Press Club
Townhomes in the Green Valley neighborhood (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated at 4:15 p.m.) The Arlington branch of the NAACP has come out in support of the county’s Missing Middle Housing Study draft framework.

The proposal calls for allowing small-scale multifamily housing in the residential areas of Arlington currently zoned only for single-family homes. The new “missing middle” homes — ranging from townhomes to 8-plexes, depending on the lot size — would be limited to the same physical size and footprint currently allowed for single-family homes.

The NAACP said in a letter to the Arlington County Board that such an action “is a first step in a series of necessary actions to reverse the damage done to Black and Brown residents by governmental and nongovernmental acts designed to segregate and disempower.”

“The recommendations successfully balance the needs of existing single-family home residents by keeping design standards the same while opening previously closed single-family home neighborhoods to diverse residents by allowing townhouses and buildings with 2-8 units in R-5 to R-20 zones,” said the letter, which was sent to the Board on Monday. “This change will begin to rebalance Arlington’s land-use policies with the makeup of its population; 70% of Arlington’s residential land reserved for single-family homes will potentially provide desperately needed housing to many more residents.”

Graphic used by the local NAACP in an email supporting ‘missing middle’ housing (via Arlington NAACP)

The proposal has faced criticism on local listservs and social networks, with some residents expressing concern about parking, traffic, school crowding and other issues that could potentially arise from higher-density housing. A Change.org petition entitled “Arlingtonians Opposed to Upzoning” has received more than 800 online signatures.

The group Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future, which is leading the opposition to the proposal, wrote last week that “the county is declaring war on single-family areas of Arlington,” adding that the proposed changes would be “politically and legally impossible to unwind, even if it falls short of stated goals or produces negative results.”

Additional criticism has been aimed at the relatively short window for public comment, which is currently set to close on Friday. Three-quarters of respondents to a recent ARLnow poll said the window should be extended to allow more time for residents to weigh in.

The County Board is currently expected to take action on the proposal later this year.

The NAACP says the proposal, if enacted, “will not repair the harm done to communities of color in Arlington in the last hundred years,” but argued that it would open up more housing opportunities to lower- and middle-income residents.

“The proposed Missing Middle framework is an important first step to addressing the legacy of racial discrimination and segregation in the housing market,” the group wrote.

The local NAACP has been particularly influential in Arlington in recent years, notching victories in its calls to rename Lee Highway and remove Arlington House from the county seal and logo.

The full letter is below.

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Morning Notes

Rosslyn at lunchtime (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

County Board’s APS Covid Concern — “Is the Arlington school system inadvertently encouraging parents to not report COVID-like symptoms among students? That’s the concern of a number of County Board members, who say the current testing requirements make it more likely parents will stay mum rather than go to the hassle of getting their children checked out.” [Sun Gazette]

Big Vehicle Fire Shuts Down Route 50 — From Dave Statter on Saturday night: “Some fuzzy traffic-cam video showing a vehicle fire that has all lanes of Route 50 eastbound shut prior to Pershing. @ArlingtonVaFD & @ArlingtonVaPD handling.” [Twitter]

Police Upping Seat Belt Enforcement — “The high-visibility national seat belt campaign, Click It or Ticket, which coincides with the Memorial Day holiday, runs from May 23 through June 6, 2022, and works towards reducing the number of fatalities that occur when drivers and passengers fail to buckle up.” [ACPD]

‘Salt Line’ Makes WaPo Dining Guide — “Well-shucked oysters, fluffy Parker House rolls, a comfortable room staged with nautical mementos: Just about everything that helps pack ’em in at the Salt Line in Navy Yard can be found at its young spinoff in Ballston. Really, the only ingredient missing from the original is a water view, although if you squint from a table inside, you can imagine boats and waves beyond the already-popular outdoor patio.” [Washington Post]

Worries About the Local Water Supply — “A train crash, a power plant discharge, an underwater pipeline rupture — or an act of terrorism — could cripple the drinking water supply of the nation’s capital. And there’s no Plan B. D.C. and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs are dependent on the Potomac River as the main — or sole — source of drinking water.” [WTOP]

Annual Street Sweeping Starting Soon — From Arlington’s Dept. of Environmental Services: “Another round of Arlington street sweeping starts next month. Last year, 9,178 lane miles were cleaned for smoother rides and a healthier Chesapeake watershed.” [Twitter]

Beyer Banned from Russia — From Rep. Don Beyer: “A new Kremlin list of people banned from traveling to Russia just dropped; I am less interested than they might think in traveling to a country that is indiscriminately bombing Ukrainian civilians.” [Twitter]

APS Graduations at Constitution Hall — “Arlington Public Schools plans on having graduation ceremonies for its three main high schools back in their traditional spot – D.A.R. Constitution Hall – for the first time since 2019.” [Sun Gazette]

Lane Closures for Building Demolition — From the City of Falls Church: “From Sun 5/22 thru Thu 5/26, select lanes will be closed 9PM to 5:30AM while the building on the corner of Broad St. and Washington St. is demolished.” [Twitter]

It’s Monday — Partly sunny, with a high near 73 and a slight chance of showers later in the afternoon. [Weather.gov]

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Morning Notes

A pedestrian crosses Wilson Blvd. near a protected bike lane with artificial sunflowers (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Fish Kill in Four Mile Run Last Week — “Anyone visiting lower Four Mile Run in the last several days should have noticed many dead fish, large and small, along the streambank and floating out in the water, the result of a pollution incident that occurred some time Thursday, May 12.” [Four Mile Run Conservatory Foundation]

Rumor: Board Members May Not Run Again — “My spies in the Arlington Democratic infrastructure say odds favor neither County Board member up for election in 2023 actually running for a third term. And if Katie Cristol and Christian Dorsey do skedaddle (and just as they’d start earning some bigger bucks …), the field would seem to be wide open.” [Sun Gazette]

More Big Changes at DCA — “Reagan National Airport is about to go through a massive rebranding. Because of recent expansions, the airport will be split into Terminal 1 and Terminal 2. Terminal 1 will be the original airport building housing the A gates. Terminal 2 will house the newly named B, C, D and E gates. More than 1,000 signs in and around the airport will be changed starting June 4.” [NBC 4]

Arlington Apartment Buildings Bought — “Cortland, one of the largest apartment owners in the U.S., is making a huge entrance to Greater Washington, acquiring four Arlington multifamily properties in an expected $1B investment. The Atlanta-based investment firm acquired a newly developed 23-story, 331-unit apartment building in Rosslyn and a 534-unit building in Pentagon City, Cortland announced Wednesday.” [Bisnow, Washington Business Journal]

County Honors Trees, Volunteers — “Mother Nature is smiling! Arlington County recognized five individuals who volunteer at Bon Air Park as recipients of the 2021 Bill Thomas Park Volunteer Award and highlighted its 2022 Notable Trees — both which honor the people and natural resources that preserve Arlington’s green spaces — during the Arlington County Board’s recessed meeting on May 17.” [Arlington County]

Wawa Coming to Falls Church — “Philadelphia-area convenience store chain Wawa is under contract to ground-lease the shuttered Stratford Motor Lodge site in the city of Falls Church, which it will replace with a roughly 6,000-square-foot store — but no gas pumps… The motor lodge closed last fall, the Falls Church News Press reported.” [Washington Business Journal]

Four Mile Run Dredging Approaching — “Alexandria and Arlington will start clearing debris and dredging Four Mile Run in September, and the project will close sections of [an Alexandria] park from the public for four to six months. The City and County maintain a shared flood-control channel in the lower portion of the nine-mile-long stream, and have partnered to dredge Four Mile Run since 1974.” [ALXnow]

It’s Thursday — Rain early in the morning, then clearing later in the day. High of 82 and low of 61. Sunrise at 5:54 am and sunset at 8:19 pm. [Weather.gov]

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Morning Notes

Reuben Tucker (@blurredriff) plays guitar in Long Bridge Park at sunset (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Decal Fee Officially Dead — “Arlington County Board members on May 14 followed through on a promise made last month and eliminated the ‘decal fee’ that has been imposed for decades as part of residents’ car-tax bills. And while the action will save residents a collective $6 million this year, it’s something of a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul situation, as higher assessments on used vehicles in these inflationary times likely will eat up all the savings for some vehicle owners.” [Sun Gazette]

Wild Rosslyn Press Conference in the Works — “WHAT: Jack Burkman to give press conference from wheelchair, after losing more than 65 ibs, and all his hair. WHEN: Monday May 23, 2022 High Noon. WHERE… N Colonial Terrace, Arlington VA 22209.” [Twitter]

Free Fitness Class Tonight — “Join HUSTLE at Long Bridge Park in National Landing for a weekly sweaty and fun outdoor HIIT class. Arlington, VA has been named one of the fittest cities in the country, so get your heart pumping at an outdoor HIIT class with local fitness instructors.” [Twitter, National Landing BID]

Historical Marker for Eden Center — “The Virginia Historical Commission (VHC) has recognized Vietnamese Immigrants in Northern Virginia as a significant part of Virginia history by awarding it an Official Virginia Historical Marker… A dedication ceremony to commemorate the event will be held on May 24, 2022 at Eden Center at 3:30PM.” [City of Falls Church]

It’s Wednesday — Sunny during the day, with rain possible at night. High of 74 and low of 54. Sunrise at 5:55 am and sunset at 8:18 pm. [Weather.gov]

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County Board member Libby Garvey (left) with the Northern Virginia Regional Commission delegation in Germany (via NVRC/Twitter)

Arlington County Board member Libby Garvey is quarantining in Germany after testing positive for COVID-19 while on a trip.

Garvey told ARLnow she’s doing relatively well, and feels mostly like she has a bad cold. She said she plans to keep up with Board work this week as much as she can.

“Hopefully I will have a negative test soon so I can fly home,” she said. “I’m checking on the regulations. I hope to get better quickly and be able to come home by this Thursday or Friday.”

At the County Board meeting Saturday, Chair Katie Cristol said Garvey was absent after being unable to return from her trip with the Northern Virginia Regional Commission “due to a medical condition.”

She was later able to join the meeting via video conference, about two hours in.

Garvey said she visited a family member in Germany and then joined the regional delegation, which was there to learn about the transition away from fossil fuels.

The delegation was in the Stuttgart region for five days and finished in Hamburg, where Garvey said she started experiencing symptoms that felt like allergies. She self-administered a Covid test, which was positive.

Garvey then went with the group to get a test at a German facility, and tested negative, she said. But she continued to have a runny nose, scratchy throat and was tired — although that could be attributed to the long days of walking and seminars.

In order to board the plane home, she was tested again Friday and was positive. The rest of the delegation tested negative and was able to fly home Saturday, she said.

Garvey said she’s lucky enough to have family in the country to quarantine with.

“I feel mostly like I have a bad cold, but it gets better and then worse again several times a day,” she said. “When it’s worse, I feel pretty yuck. When it’s better, I feel not too bad. I also feel a little dizzy at times, but not badly so.”

Garvey said she doesn’t know where she may have picked up the virus. She’s mostly been wearing a mask in Germany, except for meals or when all were seated and spaced apart, she said. She’s been fully vaccinated and had two booster shots.

Her takeaway: it’s really easy to get Covid given fewer people wearing masks and variants getting more contagious.

Garvey recommended residents get vaccinated and boosted so they won’t become seriously ill, “as I am very hopeful that I will not.”

“And, so far, so good,” she added.

Arlington recorded a new seasonal high today in its average daily case rate, with just over 175 new cases reported per day, on average, over the past week. That’s up from about 150 cases per day a week ago.

The test positivity rate in Arlington is currently 12.8%, according to Virginia Dept. of Health data.

Covid hospitalizations in Arlington remain relatively low but continue to rise. The county is seeing 4.9 Covid-related admissions per 100,000 in population, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Virginia Hospital Center is seeing small week-to-week changes in Covid hospitalizations, but is “generally hanging in a comfortable zone,” ER chief Mike Silverman said in his weekly update Friday.

“For the most part, people are not requiring hospitalization for COVID, which is the benefit of vaccines,” he said.

But the ER has remained busy. Silverman said the prior week was the second busiest for total ER volume in the last several years, only surpassed by the last week of 2021 when Omicron was surging.

Photo via Northern Virginia Regional Commission

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County auditor Chris Horton (photo via Arlington County)

Chris Horton, Arlington County’s independent auditor since 2016, is leaving his post.

Horton was hired in late 2016 after previously serving in the Office of Auditor General at Fairfax County Public Schools. His predecessor — the first auditor hired by Arlington after receiving authorization to do so by the state legislature — resigned after less than six months on the job.

During his tenure Horton asked residents for suggestions of things to audit, then went about examining economic development incentives; purchasing practices; fire department, police and Emergency Communications Center overtime; and fleet management — among other topics.

Just last month it was reported that Horton would be looking at whether the conditions set for site plan development actually end up getting carried out, in addition to other projects set to continue through the 2023 fiscal year.

It is not clear why Horton is leaving. A somewhat unusually worded press release said that the County Board “thanks County Auditor Chris Horton for his dedicated service and wishes him good fortune on his next professional adventure.”

The release also noted “the recent addition of two staff positions in the FY 2023 budget” for the auditor’s office.

The full press release is below.

It is with great appreciation that the County Board thanks County Auditor Chris Horton for his dedicated service and wishes him good fortune on his next professional adventure. Chris has announced his departure from Arlington County to pursue new career avenues and, while he will be missed in the County Board Office, the Board hopes for the best in his next chapter. Chris began his tenure with the Auditor’s office in 2016, in its infancy. He wisely pursued a path that prioritized building a firm foundation for the work products to be delivered through his office, along with building relationships throughout the enterprise so that his office could receive maximum cooperation and add value to County departments.

“Chris has decisively advanced the office of the Auditor to become a critical asset supporting the County Board’s work and a tool of good and transparent governance,” stated County Board Vice-Chair Christian Dorsey.

Chris has over twenty years of experience in audit and risk analysis within county, city, state, and school district functions. He has led or assisted in the development of performance audit functions in three different government audit shops. He has experience in broadening organizations’ focus toward risk management, and educating senior managers on the value of focusing on governance risks, process risks, IT risks, and reputational risks, in addition to the traditional financial risks.

“I have enjoyed the opportunity to serve the Arlington community by working to create and grow the County Auditor function. This has been an ongoing partnership with the County Board and the Audit Committee,” Chris said. “The support from County management has been critical to developing the County Auditor function, and continued support from management will be crucial for the next County Auditor. With several audit reports and follow-ups complete, a mature set of Audit Committee processes, and the recent addition of two staff positions in the FY 2023 budget, the foundation for the next County Auditor is well-established.”

Chris is a dynamic trainer, focusing on ethics for auditors, auditing techniques, audit report writing, and other audit-specific topics. He is a trained and experienced control self-assessment facilitator and is currently the President of the Association of Local Government Auditors. His BS and MS are from the University of Texas – Permian Basin and he has a PhD in Public Administration from Arizona State University.

“We are thankful for his many contributions, not the least of which is the fact that we are in a strong position to build upon his accomplishments as we approach the task of hiring his successor,” stated County Board Member Takis Karantonis.

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Slide from Missing Middle Housing Study draft framework (via Arlington County)

A few weeks is not enough time for Arlington residents to provide informed commentary on a major local issue, according to the Arlington County Civic Federation.

The group is calling for the county to extend the public comment window for the Missing Middle Housing Study’s draft framework until Sept. 30, from the current deadline of Friday, May 27.

The framework calls for properties only zoned for single-family homes to also allow small-scale multifamily housing — from townhomes to 8-plexes, depending on lot size — provided the building is no larger than zoning currently allows for single-family homes.

That could allow more housing types and price points in Arlington, which will otherwise continue to see small homes torn down in favor of large single-family homes, the framework suggests. The study only expects a modest amount of new “missing middle” housing through the change — about 20 properties per year.

The Civic Federation, however, says that this is a major change no matter how many new duplexes, triplexes, etc. are expected to be built in what are now exclusively single-family home neighborhoods.

The federation passed the following resolution on Tuesday by a vote of 90% to 10%.

WHEREAS Arlington County has an established General Land Use Plan (GLUP) that allows for existing single-family residences and high-density, mixed-use development along the high-density, mixed-use corridors;

WHEREAS Arlington County’s Planning web page states, “Planning decisions are informed by extensive research, professional expertise and community input” and “relies on extensive community input. Individual residents can have a say on the decisions that affect their neighborhoods and the County as a whole”;

WHEREAS on April 28, Arlington County released its proposed Phase 2 Missing Middle Housing Framework document, which is the guiding framework that will facilitate the upzoning of these residential zoning districts — R-5, R-6, R-8, R-10, and R-20 — thus authorizing greater housing density in what are currently referred to as “single-family” neighborhoods countywide;

WHEREAS the impact of the Missing Middle Housing framework and its subsequent upzoning will impact not only housing density but also parking, public school enrollment, stormwater management and tree canopy preservation in residential neighborhoods countywide;

WHEREAS the deadline for public comment and feedback for the Missing Middle Housing framework is May 27, 2022, four (4) weeks from the framework’s release to the public;

WHEREAS this is a complex initiative, civic associations and other county organizations will require additional time to notify their own members, study the likely consequences of the upzoning, and develop a membership response in order to provide meaningful feedback to the county; and

WHEREAS four (4) civic associations — Arlington Forest, Boulevard Manor, Bluemont, and Glencarlyn, which represent more than 4,000 households in central Arlington — have already shared their concerns about the inadequacy of the four-week public feedback period for the proposed Phase 2 Missing Middle Housing Framework document;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, the Arlington County Civic Federation (ACCF) asks the Arlington County Board to immediately request that the County Manager extend the public review period for the Missing Middle Phase 2 concept plan to September 30, 2022 — to make it possible for civic associations and other community organizations to have sufficient time to assist in disseminating Missing Middle Housing Framework materials to their own members, to meet with and pose questions to staff, to analyze and understand the potential impacts on their neighborhoods, and to provide meaningful feedback before the framework is finalized.

The four civic associations referenced in the resolution noted in an April 25 letter to county officials that “our community associations, like so many others, are inactive during June, July and August,” thus making it difficult to study the issue and engage residents before September.

On the other hand, Arlington has something of a reputation for dragging out its public input and analysis processes, leading 55% of respondents to a 2018 ARLnow poll to say that “elected officials should make quicker decisions based on a streamlined community input process.”

Do you agree with the Civic Federation that residents should be given a few more months to provide their feedback on the draft plan, prior to it being compiled and analyzed by county officials ahead of potential zoning ordinance amendments?

Or should the county just get on with it?

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Morning Notes

Clouds over Rosslyn (Flickr pool photo by Jeff Vincent)

New Bikeshare Station Near Shirlington — “Hey Arlington! We’ve installed a new station at S Wakefield St & 28th Rd S, and it’s a perfect day to stop by and take a ride.” [Twitter]

Data Centers Coming to Nat’l Landing — “The plan to establish 5G connectivity in Crystal City, Pentagon City and Potomac Yard, reshaping the larger community into a technological hub, includes a new addition: data centers. JBG Smith Properties, the area’s dominant property owner, will set up two “urban edge” data centers to serve as hubs for carriers and data aggregation.” [Washington Business Journal]

Clement Blasts Board Raises — “An independent candidate for Arlington County Board says she’d be OK with a major pay raise for County Board members, if they were providing adequate oversight duties. But they’re not, Audrey Clement contends. ‘Where is the hard work in avoiding hard decisions by kowtowing to staff?’ Clement asked in a recent campaign missive to supporters.” [Sun Gazette]

Metro Announces New CEO — “WMATA’s Board of Directors is excited to announce the selection of its new General Manager/CEO who will transform the agency and redefine how Metro continues to be an integrated part of the region’s success. Randy Clarke, the current President and CEO of Capital Metro (CapMetro) in Austin, TX, will begin his new position at WMATA late summer and was selected following an exhaustive nationwide search, which included important stakeholder and public input.” [WMATA]

It’s Wednesday — Partly cloudy throughout the day. High of 70 and low of 51. Sunrise at 6:01 am and sunset at 8:12 pm. [Weather.gov]

Flickr pool photo by Jeff Vincent

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Decal design competition presentation in 2018 (file photo)

Arlington County has not required a tax decal on cars since 2019, but that has not ended the annual $33 per-vehicle decal fee — yet.

Also known as a “motor vehicle license fee,” the yearly charge is assessed for all cars kept in Arlington regardless of their value, unlike another annual vehicle expense, the Vehicle Personal Property Tax. But the former is now on the way out.

The County Board is set to vote Saturday to eliminate the $33 fee, following the approval of the new Fiscal Year 2023 budget last month. The lost revenue is being offset by “a portion of the additional personal property tax revenue projected due to rising vehicle assessments,” according to a report to the Board.

More from the report:

The MVL fee was originally known as the decal fee due to the previous requirement to display a decal on the windshield of all vehicles having situs in Arlington County as proof of payment of the annual MVL fee. The fee was intended to help cover the cost of compliance efforts related to the filing and payment of vehicle personal property taxes. In FY 2008, the initial fee of $25 was increased to $33, the maximum amount allowed per Virginia Code. Due to the automation of compliance efforts in FY 2019, the decal requirement was repealed and the fee remained payable with vehicle personal property tax bills due each year on October 5th.

“Since this flat fee of $33 ($18 for motorcycles) is applied to all vehicles each year, households with cheaper and older cars are burdened the same as affluent households owning more expensive vehicles,” the report goes on to say. “The removal of this fee, with revenue offset by the more progressive tax (personal property tax), continues the County’s priority of more equitable tax burden in our community.”

Currently, Falls Church, Fairfax County and Prince William County each collect a $33 annual license fee, like Arlington, while Alexandria does not collect the fee.

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Stay. Lost Dog Cafe is going to stay.

With help from the Arlington County Board, Lost Dog Cafe’s parking situation is now nearing a resolution which has prompted the restaurant to renew its lease on Columbia Pike.

Last June, ARLnow reported that confusing and high parking fees in a county-financed Columbia Pike garage, owned by Ballston-based developer AvalonBay, was potentially costing Lost Dog Cafe and fellow tenant Joule Wellness Pharmacy thousands of dollars a year in customer revenue.

Because of this, both businesses were planning on not renewing their leases on the ground floor of the Avalon Columbia Pike apartment building.

But, in January, the County Board revised an unusual 2006 agreement that essentially allows AvalonBay to stop paying back the county for contributing nearly $3 million to the construction of the privately-owned garage.

This has led the developer to agree to lower parking fees inside of the parking garage at the corner of Columbia Pike and S. Walter Reed Drive.

Starting as soon as the end of this month, the developer is changing the fee structure at the parking garage to allow customers to park for free for one hour, AvalonBay spokesperson Kurt Conway confirmed. It’s $2 per hour after that.

Additionally, more employee parking spots will be available to the businesses.

This change has resulted in Lost Dog Cafe signing a six-year lease extension to stay on the Pike. Added to the two years left on its current lease, the neighborhood eatery is planning on staying at its current location until at least 2030.

“We believe that the change in the parking situation will allow us to run our business more successfully,” Lost Dog franchise owner James Barnes tells ARLnow.

Joule Wellness Pharmacy director of marketing Alex Tekie also says that this change will significantly help their business. However, he notes that the pharmacy has actually not yet been informed by AvalonBay of this change.

Most of the parking woes began back in March 2020, when the pandemic hit and, incidentally, higher fees, tickets, and threats of towing began after years of lax enforcement, according to tenants.

At a time when many businesses were struggling and shifting towards more take-out, charging for even just a few minutes of parking made it even more difficult for the local businesses.

“This parking issue has made it so untenable,” Barnes said last June. “We link this to our sales and our sales are not good. There’s a correlation with this parking lot.”

Joule Wellness Pharmacy ownership also told ARLnow at the time they were shelling out nearly $800 for employee parking. This prompted both businesses to threaten to leave the development and Columbia Pike.

This was all coming to a head as the Pike, in general, continues to grapple with redevelopment and questions of how to keep small, local businesses on Arlington’s “main street.”

But, at least in this instance, a change to a 16-year-old agreement appears to have solved at least a couple of tenant renewal issues, for now.

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Assistant County Manager Bryna Helfer talks to the County Board during a meeting (via Arlington County)

Arlington County doesn’t always get public engagement right — but officials say the county is doing better than it did a few years ago.

The pandemic has served as an impetus for accelerating changes already in progress, including a move away from exclusively in-person engagement to more virtual and hybrid community outreach options.

Mark Schwartz said one of his top priorities when he was named County Manager in 2016 was to enhance engagement and communications. This was on the heels of the completion of the county’s community facilities study, which looked at public facilities given a growing population; Schwartz said the group had challenges engaging residents.

“And since then, we’ve learned a lot about communicating and public engagement, especially over the last two years with Covid,” Schwartz said during an update to the County Board last week.

“And I will be the first to admit, I’ve admitted it here, we don’t always get it right,” he continued. “But we’ve come a long way in weaving not just the old style corporate communications but true engagement into our efforts as we develop and implement policies.”

Engaging the community

While the county developed a six-step guide to public engagement in 2018 for capital projects, it’s also applied to planning, policy-making and programs, said Bryna Helfer, an Assistant County Manager who oversees the Office of Communication and Public Engagement.

“One of the things that we still have to work on is getting those folks that are highly impacted but have really low awareness,” Helfer said. “We spend a lot of energy on people with high awareness and low impact and so really [we have to be] intentional.”

A graphic depicting the public engagement guide the county said they use (via Arlington County)

The level of public engagement intensifies with the size of a project, Helfer said. The higher the level of impact, positive or negative, the more engagement and outreach.

“We’re not showing up to do charrettes if we’re just painting the bench,” she said. “We’re really aligning the tools and strategies with the level of engagement and training all of us to use the right tools.”

The county has used roundtable discussions with civic associations and other organizations to inform them how to ease the groups’ pain points. After some of those conversations, the county created the Civic Association President Toolkit, which includes a county staffer sitting down with every new association’s president and reviewing a list of county resources.

The county also developed a multifamily complex directory to help engage those residents, which make up 60% of the county’s population, Director of Public Engagement Jerry Solomon said.

“That’s an example of a big win that helps us to that greater capacity building that we know our community needs,” she said.

Demographic dashboards give officials an idea on how to strategize and recognize gaps in participation, Solomon said. While planning engagement, they apply an equity lens, asking questions like: who benefits, who’s burdened and who’s missing?

Past criticism

Arlington’s community engagement ethos is commonly referred to as the “Arlington Way,” a vaguely defined term for the local ideal of an open conversation between county government and residents.

But the Arlington Way has taken some barbs over the years, as Arlington’s equity ideals clashed with the reality that effectively participating in the county’s decision-making processes often required hours of in-person engagement — nearly impossible for many shift workers, young parents and people struggling to make ends meet.

Last year the “Arlington Way” was a point of conversation at the Board after controversy over the start time of a north Arlington farmers market made the meeting run long, effectively shutting out participation from low-income residents there to speak about filthy conditions at the Serrano Apartments.

In 2020, community leaders from the Green Valley neighborhood criticized the county for not engaging the community before a temporary parking lot was built for WETA — relying instead on a legal ad published in the Washington Times as a primary form of public notice.

Earlier this year, a typo on a public hearing notice promoted the wrong date, adding to a continuing conversation by County Board members who have critiqued the engagement process.

And even online engagement has been critiqued for attracting a narrow set of interested parties rather than a broad swath of the public. Respondents to a recent survey about historic preservation, for instance, were overwhelmingly older, white homeowners.

Covid learning curve

Covid shifted public engagement to the virtual realm. The county started doing virtual walking tours for site visits and virtual public comment — and learned more about who participates in virtual meetings.

“Coming out of Covid, we think we will be able to do some in-person things, we’ll continue to use our virtual platforms — because the greatest thing has been people participating while watching their kid’s softball game — and that hybrid model where we come together with both,” Helfer said.

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