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Second Amazon ‘Listening Session’ to Be Held in Ballston Tomorrow

Arlington leaders are convening their second “community listening session” on Amazon’s new headquarters in Ballston tomorrow (Saturday).

The event is set to run from 9:30-11 a.m., held at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association building at 4301 Wilson Blvd and designed as a chance to let county residents air their concerns about the tech giant as it prepares to move into space in Crystal City and Pentagon City in the coming months.

County spokeswoman Jennifer Smith says officials are closely “watching the forecasts,” but they currently expect they’ll be able to squeeze the event in before the weekend’s snow storm hits.

The County Board and other local officials last convened a similar gathering on Dec. 17 at Gunston Middle School, as part of a broader push to accept community feedback on Amazon in person. The first meeting largely centered on debates over the company’s impact on housing, transportation and the labor force in the coming years, all concerns raised by supporters and opponents of the tech firm alike.

Since then, the county has attracted some criticism for its handling of the town halls, particularly when it comes to making meeting materials available in Spanish and offering translators at each event.

However, the county’s meeting advisory does say that language interpretation services will be available upon request.

Saturday’s listening session could well be the last chance for the Board to hear directly from the public on Amazon before it holds a vote to approve an incentive package (hammered out largely by state officials) that helped convince the company to choose Arlington for the new offices.

Board members have long planned to vote in February on the topic, no sooner than the group’s meeting on Feb. 23, though the debate is largely expected to be a mere formality. State lawmakers will also sign off on other elements of the incentive package over the next few weeks, during the current General Assembly session.

Photo via @SURJ_NoVa

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Morning Notes

Crews Pre-Treating Roads — Arlington County crews are pre-treating arterial streets with brine ahead of expected snow this weekend. The forecast currently calls for “light to moderate snowfall,” with perhaps 3-4 inches of accumulation. [Twitter, Capital Weather Gang]

Long-Time Resident Marries in Family’s Cemetery —  Austin Thomas, an 11th generation Arlingtonian, wed real estate agent Justin Kafka last summer in the rose garden of Arlington’s Columbia Gardens Cemetery, which Thomas’ family owns. [Arlington Magazine]

County Unveils New Visitors Guide — “The Arlington Convention and Visitors Service introduced the 2019 Arlington Visitors Guide, Meeting Planner Guide and tear-off pad map Tuesday, distributing initial supplies to attractions as well as the County’s 45 hotels and residential buildings in several neighborhoods. With a sleek, magazine-style cover featuring Arlington’s newest attraction, The Observation Deck at CEB Tower, the guides highlight ‘The New View from Arlington.'” [Arlington County]

‘Meet the Chair’ Event Next Week — “Leadership Center for Excellence in conjunction with co-host George Mason University, and supporting partner, Arlington Chamber of Commerce, will hold its annual Meet the Chair event on Thursday, January 17” from 6:30-8 p.m. at GMU Founders Hall at 3351 Fairfax Drive. “This free event will be one of the first opportunities for community members to connect with newly elected Arlington County Board Chair, Christian Dorsey.” [Leadership Center for Excellence]

Dorsey Elected COG Vice Chair — “Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey today was elected vice chair of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) Board of Directors. COG, an independent, non-profit association, brings together 300 elected officials from 24 local governments, the Maryland and Virginia state legislatures, and the U.S. Congress to develop solutions to regional challenges.” [Arlington County]

Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf

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Former Salt Dome Site Could Someday Become Home to New School, Park

County planners are now kicking off work to chart out the future of the former home of Arlington’s “Salt Dome,” the site of so much community consternation this past summer.

A task force convened by the County Board to study the 7.6-acre property, at the intersection of 26th Street N. and Old Dominion Drive and adjacent to Marymount University’s campus, is planning a “community roundtable” on the matter Saturday (Jan. 12). The meeting will be held at Arlington Central Library (1015 N. Quincy Street), starting at 10 a.m.

For about 90 years, the property was home to a large metal “dome” storing road salt and served as the base of operations for salt trucks in the northern half of the county. But county staff discovered in July that the structure was on the verge of collapsing, and they took rapid steps to secure the Board’s permission to tear down the dome and build a temporary storage facility in its place.

The process took months to complete, but many neighbors still felt blindsided by changes that failed to follow Arlington’s notoriously extensive community engagement guidelines. In particular, some worry that the temporary facility would eventually become permanent, even though people living nearby had hoped for years to see the land transformed into a park or some sort of other community amenity.

County workers removed the old dome just last week, standing up a structure designed to hold about 4,500 tons of road salt in its place.

The Board has since issued a variety of mea culpas for its handling of the issue — new Chair Christian Dorsey even singled the process out as a “failure” during his Jan. 2 speech taking the Board’s gavel — and agreed to kick off a planning process for the property in part to rebuild trust in the community.

The “Master Planning Task Force” could eventually recommend one of all manner of new uses for the property, most of which sits empty. However, county staffers agree that they’ll need to maintain most of their existing operations on the site, from winter storm response to leaf and mulch storage.

As for the rest, there are plenty of possibilities being batted about. The county’s Joint Facilities Advisory Commission, a group dedicated to finding space for public facilities around Arlington, is recommending that some sort of park or other public space must be created or maintained on the site, according to November meeting documents.

JFAC is also suggesting that the property could have room for an “elementary or secondary school,” at a time when land for new schools is a particularly acute need for the county, or for vehicle storage for police or school bus drivers.

Additionally, Marymount University is pitching the prospect of striking a deal with the county to build a “multi-use” athletic field on the site for its sports teams, alongside a one-acre park and playground to meet the community’s wishes.

The task force is set to meet again on Thursday (Jan 10.) and hopes to eventually deliver a report to the County Board with recommendations for future sites uses by April.

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County Officials Could Soon End Forest Glen Parking Restrictions, Angering Some Residents

(Updated at 8:15 p.m.) Arlington officials are gearing up to erase parking restrictions on several streets in the Forest Glen neighborhood, angering some residents there but meeting the demands of others in nearby Arlington Mill.

The County Board is set to consider a resolution later this month ending zoned parking restrictions along the following the roads, per county spokeswoman Katie O’Brien:

  • 6th Place S.
  • 7th Street S.
  • 7th Road S.
  • S. Florida Street
  • S. Greenbrier Street
  • S. Harrison Street (north of 7th Street S.)
  • S. Illinois Street
  • S. Jefferson Street

All of those streets are currently covered under “Zone 24” of the county’s residential permit parking program, barring unauthorized cars from parking there between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. each day.

The Board has generally avoided any changes to the program recently, after declaring a moratorium on applications for new parking restrictions while members weigh potential reforms to the county’s entire zoned parking system. Board members and some community leaders have started to doubt that the current program, originally designed to keep commuters out of D.C.-adjacent neighborhoods, is working as intended.

But the Board could soon make these changes in Forest Glen all the same, given the loud complaints from people in Arlington Mill.

According to a letter sent to Forest Glen residents from the Board, and provided to ARLnow, people in the neighborhood have “experienced great difficult with curbside parking” since the parking restrictions went into effect a few years ago. County staff have worked for months to find an “interim solution” to the dispute, without success, pushing the Board to take this step.

It doesn’t help matters either that staff believe the parking restrictions “depart from the program’s original intent and place an undue burden” on surrounding streets, the letter reads. The Board has since concluded that “the determination for the restrictions deviated from standard staff practices, including data collection and verification,” spurring the need for the change.

“The County Board is unwilling to allow restrictions to the public right of way continue considering the fundamental discrepancies in establishing the eligibility of the above streets for the RPP program,” Board members wrote.

But one Forest Glen resident, who requested anonymity for this article, claimed that neighbors had “myriad reasons” for requesting the parking restrictions in the area. Those ranged from concerns over “out of county parkers, unregistered and abandoned vehicles” to “crime” and “blocked driveways,” all of which, this person believes, meet the standards of the county’s parking rules.

The Forest Glen resident further argues that the Board would be taking an “unprecedented and historic” step by removing the parking restriction, which will “put all other RPP areas in Arlington at risk of being removed.”

“The removal of Forest Glen’s zone parking represents an unprecedented intervention by the County Board into administrative decisions of county government,” they wrote in an email. “Additionally, every RPP area now faces the increased likelihood of removal.”

O’Brien stressed in an email, however, that the Board’s proposed resolution “only applies to these streets in zone 24 and will not impact any other neighborhoods or zones.”

The Board is set to consider the matter at its Jan. 26 meeting, and plans to hold a community meeting on the subject tonight (Tuesday) at 7 p.m. in the Arlington Mill Community Center (909 S. Dinwiddie Street).

Meanwhile, the county is hoping to wrap up its review of the parking program sometime by the end of the year, or in early 2020, according to county spokeswoman Jessica Baxter.

Photo via Google Maps

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Arlington Chamber Urges County Board to Avoid Tax Hikes, Despite Looming Budget Deficit

As Arlington leaders gear up to confront a yawning budget deficit in the new fiscal year, the county’s business community is delivering a message to officials holding the purse strings: cut spending, but don’t raise taxes.

The Arlington Chamber of Commerce recently staked out a series of local policy positions as 2019 gets rolling, and one of its biggest asks this year is that the “county government seek and adopt additional savings and economies of scale before considering any increase in the real estate tax burden.”

Such a request may well be a futile one — the County Board has already asked County Manager Mark Schwartz for proposals on what various tax rate hikes might look like for fiscal year 2020. Schwartz has also warned that a mix of service cuts, layoffs and tax increases will likely be necessary to cope with a budget deficit that could prove to be as large as $78 million, as Arlington anxiously awaits Amazon and its projected boost to county coffers.

But the chamber is, perhaps predictably, urging the Board to instead embrace its strategy from a year ago, when members opted to avoid any tax rate increase in favor of some targeted cuts.

The business group is even asking the Board to conduct “a local study of comparative tax rates between Arlington and surrounding jurisdictions to discover specific tax rates and impact fees that put the county at a competitive disadvantage in attracting and retaining certain segments of the business community,” which could prompt additional rate and fee cuts.

The chamber would much rather see the Board focus on attracting more businesses to boost revenues instead, urging leaders to make economic development the Board’s “chief policy priority” this year.

That means the business group wants the county to continue its use of “competitive incentives, tied to strong benchmarks, both to attract and to retain businesses” — Arlington officials long disdained such measures, but the county’s soaring office vacancy rate has convinced leaders to use incentives to lure companies from Amazon to Nestle in recent years.

Naturally, the chamber says it also backs the county’s proposed incentive package for Amazon itself, set to include a mix of investments in transportation improvements around the new headquarters and a chunk of the new tax revenues generated by the company’s arrival in the area. The chamber previously backed the county’s pursuit of Amazon even before the exact details around the incentives became public in November; the Board will formally vote on the deal this winter, as will the General Assembly.

With Amazon on the way, the group also urged the Board to embrace the “addition of mass transit systems (bus-rapid transit or similar) in the Crystal City/Potomac Yard and Columbia Pike corridors.” The county is set to extend the Crystal City-Potomac Yard Transitway to Pentagon City in the coming years, while the idea of bus-rapid transit for the Pike has been batted around ever since the notorious streetcar’s cancellation.

Other transit projects on the chamber’s wishlist include “second entrances at the Crystal City and Ballston Metro stations, and a new Rosslyn tunnel.” The Crystal City second entrance is set to be constructed as part of the Amazon improvements; the Ballston and Rosslyn projects will require a considerably more tricky funding lift from the county.

And when it comes to ways to beef up the county’s supply of affordable housing to cope with Amazon’s projected impact on home prices, the chamber stressed that “providing developers and property owners with incentives is the best, perhaps only, way to obtain substantial additional units that are affordable to a broad part of the community and to preserve existing housing stock.”

The chamber also did not pass by another opportunity to lament the “ill-advised” nature of the county’s development of new “housing conservation districts” in 2017.

Some property owners felt ambushed by the county’s work to freeze the redevelopment of affordable homes, and the chamber is pushing for a more “open process that includes suggestions and comments from the business community” as the Board charts out the next phase of policies governing the districts.

File photo

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As County Board Picks New Leadership, Officials Pledge Focus on Equity in Managing Amazon’s Arrival

With newly reshuffled leadership on the Arlington County Board, local officials are pledging a focus on equity as Amazon arrives this year, particularly when it comes to housing in the county.

The Board’s annual organizational meeting came with little in the way of procedural surprises last night (Wednesday). Vice Chair Christian Dorsey earned unanimous approval take the chair’s gavel, replacing outgoing Chair Katie Cristol, while Libby Garvey was elevated to take his place.

But the meeting still represented a major turning of the page in the county. Not only was the gathering the Board’s first since Matt de Ferranti’s swearing in, returning the Board to unified Democratic control for the first time since 2014, but it was a chance for Board members to sketch out a vision for how they plan to confront what looks to be a difficult year.

Naturally, Amazon proved to be the elephant in the room as officials delivered their annual New Year’s remarks. In kicking off the Board speeches, Dorsey framed his upcoming year-long chairmanship as one that will have “an emphasis on equity,” especially when it comes time to “expertly manage” Amazon’s growth.

Dorsey noted right away that he’s “only the third person who looks like me to ever serve as chair” of the Board — he joins Charles Monroe and William Newman, now the chief judge of Arlington Circuit Court, as the only black men to hold the gavel in the county’s history.

Accordingly, he said that history will guide his focus on “ensuring that Amazon’s gradual growth here benefits our entire community,” especially as the county prepares to confront some tough budget years while it awaits a projected revenue boom from the tech giant’s presence.

“Taken together, budget gaps today, and significant investment and commercial growth in the near term, present us with the dual responsibility of ensuring that today’s austerity doesn’t disproportionately burden the marginalized and most vulnerable, and that better times don’t leave those same people behind,” Dorsey said.

Board members agreed that a key area focus for leaders on that front will have to be changes to the county’s zoning code, as officials work to allow different types of reasonably priced homes to proliferate around Arlington. Cristol and Board member Erik Gutshall both praised the Board’s past work on housing conservation districts as a good first step, but both emphasized that the county needs to do more to meet its own goals for creating new affordable homes each year.

“Amazon’s arrival has focused our community energy on protecting our middle class from being priced out permanently,” Cristol said. “We can’t squander the opportunity to tackle this hard and important zoning reform work in the year ahead.”

De Ferranti agreed that the county should be fighting for a “significant public and private investment in affordable homeownership and rental housing” as it finalizes its incentive package to bring Amazon to Arlington.

But he and Gutshall also emphasized that a commitment to environmental equity should guide the county’s negotiations with Amazon, arguing that officials should work with the tech company to ensure its new campus in Crystal City and Pentagon City is “net-zero energy,” meaning that Amazon’s buildings generate as much energy as they consume. Gutshall even went a step further, proposing that the county join the growing calls for a “Green New Deal” from some of the newest Democrats heading to Congress, arguing that the “trade-off between the environment or the economy is a false one.”

Yet Board members pledged to keep a more local focus as well, particularly when it comes to Amazon’s impacts on the county’s already crowded classrooms.

Officials are hopeful that county schools will able to handle the gradual arrival of Amazon employees and their families, but Gutshall and Cristol both called for renewed long-range planning efforts for new school buildings.

De Ferranti was even more specific, saying the Board should build future budgets to “put the county in a position to fund the building of another high school” — the School Board is currently in the midst of hashing out plans for new high school seats at the Arlington Career Center, but whether or not that facility will provide the equivalent of a fourth comprehensive high school for county students remains an open question.

Through all of these difficult discussions, however, Garvey urged everyone — from local officials to activists — to strike embrace “civility.” The year-long debate over Amazon has already promoted plenty of tense meetings and raised voices, and the new vice chair argued that “Arlington Way has gotten rather frayed around the edges” in recent months.

“People sometimes jump to the assumption that intent is nefarious, or are all too quick to take offense when no offense was intended,” Garvey said. “We have to set some basic standards, and then follow through by not allowing people to violate those standards and stay in the discussion, or at least not to dominate the discussion so that everyone else decides to leave.”

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Morning Notes

Flood Watch in Effect — Expect periods of rain today. The National Weather Service has issued a Flood Watch for much of the region through late tonight. “Excessive runoff from already saturated soils will cause the potential for streams and creeks to rise out of their banks as well as flooding in low lying urban areas,” forecasters say. [Weather.gov, Twitter]

Arlington Doesn’t Want to Pick Fight Over J-D Hwy — “The Arlington County government’s efforts to rename its portion of Jefferson Davis Highway could face familiar legislative roadblocks in 2019. But County Board members say they have no interest in forcing a confrontation with the General Assembly on the matter.” [InsideNova]

New Year’s Meeting Scheduled for Jan. 2 — Next week, what used to be a New Year’s Day organizational meeting for the Arlington County Board will again be held on Jan. 2 instead. The Board will elect a new Chair and Vice Chair at the meeting. [Arlington County]

Developer Buys Wilson Blvd Property — “The Meridian Group has picked up its next value-add Arlington County office building as it… closed Wednesday on its acquisition of 2500 Wilson Blvd. and several adjacent parcels from an affiliate of TH Real Estate for a consideration amount of nearly $39 million, or roughly $373 per square foot, according to Arlington County land records.” [Washington Business Journal]

Dulles Toll Road Rates Rising — “Starting Jan. 1, prices are scheduled to go up for those driving on the Dulles Toll Road. The cost to passenger vehicles will increase from $2.50 to $3.25 at the main toll plaza and from $1 to $1.50 on ramps.” [Tysons Reporter]

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March of Dimes Moving HQ to Crystal City, Will Get $150,000 in County Incentives

The March of Dimes is officially moving its headquarters to Crystal City, now that county leaders have signed off on a $150,000 incentive package to lure the nonprofit to Arlington.

The County Board approved a deal with the research and advocacy organization at its meeting Saturday (Dec. 17). The March of Dimes will now move its main offices from White Plains, New York to an office building at 1550 Crystal Drive, bringing 80 jobs to the county in the process.

The nonprofit primarily focuses on advocating for the health of mothers and babies, and was founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. It currently has an office with 12 employees in Arlington, but it ultimately agreed to a full relocation to the county back in May.

“This organization’s work and legacy is inspiring, and we are honored that the strength of our community, as well as our proximity to the nation’s capital, led the March of Dimes to choose Arlington for its new home,” County Board Chair Katie Cristol wrote in a statement. “We look forward to a long-term and mutually beneficial relationship.”

However, the relocation wasn’t official until the Board could formally lend its approval to a deal with the nonprofit supplying it with $150,000 in incentive grants to be handed out between now and 2021, contingent on the group meeting certain targets.

The organization will have to occupy at least 25,000 square feet of office space in the county — its new lease at the JBG Smith-owned property calls for the company to occupy about 28,000 square feet of space — maintain at least 80 jobs, and “hold at least one regional or national event drawing at least 150 people from outside the region to Arlington County each of the three years of the performance agreement,” under the terms of the deal.

County staff estimate that the nonprofit will generate about $1.25 million in tax revenue for Arlington’s coffers over the next decade, justifying the incentive money, which has become an increasingly controversial tool since Amazon first started eyeing the area.

The March of Dimes will move into a building that will be quite close to some of the tech giant’s planned space in Crystal City, and at the center of a major redevelopment of the block set to kick off later this year.

Photo 1 via Google Maps

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Vihstadt Farewell Remarks from Saturday’s County Board Meeting

Outgoing Arlington County Board member John Vihstadt said goodbye, at least for now, to public office on Saturday.

A ceremony was held at Saturday’s County Board meeting to honor Vihstadt and his four years of service on the Board. Fellow Board members and members of the public spoke glowingly of Vihstadt’s work ethic, commitment to serving constituents and ability to find common ground amid disagreement.

Vihstadt, an independent, was defeated by Democrat Matt de Ferranti in the November general election. De Ferranti will take office in January.

After more than an hour of comments from Arlington officials and the public, Vihstadt spoke at the meeting. A transcript of his prepared remarks is below, after the jump.

Chair Cristol, I appreciated your fair and impartial leadership the last twelve months. You’ve been open and accessible, even-handed and ecumenical, and, at least most of the time, good humored with your gavel.

Vice Chair Dorsey, Member Garvey and Member Gutshall, I will miss serving with each of you as well.

Like ingredients in a salad bowl, we complemented each other.   While most of our Board votes were unanimous, so many of these 5-0 votes masked the different ways we got to the same conclusion. There was compromise, give and take, and negotiation along the way.

There were divided votes and shifting coalitions, as well. In a diverse and pluralistic community like Arlington, that’s the way it should be, and I hope that dimension is not lost next year.

To County Manager Mark Schwartz, County Clerk Kendra Jacobs and County Attorney Steve MacIsaac, thanks for your incredible support and, on occasion, patience.

True, I asked a lot of questions.   Yet for our 3,900 County employees, no question was too challenging, or too obscure. I know you’ll miss these questions, so I’m grooming my successor, Matt de Ferranti, to be as inquisitive as I am. And just in case, I’ve got a bunch of Freedom of Information Act requests ready to go.

ACCOMPLISHMENTS:

Since I joined the Board in 2014, we accomplished a great deal to put our house in order. I can’t take full credit, but we’ve moved away from extravagant and unsustainable projects.

The streetcar was cancelled, there are no more $1.6 million dollar dog parks or million dollar bus stops. The former ArtiSphere is back on the tax rolls, and the Olympic-sized aquatics center was downsized.

We’ve given renewed focus to core services, like public schools capacity, shoring up Metro and Columbia Pike transit, augmenting our parks, fields and green space, boosting public safety pay, speeding our street paving, and holding up our social safety net.

We have an independent County Auditor, and a Waste, Fraud & Abuse Hotline. Employee whistleblower protection.

And speaking of our Auditor, last month, we brought our County Audit Committee and the Schools Audit Committees together to better address the high cost of schools construction. I hope that you continue this critical and overdue effort.

Also this year, at my urging, the Board directed the Manager to come back with ideas for cost-benefit studies, so we can better assess the costs and consequences of our development decisions.

The Board directed the Manager to set up a working group to rethink the Neighborhood Conservation program, with an eye to ensuring that we deliver necessary community infrastructure in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible.

And, as I’ve been pushing, rather than immediately scratch the itch to spend, we finally voted to carry over to the next fiscal year 75% of our FY 2018 budget surplus, so that we can apply it to the significant budget challenges we face next year, and weigh all competing priorities at the same time, holistically.

LOOKING AHEAD

But let’s not kid ourselves. We still have a long way to go:

–First, to grow our economy, while managing our growth in a fiscally sound, equitable, and environmentally sustainable manner.   Amazon’s arrival will bring new benefits, but new challenges, as well.

–Second, to ensure still greater openness, transparency and inclusion in County processes and operations; and

–Third, to instill a stronger sense of fiscal discipline at a time when our expenditures are growing at nearly twice the rate that our revenues are.

On January 1, 2019, the Board will revert back to 100 percent one party government. In my view, this puts a special burden on the County Board, if you’ll take it. I hope that each of you will do your share, to ensure

That you hear all voices,

That you consider all sides of every issue, and

That everyone believes you’ve listened to them, even if they’re not necessarily accommodated.

PARTISANSHIP

In closing, a word about partisanship.

Just two years ago, then Governor Terry McAuliffe — a Democrat — vetoed legislation passed by the Republican General Assembly to allow candidates to be identified by political party on ballots for local offices like County Board and School Board.

Why? “Party affiliation is not useful information when making decisions about purely local matters and would only serve to increase divisiveness in local government,” said the Governor. “We should be working to reduce partisan rancor, rather than creating new places for it to flourish.”   The Governor was right!

Fortunately, his veto was sustained. Yet partisan sample ballots — be they blue or red — undermine that goal, and partisanship in Arlington, as elsewhere, maintains an increasingly toxic grip on full participation in civic affairs.

I’m excited to join the state steering committee of Unite America, a new national organization working to bridge the partisan divide and find common ground. And I look forward to the day, hopefully soon, when One Virginia’s mission of ending partisan redistricting succeeds.

Finally, to the people of Arlington, and especially the over 46,000 voters who supported our drive for independent thinking, greater transparency, more inclusive community engagement and fiscal responsibility in County government, thank you from the bottom of my heart.   I’ll not be far away, and I’ll be watching what happens at 2100 Clarendon Boulevard!

Thank you for the opportunity to serve as your County Board member. It’s been the highest honor and privilege of my life.

Please keep in touch.

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County Gears Up to Ask for Millions for Lee Highway Changes, Including Dedicated Bus, HOV Lane

Arlington is gearing up to ask for millions in I-66 toll revenue to fund a series of changes along Lee Highway, including the creation of a dedicated bus and HOV lane along the road during rush hours.

The County Board is set to sign off this weekend on funding requests for six transportation projects, totaling $6.9 million, four of which focus on reducing traffic along Lee Highway as it runs from Rosslyn to East Falls Church.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission doles out a portion of the revenues collected through the year-old I-66 toll program to localities, in order to help afford road improvements along the corridor inside the Beltway. Accordingly, Arlington is looking for cash for the following efforts along Lee Highway, per a county staff report:

Metrobus Route 3Y Service Improvements — $520,000 per year for five years, total request $2.6 million

This project will increase morning peak hour frequency and provide running time improvements for better on-time performance on the subject Metrobus route that connects the East Falls Church Metrorail Station with the Farragut Square and McPherson Square areas in the District of Columbia via Lee Highway and a short section of I-66 from Rosslyn to the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge.

Intersection Improvements at Lee Highway and Washington Boulevard — $400,000

This project will add a second left turn lane from northbound Lee Highway to westbound Washington Boulevard and provide pedestrian improvements at the intersection north of the bridge over I-66, which is 0.25 miles from the East Falls Church Metrorail Station.

Enhanced Vehicle Presence Detection on Lee Highway — $20,000 per intersection for 15 intersections, total request $300,000

This project will install forward looking infrared (FLIR) video cameras at key intersections along Lee Highway. FLIR technology uses thermographic cameras that improve the accuracy of vehicle, pedestrian, and bicycle detection in all lighting and weather conditions, and in turn improve optimal signal, intersection, and corridor operations and performance.

Design and Construct Peak Period, Peak Direction HOV and Bus-Only Lane on Lee Highway from just east of N. Kenmore Street to N. Lynn Street — $1.5 million

This project would convert the outside lane of Lee Highway to an HOV and bus only lane through pavement treatment, restriping, and signage. The lane would operate eastbound during the morning peak period and westbound during the evening peak period only; at other times it will continue as a general purpose travel lane.

The final project on the list is one that the county initially considered back in 2016 as an effort to prepare for Metro’s “SafeTrack” schedule disruptions, and the new lane would’ve run from Court House to Rosslyn. However, county transportation spokesman Eric Balliet says that lane was never constructed, and the new proposal calls for it to run from Cherrydale to Rosslyn instead.

The county expects a new lane would be particularly impactful along that section of the highway because about “25 loaded buses per hour” drive along it during peak period, and they often run into heavy delays near the highway’s intersection with N. Lynn Street in Rosslyn, according to the report.

In addition to the Lee Highway changes, officials are also hoping to earn $750,000 to add a new traffic light to the Washington Blvd entrance to the East Falls Church Metro station, as well as crosswalks and other pedestrian improvements at the intersection.

Finally, the county plans to ask for a total of $1.3 million over the next three years for “enhanced transportation demand management outreach” along the corridor, educating commuters about public transit and other strategies for getting cars off the road.

The Board is set to approve these funding requests at its meeting on Saturday (Dec. 15), and the NVTC will accept applications through Jan. 16. The organization plans to hand out $20 million in funding across the region through the program next year.

Photo via Google Maps

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New Report Shows County Continues to Lag Behind Affordable Housing Goals

Arlington officials managed to create or preserve 515 homes guaranteed to remain affordable to low-income renters this year — but the size of that number masks the fact that the county still isn’t meeting its own affordable housing goals.

In a report released this week evaluating Arlington’s progress toward fulfilling the standards of its “Affordable Housing Master Plan,” county housing staffers trumpeted the 221 new “committed affordable” units officials helped developers build in Fiscal Year 2018.

The county also managed to preserve another 294 existing homes to ensure their rent prices remain low enough to be deemed “affordable.” Though the term may seem subjective, officials define it to mean that a home’s monthly rent or mortgage, plus utilities, is “no more than 30 percent of a household’s gross income.”

The combined total of 515 units is down slightly from the 556 the county created or preserved last year, though up from 2016’s total of 322 homes.

But the master plan, adopted by the County Board in 2015, calls for Arlington to be making a bit more progress in this area by now.

The document sets a goal that 17.7 percent of the county’s available housing should be affordable by the time 2040 rolls around, meaning that the county will need to create or preserve 15,800 committed affordable units before then. That means the county needs to generate 585 net new affordable homes each year, a standard that Arlington hasn’t been able to hit since passing the master plan three years ago.

And with Amazon on the way, and fears about housing affordability growing, advocates see this latest report as yet more clear evidence that the county needs to take more aggressive steps to solve the problem.

“The county has been off-pace for meeting its AHMP goals since the beginning,” Michelle Winters, the executive director of the Alliance for Housing Solutions, told ARLnow via email. “They need to ramp up the pace in order to meet their own goals.”

Winters also points out that the 2018 numbers may be a bit misleading in considering the county’s progress toward its goals. The 294 affordable homes that the county preserved came courtesy of a loan at the “Park Shirlington” development in Fairlington, which Winters points out “is only guaranteed affordable for three years until the developer comes back with a proposal for long-term affordability (which may include fewer affordable units in the end).”

Of course, Housing Director David Cristeal notes in the report that the “desirability” of Arlington as a community has “made it much harder to find modestly priced housing, which lags behind demand,” complicating any effort to preserve affordable homes. The county has taken some steps to address that issue in recent years, particularly by creating new “Housing Conservation Districts” to protect older homes, and the Board has mulled expanding that program moving forward.

Yet Winters has often urged the county to use those districts to incentivize property owners toward affordable redevelopments, upping the number of affordable homes on the same property. Her group and others on the Board, including newly elected member Matt de Ferranti, have agitated for increased contributions to the county’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund as well, increasing Arlington’s ability to hand out loans and promote affordable developments.

Without taking more drastic steps now, Winters fears that the county will become even more unaffordable for low-income renters. She points out that the report also shows that the number of small, two-bedroom homes in the county continues to decline in favor of new single-family home construction, and that’s before the development boom most observers expect that Amazon will kick off in the area.

“This is evidence of our disappearing, older, more modest and previously affordable homes, replaced by larger high-end new construction,” she wrote.

Photo via Park Shirlington

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County Calls Off Plans to Buy Springfield Property for New Bus Maintenance Facility, Saving Millions

Arlington officials are calling off plans to buy a two-acre site in Fairfax County for a new bus maintenance facility, a move they expect will save the county millions over the years.

The County Board voted unanimously Friday (Dec. 7) to cancel its contract to spend $4.65 million on a site along the 6700 block of Electronic Drive in Springfield, originally designated as the future home of a “heavy maintenance facility” for Arlington Transit buses.

The county agreed to the land deal in December 2016, over concerns that it wouldn’t have enough space to store and maintain its growing fleet of ART buses. ART currently leases a storage yard in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County for the purpose, but the county managed to open a new maintenance facility in Crystal City last year and buy another property in Nauck for more space this summer.

County board Chair Katie Cristol told ARLnow that the latter purchase is what convinced the Board to abandon its Springfield plans.

Initially, the county planned to use that property, located on the 2600 block of Shirlington Road, as both bus storage and the home of a new ART “operations center.” But Cristol says that, once county engineers got the chance to examine the site more closely, they felt the property would have enough room to accommodate the maintenance functions planned for the Springfield site as well.

“Locating our maintenance operations outside the county was always among the best of no good options as we looked for more space for our buses,” Cristol said. “But once we discovered that the Shirlington Road site was large enough for maintenance as well, colocating things just made so much more sense.”

In all, Cristol expects cancelling the Springfield contract will save the county $10.5 million right off the bat, counting the purchase price and site preparation costs. She also estimates that the change will do away with another $900,000 in annual upkeep costs for the new property, which certainly qualifies as “good news” during the county’s current budget crunch.

County officials had eyed the Shirlington Road site for years before finally buying it for $23.9 million in July. ART once leased a section of the site for bus storage, but made the move to buy the entire property once it earned some state grants and other regional transportation money to defray the cost.

ART already beefed up its fleet of buses with some new purchases this summer, and plans to keep adding vehicles to meet a projected increase in ridership over the next decade or so.

Photo via Google Maps

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State Lawmakers Fear Amazon’s Arrival Won’t Be Enough to Spur Jefferson Davis Hwy Name Change

With Amazon coming to town, Arlington leaders believe the time is ripe to finally change the name of Jefferson Davis Highway — and some of their allies in Richmond are ready to hit the gas on that effort, even as others look to pump the brakes.

Once again, the County Board plans to ask the General Assembly for the authority to remove the former Confederate president’s name from its section of the state-owned Route 1. Alexandria leaders have already taken a similar step, but state lawmakers have repeatedly refused to grant Arlington the permission to make such a change over the years.

But with a socially conscious tech giant planning to set up shop in Crystal City and Pentagon City, the very neighborhoods where signs currently honor Davis’ legacy, the Board hopes skeptical legislators might be a bit easier to convince. Board members held a joint work session with six of the county’s representatives in Richmond Friday (Dec. 7), in order to underscore the importance of the switch ahead of the start of the General Assembly’s session on Jan. 9.

“We should be clear that this is an effort to elevate white supremacy and honor Confederate leaders on our highways,” said Board Vice Chair Christian Dorsey. “A nongovernmental company choosing our area to locate underscores how we should be thinking about things differently.”

While all in attendance could agree that the name of the highway needs to change, preferably to match Alexandria’s newly adopted moniker of “Richmond Highway,” there wasn’t much in the way of consensus on how to achieve that goal.

Some lawmakers urged patience, noting that the upcoming 2019 elections could flip control of both the House of Delegates and the state Senate to Democrats for the first time in nearly two decades — Republicans hold one-seat majorities in both chambers, following last year’s wave election for Democrats in the House.

Until that happens, however, most lawmakers aren’t willing to spend political capital battling on the issue, particularly considering that the upcoming legislative session will last less than a month.

State Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31st District) carried legislation to spur the name change this year, only to see it narrowly die in committee on a party-line vote, and she’s already sworn off interest in renewing that effort. Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-30th District) has backed other such bills in the past, but he expressed similar skepticism about the legislation’s prospects next year.

“The only way I’m putting it in is if we have any hope of passing it,” Ebbin said. “I’m polling some Republicans on the prospect of that… but I’m not introducing it unless can we can get a very narrow bill together.”

Ebbin suggested that the Board might have more success if it secured some allies in the business community for that effort, urging officials to solicit support from groups like the Arlington Chamber of Commerce or the Crystal City Business Improvement District. Representatives from both groups did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether they’d be interested in supporting such a bill.

Other lawmakers suggested that Amazon itself might provide a powerful push, considering the company’s robust lobbying efforts and its growing importance to the state’s economy. But, after speaking with the company’s representatives about just such a prospect, Ebbin is less than optimistic.

“I don’t think Amazon will be taking active political positions until after things cemented in,” Ebbin said, noting that state lawmakers and local officials still need to formally sign off on Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed deal with the company. That isn’t set to happen until early next year, meaning that Amazon likely won’t have much of a say in the upcoming legislative session.

Del. Mark Levine (D-45th District) was similarly pessimistic on the prospect of his Republican colleagues taking action on any name change legislation in 2019, but he believes the county shouldn’t wait on Richmond.

He argued that Arlington could act immediately to remove any road signs referencing Davis, even if the county doesn’t formally change the name. After all, Levine pointed out that the highway is known by all manner of other names as it winds its way throughout the state.

“There is zero Virginia law that requires that highway to have those street names,” Levine said. “If the question is: ‘can you change the street signs?’ Of course you can change the street signs. If it has some name in a dusty book somewhere, that’s fine.”

Levine argued that the county should go directly to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, the executive agency overseeing all of Virginia’s road and transit operations, to ask for such a change. He suggested an appeal to Northam, a Democrat, might help that effort, considering that “we have a very friendly governor right now, and we have a much less friendly General Assembly.”

County Board Chair Katie Cristol noted that Arlington officials have had some conversations with the CTB about such a prospect, but have not come away with the clarity that Levine sees in the law. A spokesman for the CTB did not respond to a request for comment on the issue.

Cristol also pointed to an advisory opinion from Attorney General Mark Herring suggesting that the county might not be able to make such a change, which Levine waved away quickly as having “no force of law.”

Still, Dorsey and his colleagues argued that they’d much rather pursue a more cautious path, in order to avoid unnecessarily ruffling feathers in Richmond.

“In the absence of universal certainty, we’re not interested in figuring out what think we can get away with,” Dorsey said. “This is not about if we can somehow figure out if we can do it and somehow not suffer adverse consequences. That’s a risk we’re not willing to take.”

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Cristol Joins Effort Calling on General Assembly to Step Up Education Funding

Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol is joining a statewide push for more education funding, calling on the General Assembly to send more cash to local school systems.

Cristol, a Democrat, is standing with leaders from 10 other Virginia localities in supporting the “March for More,” a demonstration in Richmond set for this Saturday (Dec. 8). Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (D) is coordinating the effort and has made school funding a key focus of his administration.

The march is primarily focused on convincing state legislators to reverse cuts to K-12 education funding they made at the height of the Great Recession. Its supporters argue that the state’s failure to restore those funds and keep pace with rising enrollment levels have put a huge strain on local governments, which bear the burden of funding their school systems.

“As a locality that receives the smallest percentage of funds from the state for K-12 education, we’ve watched funding dwindle since the start of the recession in 2009,” Cristol wrote in a statement. “Shifting such a disproportionate burden of educating young Virginians on to the commonwealth’s localities is as inequitable as it is unsustainable.”

For fiscal year 2019, state funds accounted for about 12 percent of the roughly $640 million that Arlington Public Schools took in in revenue, while the county accounted for about 78 percent of that amount. However, there are plenty of factors accounting for Arlington’s small share of state funding — officials dole out money based on each locality’s “ability to pay,” a statistic that the state calculates by evaluating factors like property values, income levels and taxable retail sales. The county performs quite well relative to other Virginia localities on all of those measures.

But the “March for More” advocates point out that state law obligates the General Assembly to fund 55 percent of the costs of meeting the state’s “Standards of Quality,” which govern everything from class sizes to facility maintenance schedules, but Richmond has fallen far short of meeting that standard. As of 2017, the state combined to meet just 43 percent of school funding needs statewide.

Similarly, research from the left-leaning Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis suggests that state funding is down 9.1 percent per student compared to pre-recession levels.

Arlington officials are particularly interested in a little budget relief, given the county’s current fiscal challenges.

County leaders are considering everything from tax increases to staff layoffs to help meet a projected $78 million budget gap, which is driven in part by a $43 million deficit that the school system is facing. The school system only narrowly avoided increasing class sizes in this year’s budget, and may have to consider such a measure again in fiscal year 2020.

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Amazon-Focused Town Hall Reveals Community Concerns Over Tech Giant’s Power

How might lowly local officials be able to bring one of the world’s largest companies to heel?

That’s the prime question on the minds of many Arlington and Alexandria residents worried about how Amazon might soon reshape their communities.

And while county and city leaders are optimistic that the tech giant will prove to be a reliable partner in the region, they’re also admitting that they don’t have all that many tools to push Jeff Bezos and company around.

“We have to focus on using the policy tools that we do have,” said County Board Chair Katie Cristol at an Amazon-focused town hall in Crystal City’s Synetic Theater last night (Monday).

Public speakers at the event, which was hosted by WAMU 88.5’s Kojo Nnamdi Show, fretted over how localities might address everything from the company’s labor practices to its commitment to hiring a diverse workforce.

Leaders in attendance sought to reassure nervous neighbors that localities will be able to extract community benefits from the company as it builds new space in Pentagon City and Crystal City. County Board member Libby Garvey even expressed optimism that “Amazon is going to affect us, but we’re going to affect Amazon too” when it comes to changing the company’s culture.

But concerns abound that Amazon’s status as the new economic engine for the area will give it unprecedented bargaining power in any dispute with local leaders.

“The County Board works really hard and wants to do the best they can for us, but Amazon, at any point, can say ‘No,'” said Roshan Abraham, an organizer with Our Revolution Arlington, a progressive group that has opposed the county’s pursuit of Amazon. “They always threaten to pack up and leave, it’s what they always do…  We have very little leverage, particularly at the political level.”

Part of the problem for local leaders is that state law limits their ability to pursue some of the most aggressive pro-worker measures favored by Amazon skeptics. Virginia’s legislature, long dominated by Republicans, has adopted a series of measures designed to make the state more business friendly — perhaps most notably, Virginia is a “right to work” state, limiting the ability of unions to charge workers fees for representing them.

Several members of local unions urged officials to press Amazon to sign “project labor agreements” ahead of any new headquarters construction, or a contract with a union to lay out the working conditions for a project before construction gets started.

But Virginia has laws on the books designed to limit government agencies from requiring such agreements, and Cristol pointed out that “the state has made it very clear that we can’t use those” in many situations.

However, she did pledge to urge Amazon to work with unions and offer fair working conditions on its construction sites — and the question gave her a chance to underscore just how meaningful it might be if her fellow Democrats seized control of the General Assembly in next year’s elections.

Other attendees were similarly nervous that the county won’t be able to force Amazon to fork over cash to spur the development of more affordable housing, particularly as the arrival of the company’s planned 25,000 workers strain the region’s housing market.

On that front, however, Arlington officials are confident that they’ll be able to use their existing development process to require Amazon to chip in more money for its Affordable Housing Investment Fund, a loan program designed to incentivize reasonably priced development. Of course, that will have to wait until the company starts building new facilities, which could take years yet.

In the meantime, housing advocates are optimistic that the tech giant is committed to the issue of housing affordability, and could agree to some select contributions on its own.

Carmen Romero, vice president of real estate development with the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, said both Amazon and its major landlord in Arlington (JBG Smith) have told her they “want to be at the table” when it comes to discussions about creating new affordable developments. She even suggested that JBG could agree to donate some small portion of the large swaths of land it owns in Crystal City and Pentagon City to a nonprofit like her group, allowing for new affordable homes in the immediate vicinity of the headquarters.

“It’s very fair to ask Amazon to join us at the table as part of the philanthropic community,” Cristol said. “If they’re going to be a major player here, we’re very interested in seeing a big commitment from them.”

Alexandria Mayor-elect Justin Wilson added that the mere fact of Amazon’s interest in the region has already changed the conversation at the state level. He noted that state lawmakers were previously reticent to commit to major affordable housing funding, despite Northern Virginia leaders “banging our heads against the wall in Richmond,” but officials agreed to send an additional $15 million to the Virginia Housing Development Authority as part of the offer to Amazon.

“This was important to Amazon,” Wilson said, drawing a few laughs from skeptics in the audience. “But we were able to make the argument to the state government that this was something that had to be part of the package to help us attract a major employer.”

For Amazon opponents, however, it’s not enough that the company and state might voluntarily agree to measures to offset the impending impacts on the county.

Abraham’s group is pushing the concept of a “community benefits agreement,” a deal that a coalition of neighbors would strike directly with the company to ensure it invests in the community’s priorities, as an alternative to government officials haggling on their behalf.

It may not be enough to answer all their concerns, but he expects it may be a better path to pursue than hoping local politicians can win battles with a company owned by the world’s richest man.

“If we get Amazon to make these commitments to our community now, that, I believe, is the best way we have of protecting ourselves,” Abraham said.

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