard, is part of the Western Rosslyn Area Plan adopted by the County Board in 2015.” [Arlington County]

Yellow Line to Be Extended — “Metro plans to extend service on the Yellow and Red lines. The Yellow Line will finally go past Mount Vernon Square during rush hour again, and even past Fort Totten, all the way to Greenbelt. This change would double service at rush hour and ‘address current crowding conditions at the nine stations north of Mount Vernon Square.'” [DCist]

Vigil for Murdered Arlington Man — “John Giandoni had a beautiful son, a loving family, and a great job. It was all ripped away one year ago… Friday night at 7:30 p.m., John’s family and friends are holding a candlelight vigil in Ballston on the first anniversary of his death.” [WJLA]

Neighborhood College Applications Open — “Learn how to become a neighborhood advocate and effect change through Arlington County’s free Neighborhood College program, which will meet on eight consecutive Thursday evenings beginning April 25.” [Arlington County]

Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf

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BREAKING: County Board Approves Amazon Incentive Package

(Updated on 3/18/19) Arlington officials have unanimously approved an incentive package offered to lure Amazon to the county, after hearing impassioned public testimony both for and against the tech giant’s “HQ2” plans.

The vote clears the way for the company to officially begin developing the site as early as this year.

The Arlington County Board voted 5-0 to approve the incentive plan after Board’s regularly-scheduled Saturday meeting stretched on for nearly twelve hours and disruptions from angry protestors continued until Chair Christian Dorsey called multiple recesses to quell the shouting.

Board member Libby Garvey acknowledged over booing that the incentive plan was “not perfect” but said it was “overwhelmingly” good for Arlington.

Board Member Erik Gutshall said “would not vote for anything that was not a clear and overwhelming win for Arlington.”

After Amazon representatives were ushered into a back room during an earlier outburst, Board members sat back on the dais and spoke for a few minutes about the tensions in the room, which was quiet for the first time that day.

“What I’m sensing is a real concern about loss and vulnerability,” said Dorsey, who noted that “the history” of Arlington neighborhoods was that of gentrification. “We never really had a way to stop it. I know it’s maybe attractive to thinking saying no to Amazon stops it. It doesn’t.”

Protests continued after the back-and-forth, with shouts of “shame!” peppering the Board members’ final remarks on the dais. Longtime D.C. protestor Chris Otten was escorted out and arrested after an expletive-ridden tirade aimed at the Board.

The incentive package grants an estimated $23 million in incentives to Amazon over the next 15 years if the company fills 6 million square feet of office space by 2035. It also includes a plan to fund $28 million in transportation upgrades near Amazon’s headquarters over the next decade via use of Crystal City’s Tax Increment Financing district.

The Board’s vote came after nearly five hours of public comment from more than 100 people. County staff said it was first time they’ve allowed speakers to sign-up ahead of time in a bid to control crowding.

The Board also questioned Amazon’s head of economic development Holly Sullivan.

Board members Katie Cristol and Dorsey both asked how Amazon planned to enforce labor laws in light of the subcontractor electrical Power Design, which is likely to help build the headquarters and is currently being sued by the D.C. Attorney General for “cheating” wages from 535 employees.

Sullivan responded that the company has had one meeting with a “building trade” and is working to “develop a workforce agreement.”

One of Arlington’s state legislators, Del. Mark Levine, told ARLnow he wanted the Board to delay their vote because he’s “become concerned” that Amazon still hasn’t agreed to that labor commitment.

“The fact that they’re not willing to sign even a memorandum… makes me concerned that they’re not going to be fair to their workers,” said Levine, echoing concerns from electrician and construction unions that testified earlier today.

Amazon also drew criticism for potentially shrinking affordable housing in the region which is already squeezed. Several landlords and real estate firms expressed support of the company locating to Pentagon City and Crystal City, but other speakers shared worries that rent prices are already rising.

“When we have community that isn’t transient, that has staying power, we have a stronger community.” said Page Cooper, who said her 13-month lease shrunk to 8 months when it came time to renew last year.

Supporters said the economic growth from Amazon’s promise of 25,000 is sorely needed. It’s also a number Dorsey has said could increase in light of Amazon cancelling its plans for a second headquarters in New York City.

The county “needs these jobs” and that is “well positioned to integrate Amazon,” due to the area’s public transit system, said Chuck, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Steve Cooper, a board member at the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, compared Arlington — long a community with government as its top employers — to his hometown in Detroit.

“Detroit has suffered from being a one-industry town now for six decades,” he said, adding, “Arlington will never be Detroit because we have a chance to diversity.”

The crowd was roughly equally split between those for and against the incentive package — and Board Chair Christian Dorsey repeatedly tried to quell laughter and applause, with emotions running high as the day wore on.

Douglas Park resident Kinsey Fabrizio was praising the board for its “public outreach” when loud laughter from activists, who criticized what they described as lack of community input, drowned out the rest of her testimony.

“This is not WWE,” Dorsey said as he quieted the crowd.

The Crystal City Civic Association and the Crystal City Citizen Review Council voiced support for the tech giant building its second home in their neighborhood. The Aurora Highlands Civic Association and the local chapter of the NAACP, however, said more community engagement is needed before they can support the deal.

The raucous meeting began with a protest outside the steps of the government building with pro- and anti-incentive groups giving simultaneous press conferences holding picket signs.

Local activist coalition For Us, Not Amazon discussed concerns that Amazon had provided ICE with facial recognition software for deportations.

Crystal City BID President Tracey Gabriel was firmly in the pro-Amazon camp, telling ARLnow, “we view Amazon’s selection as a big local win” that will provide “sustainable development” for the area.

The president of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, Kate Bates, also testified in support of the plan, echoing her recent op-ed that the incentives were “a good deal” for the county.

Today’s meeting comes almost two months after the Virginia General Assembly overwhelmingly approved their own incentive package for Amazon. The state-level incentives include up to $750 million in tax cuts in exchange for Amazon creating as many as 37,850 Virginian jobs between now and 2030.

State legislators have also pledged millions in state funding for Arlington and Alexandria’s local infrastructure projects around Amazon’s proposed headquarters — such as adding new entrances to Crystal City and Potomac Yard Metro stations and improving the stretch of Route 1 that runs through Crystal City.

Amazon’s Holly Sullivan noted during Saturday’s meeting that the company picked the area partially because it could be served by three Metro stations.

Courthouse resident June O’Connell praised the opportunity for state investment in local infrastructure, telling the board, “I’ve been waiting from that money from the state. We deserve that money from the state. Take the money from the state.”

Christina Winn, of Arlington Economic Development, said Amazon could bring a $162 million net tax benefit for Arlington. Winn added that the county’s haul could rise to $319 million if the company creates more than 25,000 jobs.

Prior to public testimony, County Manager Mark Schwartz defended the package.

“I would never have recommend this agreement to you if I thought for one minute that this would harm the community I call home,” Schwartz said.

Just don’t expect Amazon’s tens of thousands of employees to arrive all at once. Winn noted that Amazon’s arrival would be “slow ramp-up” with around 400 employees expected in 2019.

“Even though this hearing has a sense of finality this is far from our last Amazon conversation,” said Dorsey.

Additional hearings are expected down the road as Amazon moves to build out its office campus in Pentagon City. For the time being, the company is expected to occupy temporary office space in Crystal City.

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Here’s What You Need to Know Before Saturday’s Amazon Incentive Package Vote

The County Board is poised to pass a controversial incentive package for Amazon this Saturday, which could help bring tens of thousands of jobs and millions in added property taxes to Arlington County, at the cost of tens of millions in tax subsidies for one of the world’s largest companies.

The Board is scheduled to vote on the multi-million dollar incentive package during their regularly-scheduled Saturday meeting, which is Amazon’s last hurdle to clear before beginning development on their new headquarters slated to start construction in 2021.

The meeting begins at 8:30 a.m. at the Bozman Government Center in Courthouse, however, the Amazon part of discussion isn’t scheduled to start until after 1 p.m., per an agenda summary and the hearing is expected to be dogged with public protest from critics opposing Amazon.

The county’s incentive package was first publicly released earlier this month and features a 15-year, estimated $23 million incentive given to Amazon if the tech-and-retail giant meets office space occupancy goals over several years. The company would need to fill 60,000 square feet of office space starting in June of 2020 and meet benchmarks towards occupying 6 million square feet by 2035.

The incentive is funded from a portion of the increases in hotel tax revenue that officials predict from Amazon’s “HQ2” moving to the region.

The incentive package up for a vote Saturday also includes plans to spend $28 million over a period of 10 years to update infrastructure around the proposed headquarters, in addition to the state’s multi-million-dollar contribution. That money will be pulled from a portion of the increase in commercial property tax revenue in the Crystal City area that results from Amazon’s arrival.

The county also offered to at least try to fulfill Amazon’s request for an on-site helicopter pad on-site despite residents’ ongoing complaints of existing helicopter noise and the region’s strictly-enforced no-fly zone.

Amazon announced it selected Arlington as the site for its second headquarters in November, promising to bring at least 25,000 jobs and occupy 6,056,000 million square feet of commercial space in the Crystal City and Pentagon City areas, which have experienced high vacancy rates for the last 15 years.

County Board Chair Christian Dorsey said in February the expected number of Amazon jobs is now higher because the company cancelled its other headquarter plans in New York City.

The incentives have drawn persistent criticism from activists who believe the county shouldn’t be giving any incentives to a company run by the world’s richest man — and who fear its relocation to Arlington will exacerbate the county’s affordable hosing shortage. Critics have also raised red flags about a portion of the agreement that gives Amazon advance notice of FOIA requests.

On Friday, local activist coalition “For Us, Not Amazon” announced a noon protest outside the county government steps on Saturday before the vote.

“While the County tries to ignore us, For Us, Not Amazon has been doing the real community engagement, knocking doors, listening to community members’ concerns and it’s time to make sure Arlington County officials listen to every one of us before this sham gets voted on,” the description of the rally reads.

The head of Arlington’s Chamber of Commerce argued the package was a “good deal” for the county in a Thursday op-ed on ARLnow, writing that “focusing on the Transient Occupancy Tax means that taxes on Arlington residents and businesses will not fund these incentives and that Amazon will receive these payments only if our hoteliers grow their businesses too.”

For Us, Not Amazon’s member organizations knocked on doors earlier this week to gather petition signatures opposing the incentive package.

On Monday, 30 advocacy and community organizations — including the Nauck Civic Association and the Arlington NAACP, among statewide and regional groups — signed a letter requesting the County Board “postpone the vote on incentives and hold public hearings to foster transparency and understanding.”

The Board originally planned for a February public hearing and vote on the incentives but rescheduled to March, citing the need for more community discussions.

Saturday’s vote does not include the state’s $750 million-incentive package to Amazon, which the Virginia General Assembly overwhelmingly approved in January.

This weekend’s Board meeting will also not include ideas county officials pitched Amazon but didn’t officially include in the incentive package — such as suggesting Amazon take advantage of a little-used technology incentive program to potentially save millions in taxes, as first reported by ARLnow.

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Letter to the Editor: Amazon is a Good Deal for Arlington, Chamber of Commerce Argues

The following Letter to the Editor was submitted by Arlington Chamber of Commerce President Kate Bates, who writes in support of passing the county’s incentive deals made to motivate Amazon to open its new headquarters in Crystal City and Pentagon City.  

The Chamber is a non-profit which advocates for 750 county businesses and organizations, which includes Amazon as of December. The Chamber has written several letters to County Board members and the Virginia General Assembly over the last year in support of bringing Amazon to the region, and to urge officials to pass state and local tax incentives. 

The County Board will vote on Saturday for their incentive package finalizing Amazon’s plans to move to area.

It’s an exciting time for Arlington. On Saturday, the County Board will vote on the performance agreement for Amazon’s headquarters. Approving this agreement is a powerful statement that Arlington is open for business and we are no longer solely a government town, but a magnet for innovation in all sectors. Welcoming Amazon to Arlington will create opportunities for residents and businesses. The community as a whole will benefit from the jobs, economic activity, and innovation that Amazon will bring to Arlington. The performance agreement is a good deal for Arlington.

Economic Well-being

Amazon’s commitment to Arlington will provide us with balance; adding business diversity will strengthen our local economy. The job losses from BRAC and sequestration, and the uncertainty of the recent shutdown have shown that we cannot rely on the Federal Government alone for our prosperity. Amazon gradually adding 25,000-37,850 private-sector jobs will replace the 24,000 federal and contractor jobs lost in the Crystal City area over the past two decades.

Amazon’s presence will solidify Arlington as an innovation hub. Having Amazon as an anchor will help Arlington and Northern Virginia attract innovative companies. A robust job market will provide opportunities for our young people to succeed here, in the community where they are growing up and getting their education. Our local businesses expect Amazon’s arrival and the resulting diversification in our local economy to help them thrive.

Incentives

Arlington Economic Development crafted a groundbreaking incentive package that truly invests in Arlington’s future. The overwhelming majority, 95%, of the Arlington incentive package comprises investments in our community through housing, transportation, and infrastructure. The incentive payment to Amazon, the other 5%, depends Amazon hitting their established benchmarks for office space.

The direct financial incentive to Amazon is funded through a fraction of the growth in the Transient Occupancy Tax, a tax paid by guests staying in Arlington’s hotels. Tying Amazon’s direct incentives to revenue growth ensures that payments will not divert money from other priorities. Focusing on the Transient Occupancy Tax means that taxes on Arlington residents and businesses will not fund these incentives and that Amazon will receive these payments only if our hoteliers grow their businesses too.

Community

In the months since the announcement, Amazon has shown they want to be a part of the Arlington community. Amazon is already engaging, joining the Chamber and meeting with businesses, nonprofits, and community groups to build long-term relationships. Amazon’s Director of Community Engagement met with more than 50 leaders from Arlington nonprofits at a Chamber-hosted gathering, and senior Amazon team members have attended many community events. Amazon’s culture values making direct change; we look forward to the prospect of thousands of innovative people participating in our community.

The Amazon headquarters announcement has focused Arlington on our transportation, housing, and school funding challenges, all of which predate Amazon. The redevelopment of the Crystal City area will bring the transportation infrastructure improvements and amenities envisioned in its sector plan. Approving this agreement will help secure Arlington’s fiscal health and provide tax revenues to help the community address these challenges.

This is an historic moment for Arlington. The establishment of Amazon’s headquarters offers Arlington a unique occasion to strengthen our economy, to create opportunities for residents, and to improve the County’s fiscal position. We look forward to working together as a community to seize the opportunities that welcoming Amazon affords to all of Arlington.

ARLnow.com occasionally publishes thoughtful letters to the editor about issues of local interest. To submit a letter to the editor for consideration, please email it to [email protected] Letters may be edited for content and brevity. 

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Metro Greenlights Initial Budget Proposing Some Service Expansions, Higher County Costs

Metro is moving forward with its new budget, proposing sweeping service increases to bolster ridership with the need for a modest budget increase from Arlington.

The WMATA Board of Directors gave initial approval for the transit agency’s draft $3.5 billion, FY2020 budget during a meeting today (Thursday). The budget paves the way to start running Yellow Line trains to Greenbelt and Red Line trains all the way to Glenmont, eliminating the Silver Spring turn-back.

The budget asks Arlington to contribute $77.6 million to the agency’s operating budget, a $2.6 million increase from last year.

“Yellow and Red extensions help any Arlingtonians heading to those end points and expand the commute/travel shed into Arlington to accommodate growth in Pentagon City and Crystal City,” Metro Board member and Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey told ARLnow after Thursday’s meeting.

“Better service helps us all,” said Dorsey.

Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz proposed $45.6 million in the county’s next budget to be allocated to Metro’s operating budget, a $5 million increase from budget adopted last fiscal year. The remainder of the county’s $77.6 million in funding is from a small increase in the portion of the county’s capital improvement program (CIP) funds set aside for Metro.

Arlington County Board members advertised a 2.75-cent bump to the real estate tax in Arlington’s next fiscal budget, in part, to cover rising expenses at Metro.

The idea was Dorsey’s, who said the increased funds to Metro allowed the transit agency’s budget “to do more service, reduce the price of some fare pass products including on bus where ridership is cratering while having no fare increases and staying within legislatively mandated caps.”

The budget also included a small, $1 million proposal provide $3 subsidies for late-night rideshare trips that area workers take, now that Metrorail’s own late-night service is no more.

One uncertainty the transit agency’s budget continues to face is its ridership rates, which have now plummeted to a 20-year low. The budget banks on that number stabilizing this year, a result WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld hopes to achieve with the increased service.

Wiedefeld initially proposed even more sweeping service increases, including an expansion of rush-hour service, but the expense prompted consternation from county officials. Those proposals were ultimately stripped from the budget.

The budget proposal Board members approved Thursday did not include service cuts or fare increases. 

Metro Board member Corbett Price, representing D.C., thanked Dorsey at the end of the meeting for his “political leadership” in assembling the budget, reported WTOP.

“My only hope is people say such things about me when I’m dead,” joked Dorsey.

Metro Board members will convene again this month for a final vote on the budget, which goes into effect in June.

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Pricy Lobbying and ‘Spilled Blood’: The Inside Story of How Arlington Won a Veto in Richmond

(Updated at 10:45 p.m.) About a year ago at this time, Arlington looked to be in serious trouble down in Richmond.

In mid-March 2018, county officials faced the decidedly unpleasant prospect that they’d come out on the losing end of a bruising legislative battle with two local golf and country clubs.

One of the county’s foremost foes in the General Assembly had engineered the passage of legislation to slash the clubs’ tax bills, potentially pulling more than a million dollars in annual tax revenue out of the county’s coffers.

Arlington had spent years tangling with the clubs, which count among their members local luminaries ranging from retired generals to former presidents, arguing over how to tax those properties. Yet the legislation from Del. Tim Hugo (R-40th District) would’ve bypassed the local dispute entirely, and it was headed to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk.

That meant that Arlington’s only hope of stopping the bill was convincing the governor to strike it down with his veto pen.

In those days, long before evidence of Northam’s racist medical school yearbook photos had surfaced, the Democrat was well-liked in the county. He’d raised plenty of cash from Arlingtonians in his successful campaign just a year before, and had won endorsements in his primary contest from many of the county’s elected officials.

Yet the situation still looked dire enough that the County Board felt compelled to take more drastic steps to win Northam to their side. The county shelled out $22,500 to hire a well-connected lobbying firm for just a few weeks, embarking on a frenetic campaign to pressure the governor and state lawmakers and launch a media blitz to broadcast the county’s position in both local and national outlets.

“It became apparent to all of us that every Arlingtonian had something at stake here,” then-County Board Chair Katie Cristol told ARLnow. “At a time when we were making excruciating decisions about our own budget, the idea that you would take more than million dollars and put it toward something that wasn’t a priority for anyone here was so frustrating.”

That push was ultimately successful — Northam vetoed the bill last April, and the county struck a deal with the clubs to end this fight a few weeks later.

An ARLnow investigation of the events of those crucial weeks in spring 2018 sheds a bit more light on how the county won that veto, and how business is conducted down in the state capitol. This account is based both on interviews with many people close to the debate and a trove of emails and documents released via a public records request (and published now in the spirit of “National Sunshine Week,” a nationwide initiative designed to highlight the value of freedom of information laws).

Crucially, ARLnow’s research shows that the process was anything but smooth sailing for the county, as it pit Arlington directly against the club’s members. Many of them exercise plenty of political influence across the region and the state, and documents show they were able to lean heavily on Northam himself.

“One would expect a Democratic governor to be highly responsive to one of most Democratic jurisdictions in the state,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. “But this was a matter of great concern to a bunch of very important people in Virginia, and that may well be the reason why additional efforts were necessary.”

And, looking forward, the bitter fight over the issue could well have big implications should similar legislation ever resurface in Richmond.

“Structurally, this bill could absolutely come back someday,” Cristol said. “And the idea that a bill that has such deleterious consequences for land use and taxation in jurisdictions across Virginia could come back and garner support because of an effective lobbying interest is very much a real threat.”

A risky precedent?

Hugo kicked off the fight over golf course taxes in the state capitol by filing his bill in fall 2017, but the dispute had been percolating long before then.

Both the Army Navy Country Club (located along I-395 just past Pentagon City) and the Washington Golf and Country Club (near Marymount University along N. Glebe Road) had been fighting with the county’s real estate assessor for years.

Arlington officials sought to value the clubs’ based on the “highest and best use” of the land: in this case, as space for residential or commercial properties. That meant the county assumed that each square foot of land was worth about $12 — the two clubs control more than 370 acres of land, combined.

The county reasoned that land is exceedingly valuable in the 26-square-mile locality, where officials have trouble finding sites for schools and other public facilities, and ought to be treated as such. Residential properties near each club have often been valued at many times that amount, for comparison.

That means Army Navy was generally assigned a value of well north of $100 million over the years, with an annual tax bill hovering around $1.5 million, county records show. Washington Golf ranged in value from $42 million to $60 million, with a tax bill of $838,000 for 2017.

The clubs argued those tax bills were wildly unfair compared to other Northern Virginia golf courses, some of which are valued at a much lower rate. They claimed the high tax bills were forcing them to raise membership rates, putting a strain on members — in Army Navy’s case, many are active duty military or veterans.

So Hugo filed legislation to slash the valuation rate to around $0.50 per square foot, reducing the clubs’ annual tax burden by roughly $1.5 million, combined. The clubs also filed suit against the county in December 2017, challenging their 2014 property assessments.

But it was the legislative push that unnerved county officials the most. Losing the court case would impact just two property assessments in isolation (albeit valuable ones) — seeing the legislation pass could’ve opened the door for other landowners to follow the same playbook, they feared.

“It would set a risky precedent where any property owner who does not agree with their assessment could run to Richmond for a legislative fix,” then-Board member John Vihstadt warned a state Senate committee in February 2018.

Smooth sailing for Hugo’s bill

Cristol says the Board took the prospect of Hugo’s bill passing “incredibly seriously” from the moment it was introduced. She remembers the entire Board frequently checking in with the county’s state legislative delegation, and other lawmakers representing Northern Virginia, to make the county’s position clear.

Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48th District), who represents parts of Arlington, spoke forcefully against the bill in a Feb. 7, 2018 committee hearing in the House of Delegates. At the time, Sullivan said he “probably spent more time on this bill than any other bill this session.”

“To my way of thinking, a resolution between the parties is always better than this body imposing an outcome,” Sullivan told his colleagues on the House finance committee. “I believe the parties are on course, pardon the pun, to a resolution of this.”

Sullivan cited “ongoing, good faith negotiations” between the clubs and the county, arguing that two sides were in the process of settling the valuation dispute and averting the need for any lawsuit.

At the time, however, Arlington had yet to offer a settlement of the lawsuit to the clubs, or hold extensive negotiations with them.

A timeline drafted by County Attorney Steve MacIsaac for use in later lobbying efforts notes that the county didn’t hold its first sit-down meeting with club officials until mid-March. The two sides discussed some inspections of the properties over the month of February, while the legislature was in session, but offered no terms to resolve the matter until later.

And Hugo argued that his legislation was the only reason any negotiations were happening at all.

“The ‘ongoing talks’ never really started until the bill was introduced,” Hugo told the finance committee.

Hugo’s colleagues saw things his way. The bill easily passed the committee with bipartisan support, passing both the Senate and the House with a mix of Republican and Democrat votes a few weeks later. The bill was sent to Northam by March 16.

Four days earlier, the County Board signed a $15,000 contract with Capital Results, a Richmond lobbying firm, documents and emails show. The firm’s past clients range from the National Rifle Association to Major League Baseball to Tesla Motors, according to state records.

Capital Results’ duties would include “message development,” “thought leader engagement,” and “media relations,” according to the contract. Partner Bea Gonzalez took point on the operation.

Cristol says the decision to hire the firm was partly out of desperation, as the Board recognized that heavily Democratic Arlington might have trouble winning sympathy from the Republican-dominated General Assembly without some extra help.

“We knew we’d need members of the majority caucus, which can be a little hard for Arlington,” Cristol said. “This was an opportunity for some outside help to reach some in the other party.”

Plus, the county had to face off against plenty of lobbying from the clubs themselves — Washington Golf employed two lobbyists for the legislative session, while Army Navy retained four of its own, state records show.

Gonzalez gets going

Emails show that, by March 14, 2018, Gonzalez had leapt into action.

She began coordinating closely with both Cristol and Pat Carroll, the county’s main government affairs staffer in Richmond, with one main opening goal: funneling a slew of letters opposing Hugo’s bill to Northam’s office.

Not only did Gonzalez help draft a resolution for the Board to pass condemning the bill, but she helped craft letters for all manner of Arlington politicians and community leaders about the country club legislation.

Sheriff Beth Arthur, Clerk of Circuit Court Paul Ferguson, County Treasurer Carla de la Pava, former Del. L. Karen Darner, the School Board, the heads of firefighter and police unions and local PTA presidents all communicated with Gonzalez about sending letters to Northam.

She drafted the letters and, in many cases, local leaders would send them onto the governor as their own, the emails show.

“At this point it is a numbers game [with] the number of letters and emails received,” Gonzalez wrote to Carroll on March 27.

Gonzalez also worked extensively with state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st District) to draft an op-ed and then place it in the Washington Post. It eventually ran on March 30, under the headline, “Virginia country clubs don’t need these tax breaks.” Gonzalez also helped Cristol draft her own op-ed on the matter, though it’s unclear if it was ever published.

Farnsworth said that, given the outsized influence of lobbyists around the capitol, it should hardly be a surprise that they may also be doing a little ghostwriting for politicians.

“Lobbyists draft bills, so why wouldn’t they draft op-eds?” he said. “Cynicism with respect to the authors of opinion columns or legislation is not generally misplaced.”

Earning some eyeballs

Earning media attention was another key part of Gonzalez’s strategy. The emails show she worked to secure Cristol interviews with TV and radio outlets alike and prep her for each one — she even worked with county staff to draft news releases on each stage of the legislation’s development.

And Gonzalez also endeavored to generate some more grassroots opposition to Hugo’s bill. While she reached out to a variety of different community activists, she found the most success with Annette Lang, who worked with the progressive group “We of Action Virginia.”

Lang and Cristol had chatted extensively about the golf course issue during the “March for Our Lives” gun safety demonstration in D.C., and Cristol forwarded her contact information to Gonzalez. From there, Gonzalez and Carroll provided her with talking points against Hugo’s bill and Lang whipped up support as part of a new group: “NoTaxSubsidies4Clubs.”

“It struck me that it’s really inappropriate for the General Assembly to step in on something like this, so I got kind of jazzed about it,” Lang told ARLnow. “Which is strange, because it’s a rather dry issue.”

Lang and her fellow activists began writing to state lawmakers about the issue, and sent letters to the editor along to local news outlets. They even took out ads blasting the bill in the Sun Gazette, including one pictured at left.

And when it came time for one of Northam’s regular appearances on WTOP’s “Ask the Governor” radio show, Gonzalez convinced Lang to call in, at Cristol’s urging. The hosts took her call during the March 28 broadcast.

“My question is, do you think real estate tax assessments should be established by local elected officials with disputes resolved in the courts, or should they be imposed upon by state legislators with disputes resolved by the state legislators that are not elected by the locality?” Lang asked.

Northam commended her for having a “good grasp of what we’re dealing with right now,” and vowed to “step in and take action” only if the county and the clubs couldn’t strike a deal.

Northam feels the heat

The governor’s tone during the radio show provided a good indication of how his staff was approaching the situation behind the scenes.

Emails show that Northam’s chief of staff, Clark Mercer, wrote to Cristol later on March 30 to get contact information for the clubs’ leaders. He said he planned to send an email “out to the group to encourage dialogue between the parties.”

But Northam’s appearance during the WTOP program also hinted at some of the pressure he was feeling to let the bill become law.

“Something I am sensitive to is a lot of these members are veterans,” Northam said. “A lot of them have protected our lives and have limited resources, and so the memberships have gotten fairly unreasonable, and that’s why this needs to be addressed.”

Emails between Gonzalez and Carroll indicate that the governor, himself an Army veteran and Virginia Military Institute graduate, was hearing the argument quite frequently that, without a slash in tax bills, the clubs would become unaffordable for their military members.

“[Former Arlington Del.] Bob Brink says that the governor is hearing from veterans,” Carroll wrote to Gonzalez on March 23. “Not sure yet how many.”

“Yes, veterans are calling in — and all of the VMI network too,” Gonzalez replied.

Cristol remembers being confused at hearing such arguments. “The idea that we would support veterans by giving tax breaks to country clubs, rather than investing tax dollars in services to support veterans felt bizarre to me,” she says now.

Nevertheless, it was clearly a powerful argument in the clubs’ favor. Hugo referenced the issue several times during committee debate; a March 3 op-ed on the conservative Virginia politics website Bearing Drift accused Arlington of “using an unfair application of tax policy to willfully run United States military veterans out of the county.”

Lang recalls several legislators telling her that they’d heard similar overtures. Del. Kaye Kory (D-38th District) told Lang in an email that “I am receiving voicemails from veterans urging me to support this bill and angrily demanding to know why I voted against it.”

“This misleading campaign is hypocritical and disappointing,” she wrote on March 25.

Some of the pressure from veterans was even directed Cristol’s way.

Someone tweeted at her on March 28 urging her to support Hugo’s bill based on what it would mean for veterans. She responded that “I’m honored to represent the >12k veterans living in Arlington County. I don’t think asking them to foot the bill for tax breaks for country clubs is a sign of respect.”

That tweet did not go unnoticed among the country clubs’ supporters. A few days after Cristol’s social media post, Carroll wrote to Gonzalez, saying she’d heard about the tweet directly from Suzette Denslow, Northam’s deputy chief of staff.

Denslow had gotten a call from Edward Mullen, one of the lobbyists representing Washington Golf, who was upset about that message. And Mullen is no stranger to the Northam administration — he served on the governor’s transition team, and personally donated $1,500 to Northam’s gubernatorial campaign.

Carroll wrote to Denslow to reassure her that the clubs and the county were working together and making progress on a settlement.

After the veto, a ‘good relationship’?

Regardless of any heat Northam might’ve been feeling, the governor came through on Arlington’s side by April 9, his deadline for acting on the bill.

He vetoed Hugo’s legislation, but delivered a warning in a statement attached to the decision: “I encourage the parties to continue negotiations to find a solution so that similar legislation will not be necessary in the future.”

This prompted rejoicing from the Arlington contingent, with one cautionary note.

“I spilled blood on this one,” Favola wrote to Gonzalez, Carroll and other county officials. “There is nothing left for a redo, so please reach a settlement with the clubs.”

Cristol followed up the next day with proposed strategies on how to sustain the governor’s veto, fearing that Hugo might try to muster the votes to override Northam’s decision. That would require a two-thirds majority in the House of Delegates, a heavy lift considering the bill didn’t originally pass with that much support.

Still, emails show Carroll and Gonzalez exchanged ideas about which local lawmakers might be well positioned to whip support for the veto.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez feared that Hugo was marshaling his own opposition to the veto as late as April 16.

“Been texting with Hugo, and he may be leaning on giving a long [floor] speech I think,” she wrote to Carroll. “So we need to be sure to be prepped.”

The county even agreed to extend its contract with Capital Results that same day. Gonzalez charged Arlington another $7,000, documents show.

“The veto being sustained was not at all something we took for granted,” Cristol said.

Ultimately, Gonzalez’s fears weren’t realized. On April 19, she wrote to a group of county officials that Hugo had decided not to contest the veto.

Six days later, the clubs and the county struck a deal to avert the lawsuit, according to an email from Army Navy’s chairman to his members.

The county agreed to reduce its valuation of the courses, and refund some of their past tax bills — the changes cut Army Navy’s tax bill by about $600,000 last year, while Washington Golf saved about $400,000. Word of the settlement made it to ARLnow by May 2.

Cristol says the ultimate outcome was undoubtedly the one the county had hoped for, but she added that there were certainly moments where county leaders felt “great frustration and disappointment” about the how the debate proceeded. Plainly, the whole saga left some hard feelings all around.

“[The clubs] chose, unfortunately, to take their case to Richmond and sue us at the same time,” Vihstadt told ARLnow. “Not the way to make friends and influence people, in my view.”

That’s not to say the experience left the clubs and the county entirely on bad terms, however.

“We are trying to maintain a good relationship with the county and hope to maintain that good relationship in the future,” Raighne Delaney, Army Navy’s secretary-treasurer, told ARLnow. Washington Golf’s representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

That being said, Cristol remains wary that the county could find itself doing battle with the clubs in Richmond once again, should that relationship deteriorate.

After all, she notes that Hugo — a Fairfax Republican who has frequently clashed with the county on all manner of issues — “is still in the General Assembly.”

“People in Clifton or other parts of the state could always decide they know better how to tax open space in Arlington,” Cristol said.

Main photo via Facebook

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County Considers Further Reducing Parking Requirements for Developments Along R-B Corridor

Arlington officials could soon approve additional rollbacks to the number of parking spaces required for new apartment developments along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

Right now, the County Board is barred from allowing new developments along certain sections of the corridor if they don’t have at least one parking space for every unit planned for the new building. The Board is now considering removing that restriction, which would specifically impact properties zoned as “R-C” districts.

About 105 properties are currently zoned “R-C,” according to a staff report prepared for the County Board, and they’re generally located around the Ballston, Virginia Square and Courthouse Metro stations.

The Board approved similar reductions to parking minimums for apartment developments along the R-B corridor and in Crystal City and Pentagon City in fall 2017, in a bid to increase walkable and transit-accessible development, and staff suggested that this change would be a logical next step for the county.

“In general, the proposed amendment could potentially facilitate multifamily residential projects in the future and that the amendment would provide the County Board the same flexibility it has when considering modifications to minimum parking ratios in other Commercial/Mixed Use Districts on a case-by-case basis,” staff wrote in the report.

Those 2017 changes generally targeted properties in the immediate vicinity of Metro stations, and the newly targeted “R-C” districts are slightly different.

Staff describes the zones as a “transitional mixed-use zone between higher-density mixed-use areas and lower-density residential areas,” and the county’s zoning map shows that the affected properties tend to sit a block or two away from major arterial roads like Wilson Blvd or Fairfax Drive.

Allowing the Board to approve similarly reduced parking minimums on those areas as well would provide “consistency” with those previous changes, staff argue.

Officials have already relied on the tweaked parking requirements to allow smaller parking garages at developments around popular Metro stations on the R-B corridor. Other cities have even taken the more drastic step of banning parking minimums entirely.

The Board will consider this proposal for the first time at its meeting Saturday (March 16). Members are scheduled to set a Planning Commission hearing on the matter for April 8, then hold a public hearing and vote on April 23.

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Childcare Center Regulation Reforms Up for Final County Board Vote Saturday

This Saturday, the County Board is set to vote on long-awaited zoning changes “to eliminate perceived and actual barriers to child care” in Arlington.

The bundle of zoning ordinance amendments the Board is poised to approve aim to add more childcare centers to the county and ultimately make the service more affordable. It’s the latest component of a discussion that’s lasted years on how the county can help parents struggling to afford rising childcare costs.

One of the zoning amendments up for a vote Saturday would end the requirement that small family daycare homes need to apply for extensive county approval if they cared for up to nine children. Family day care centers with nine or fewer children could thus be approved “by right,” whereas now the cap is five kids.

The maximum number of children these smaller facilities could care for would also be lifted to 12 from nine, but the new “by right” exception would only apply to facilities caring for nine or fewer kids.

Another amendment would reduce parking requirements in light of findings that indicated current lot requirements were too costly for new businesses and that many staff and parents travelled by public transportation. The amendment would change the requirement from one parking space per daycare employee to one space per eight children cared for by the center.

A proposed amendment also noted that, “based on community input and feedback, Arlington’s child care providers perceive the existing development review process as a significant barrier.” Now officials are proposing to reduce the permit reviews from three to two reviews in order to “streamline” the process and “provide more certainty to child care providers.”

The vote has been delayed several times: Board members originally aimed to pass the changes before the end of 2018. In the summer, members approved a “Childcare Action Plan” to grant parents daycare subsidies.

The zoning changes have been in the works for months, and were approved by the Planning Commission’s Zoning Committee in January. If the Board passes the bills, the zoning changes will go into effect July 1.

“We’ve come a far way, but we’ve got a long way to go,” said Board member Libby Garvey at the time.

Childcare services in Arlington are among the country’s most expensive, costing an average of $21,000 a year per child, according to estimates from the Economic Policy Institute.

But Board Chair Christian Dorsey noted in July that multiple kids means Arlington’s families pay an average of $42,705 per year for daycare $2,000 higher than D.C. and a number that left Dorsey “gobsmacked.”

“I can’t imagine our rents are higher than they are in D.C.,” he said. “The District has just as much supply-demand pressure, yet we’re more expensive… I’m not interested in Arlington exceptionalism when it comes to this.”

In addition to voting on the childcare zoning bills, the Board is also scheduled to discuss a proposal to increase legal aid funding for the county’s undocumented residents and a controversial subsidy package for Amazon.

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County Considers Lowering Speed Limit Along Busy Pentagon City Street

Drivers along a busy stretch of road in Pentagon City could soon need to slow down a bit.

County officials are proposing changing the speed limit along S. Hayes Street as the road runs between Army Navy Drive and 15th Street S. It currently has posted speed limits of 35 and 30 miles per hour along different stretches of the road, but the county could bump that down to 25 miles per hour.

The Crystal City Business Improvement District requested a study of the speed limit along that section of the street, which runs past major developments, including the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City and Pentagon Centre, as well as the neighborhood’s Metro station.

Staff wrote in a report for the County Board that the “high volumes of pedestrian crossings and higher density land development” in the area justify bumping down the speed a bit.

Similarly, staff noted that an examination of the last four years worth of crash data for the area suggest that a lower speed might be beneficial for the area.

If the Board approves the change, the county will spend $1,500 to install signs advertising the newly revised speed limit along the road.

The Board is set to consider the issue for the first time at its meeting Saturday (March 16), where members are scheduled to set a public hearing on the matter for April 23. The Board could then approve the change immediately afterward.

Photo via Google Maps

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Peter’s Take: Moving Arlington Closer to Environmental Sustainability

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

As Arlington continues to prepare for Amazon’s arrival, justified concerns have been raised about the impact of Amazon’s coming here on our environment, our parks, and our schools.

Concerns relating to the environment take place in the context of a Virginia legal system that reserves to the state, rather than municipalities like Arlington, many decisions regarding regulation of products and practices that harm our environment.

Today, I’m focusing on some promising new community initiatives that highlight the environmental threats posed by some of these products and practices. I’m not focusing on whether the appropriate response to any particular environmental threat should be:

  • citizen or regulatory action
  • in Arlington or Richmond
  • some combination of the above

Film screening of “StyrofoamMom” — a locally produced documentary

On Saturday, April 6, from 5:30 to 8:30 pm, a group of organizations are sponsoring a dinner and open-house reception featuring a showing of a locally produced documentary, “StyrofoamMom.”

StyrofoamMom is a name given to Miriam Gennari, an Arlington resident, by Chris Zimmerman, a former County Board member, when she caught him eating from a Styrofoam® container. Gennari ran for School Board in 2013 focusing on environmental stewardship and literacy in Arlington Public Schools.

Gennari has been advocating the Arlington County government for 10 years, asking our government to develop policies and strategies regarding Arlington’s most ignored single-use plastic, expanded-polystyrene. Her hope in sharing the film is that with new student leadership, she can hand the microphone over to the youth of Arlington and the region, to work with government and business leaders to finish the job properly.

Film production

StyrofoamMom was made with critical support from Arlington Independent Media (AIM) and its state-of-the-art studio, video and sound equipment, as well as the talents of hundreds of volunteers. At the event AIM will announce its decision to bestow two local student scholarships. This new “green crew” will be taught filmmaking and will produce environmental films in multiple languages. Students will be trained in studio, field, editing and radio production.

Participating organizations

The dinner, reception, and film are being organized and sponsored by Eco Teen Action Network, supported by Global Co Lab Network and Smithsonian Conservation Commons, together with student environmental clubs, organizations and business leaders.

The Global Co Lab Network is a local Arlington non-governmental organization created to focus experts and stakeholders on youth and their ideas for change.  Utilizing living room gatherings or “Co Labs,” combined with virtual rooms or “Dream Hubs”, the Global Co Lab Network is working with the Smithsonian Conservation Commons to build a local and global network of teens. The Network will showcase its efforts at the 50th anniversary of Earth Day at the Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, DC. in April 2020.

Event host JBG SMITH

The event and film screening will be hosted at a JBG Smith building in National Landing. For JBG Smith, hosting this event demonstrates a willingness to encourage young people’s interest in discussions regarding sustainability. The reported sustainability values expressed by both Amazon and JBG Smith have been driven by consumer demand. With universities investing in the area, bright and creative minds will be coming together to discuss the complexities of building a mega community and the waste and pollution it could produce if not carefully planned.

Conclusion

The Global Co Lab Network is sponsoring the April 6 event to highlight its goal to empower the next generation to address environmental issues.  Arlington has not made this a priority, but it should. Global Co Lab Network has observed that there are very few environmental clubs at schools in Arlington compared to other places. This is unfortunate since we are a county that prides itself on our green environmental culture.

Amazon’s new HQ at National Landing, together with the new talent it has the potential to attract, can bring together a new focus on environmental sustainability and specific plans to achieve it.

Arlington must decide which priorities are most important to it, and how those priorities will be implemented. The April 6 event will combine the new perspectives of young people, veteran activists, and other partners who can work together to make Arlington a green, healthy, sustainable county that will serve as an example in the United States.

More information is available herehere and here. To attend the event, register here.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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County Could Soon Allow Installation of Large Media Screens Above Ballston Quarter’s Plaza

Ballston Quarter could soon win the county’s approval to install large “media screens” above its public plaza.

The newly renovated Ballston Common mall’s developers, Forest City, have been hoping to construct the new screens ever since the fall. But the company’s lawyers soon realized that the county zoning code wouldn’t allow for the sort of design they envisioned.

Now, the County Board is gearing up to tweak zoning rules ever so slightly to let that construction move ahead. The Board is contemplating changes this weekend that would allow “urban regional shopping centers” like Ballston Quarter to install the screens up to 55 feet off the ground.

“Large media screens are an appropriate tool for use by urban regional shopping centers to create a vibrant sense of place, to enhance outdoor community gathering spaces and to stimulate economic competitiveness,” county staff wrote in a report for the Board. “The signs can infuse increased interest and activity in areas of pedestrian and retail activity at urban regional shopping centers.”

Previously, the county limited such screens to a height of 40 feet off the ground. When Forest City submitted its first round of plans for the screens, the developer and county staff realized the designs called for the screens to be just over 49 feet high.

Accordingly, Forest City asked for a delay in advancing those plans until county officials could come up with a zoning code amendment to allow the higher screens.

The proposed changes would limit the construction of the screens only to shopping malls, and only to those within a quarter-mile of a Metro station or “major bus transfer station.” The Board will also maintain the ultimate discretion to hand out use permits to allow the screens’ installation, and staff write that they could become “one of the most regulated sign types” in all of the county’s zoning code.

The signs will be allowed to display “still, scrolling, or moving images, including video, media broadcasts and animation,” per the report.

The Board will only consider whether to set public hearings on the matter Saturday (March 16). So long as the Board signs off, the Planning Commission will hold an April 8 hearing on the matter, setting up a Board vote on April 23.

If the zoning change passes, Forest City would still need to obtain a use permit to build the screens, so it could be months before shoppers notice them there.

Ballston Quarter has been slowly opening stores to customers since last fall, most recently opening up its new food court for business.

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Developers Could Soon Send County Cash to Help Fund Long-Stalled New Ballston Metro Entrance

Some local developers are now set to hand over more than $6.8 million to help the county afford a second entrance to the Ballston Metro station, a project officials have hoped to finish for years in order to open up access to the subway stop for people living and working along N. Glebe Road.

The newfound cash stems from the long-stalled redevelopment of an office building at 4420 Fairfax Drive, which sits above the county’s planned spot for the new Metro entrance. The project’s backers are now offering up the money to help fund the entrance’s construction, in exchange for the County Board agreeing to extend deadlines for the redevelopment through end of 2022.

Originally, development firm JBG Smith was backing the project, known as “the Spire at Fairmont,” and it planned to build a new Metro entrance station at the same time as it constructed a new mixed-use building on the site. But that effort languished for close to a decade, and JBG sold the property to its current owners — Washington Capitol Partners, Kettler Development and Bognet Construction — in 2015.

That group has made little progress, however, and the “site plan” the county approved governing the redevelopment effort is rapidly nearing its July 2020 expiration date. Accordingly, the developers are looking for an extension, and negotiations with the county heated up earlier this year.

As part of that back-and-forth, Arlington officials told the developers that they weren’t interested in waiting for the new, 23-story structure to be built before moving ahead with the Metro entrance project. Instead, they asked for a simple cash contribution, and the companies eventually agreed, according to a staff report prepared for the County Board.

“The county has decided that it may be prudent to proceed on its own with the complete design and construction of the Ballston West Entrance… which would be more efficient considering differing time frames for completion of the developer’s project and transit improvement,” staff wrote.

Some of that urgency stems from the fact that Arlington previously won about $26 million in state funding for the project, but has yet to spend much of it. Officials don’t see any imminent threat that the funding could be “clawed back,” but are nonetheless anxious to show some progress on the project.

In general, it’s been tough sledding for the county to find any cash to power the construction in recent months.

Arlington was counting on regional transportation dollars to kickstart the project, asking for $72 million from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority to wrap it up. But the group declined t0 hand out any cash for it — after losing out on tens of millions as part of the vagaries of the deal to provide dedicated funding to Metro — and Arlington was forced to push back its plans for the entrance by several years.

Any timeline for the project is still murky, however. The staff report notes that JBG paid an engineering firm to prepare some designs for the new entrance, but those plans were never “accepted by WMATA or the county.” The new developers have taken control of those plans, and if the county finds they’re up to snuff, Arlington officials could agree to reduce the cash payment they need to pony up.

The developers are also set to send the county just under $410,000 to secure some other zoning changes to allow construction to move ahead. Current plans call for 237 apartments and 9,200 square feet of retail space to be built on the site, in addition to a garage with 237 parking spaces.

The County Board is scheduled to sign off on the details of this deal at its meeting Saturday (March 16). The matter is slated to be considered as part of the Board’s consent agenda, which is largely reserved for noncontroversial items approved without debate.

File photo

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