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County Considers Changing How It Reviews Major Development Plans, Irking Arlington Chamber

County officials could soon change how they sign off on major zoning alterations, sparking some pushback from the county’s business community over fears that the new process could make large redevelopments more difficult.

The county is currently mulling an overhaul of its methods for reviewing applications for special “General Land Use Plan” studies.

The GLUP is Arlington’s primary policy guide guiding development around the county, and property owners and developers can request a special study of a specific area if county leaders have yet to adopt zoning standards for a property, or if they’re proposing changes outside the scope of what the county envisioned for the area. A GLUP study most recently charted out changes in Virginia Square, clearing the way for the planned addition of a new affordable housing complex and new apartments along Washington Blvd.

But county staff have had trouble handling the workload of special GLUP studies requests recently, which has been particularly impactful for one prominent shopping center: the Village at Shirlington. The development’s owner, Federal Realty Investment Trust, has hoped for a study since December 2017, with the eventual goal of adding more density on the property. The company is also weighing putting a new apartment building on the parking lot at the corner of S. Arlington Mill Drive and S. Randolph Street.

But the firm would need an amendment to the county’s land-use plans to make those changes happen, and that will only come with a special GLUP study. Accordingly, the process has been closely watched by county developers eager to learn more about how it might change.

In a Jan. 22 meeting of the county’s Long Range Planning Commission, Arlington staff laid out a series of proposed changes to GLUP study applications. In a bid to make the process “more efficient and streamlined,” cutting down on staff time devoted to the issue, applicants would have to provide more detailed information on proposed changes up front, including 3-D models of the property and a more robust analysis of transportation impacts from the development.

Staff also hope to limit study applications to June 1-Sept. 1 each year, with the goal of passing along reports on the study requests to the County Board by the following February. Applicants would also be required to pay an “initial review fee” before even filing a full GLUP application.

But those proposals drew the ire of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, with CEO Kate Bates writing in a Jan. 18 letter to county officials that the changes will “likely have the unintended consequence of hindering economic development in Arlington.”

While she acknowledges that the changes might create “workflow certainty” for county staff, she warned that could come at “the cost of lost opportunities for Arlington” by dragging the process out for too long.

“Arlington prides itself on being a community with a forward-looking, progressive planning policy but this proposal is clearly a step back,” Bates said.

Bates believes that any study proposed in “June of one year could be queued to be heard at the end of the following year and approved in the year after, possibly creating an almost two-year delay before even beginning the site plan process.”

“The chamber is confounded how adding a possible two years to an already lengthy process could be considered efficient,” Bates said. “The chamber also wonders how a process so opaquely envisioned, without soliciting input from affected businesses or citizens, could lead to more inclusivity. Again, this proposed fix is out of scale with the issues it is hoping to remedy.”

Bates is instead urging the county to leave the current GLUP study process in place, but dedicate more county workers to handling the study requests. That could be challenging, however, given the county’s current mix of a hiring slowdown and the elimination of some county positions during a difficult budget year.

The Long Range Planning Commission and Zoning Committee are set to hold a joint meeting on the topic tomorrow (Wednesday), with the goal of advancing the proposal to the full Planning Commission in March and the County Board in April.

Photo via Arlington County

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Morning Notes

Update on Key Bridge Marriott Development — The Los Angeles-based developers that bought the 5.5-acre Key Bridge Marriott property in Rosslyn plan to extensively renovate the hotel, which is the second Marriott ever and the oldest currently in operation. Also planned: additional development on the site according to its zoning, which would allow more hotel rooms plus up to 660,000 square feet of office space and 630 residential units. [Washington Business Journal]

Holiday Closures Monday — “Arlington County Government offices, courts, libraries and facilities will be closed on Monday, February 18, 2019, for George Washington Day. Trash and recycling pickups will operate on a normal schedule for Monday customers.” [Arlington County]

Roads Treated But Snow Depleted — Arlington County has been pre-treating major roads and hills with brine in anticipation of snow this weekend, but chances of accumulating snow have rapidly dwindled. [Twitter, Capital Weather Gang]

Black History Figures of Arlington — “Columbia Pike and South Arlington have been called home by several African American trailblazers, activists, and organizations that work toward the noble goals of equality and freedom for all,” including James “Uncle Jim” Parks, Dr. Charles Richard Drew, Evelyn Reid Syphax and Dr. Talmadge T. Williams. [CPRO]

Local Crossing Guard Honored — “Jamestown Elementary School crossing guard Kathy Patterson has been recognized by the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes to School program as one of Virginia’s Most Outstanding Crossing Guards for 2018-19.” [Arlington Public Schools]

Quote of the Day — From New York Times senior economic correspondent Neil Irwin: “The Amazon HQ2 stunt started with notions that the company might single-handedly turn a city like Pittsburgh or Raleigh, or even Detroit, into a major tech hub, and ended with filling in a bunch of vacant office buildings next to National Airport.” [Twitter]

Flickr pool photo by Dennis Dimick

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Planners Say D.C. Region Has Enough Room to Meet Amazon-Induced Housing Demands

Arlington and other localities around the D.C. region have enough room to add the housing necessary to keep pace with the Amazon-driven population influx expected over the coming years — but actually realizing that potential won’t be easy, regional planners say.

Researchers with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, a coalition of local leaders, have warned in the past that the region needs to add about 100,000 more homes through 2045, or else risk seeing rent prices creep up even higher and more people pushed into the outer suburbs.

Their latest data, unveiled yesterday (Wednesday), suggest that localities across Northern Virginia, Maryland and D.C. have already put plans in place to meet even that large number.

The vast majority of that work was completed before Amazon announced its plans to head to Arlington (to say nothing of the news that it’s canceling its New York City plans as well), but officials are confident that region’s population boom of the last few years has spurred the right kind of planning work to account for the tech giant’s arrival as well.

But planners are also cautioning the region’s leaders that everything from land-use policies to the high cost of construction to “not-in-my-backyard” sentiments are sure to confound their efforts to actually meet that demand for new housing.

“We do think we have the capacity in our long-range plans to get there,” Andrew Trueblood, D.C.’s acting planning director, told the MWCOG Board of Directors Wednesday. “But that’s the first hurdle and there’s a whole number of hurdles to get past.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, restrictive zoning and land-use policies are one of the chief obstacles planners identified for local leaders to tackle as they seek to add more homes. Many activists and Arlington officials have already begun discussing the best ways to increase density in the county, and that’s included the fraught topic of up-zoning areas previously reserved for single-family homes.

But those considerations are only one piece of the puzzle, according to the COG’s analysts.

Trueblood pointed out that the region is getting better at concentrating housing in “activity centers” around Metro stops or other public transit options. But as land close to transit becomes more scarce, it also becomes more expensive, ramping up the costs of the sort of development planners are most enthusiastic about encouraging.

Trueblood added that the “unstable construction cost market” has also complicated other development efforts. Other developers have been frustrated by local opposition to dense developments, particularly when it comes in the form of legal action targeting even “by-right” developments, which don’t require extensive government review.

But, in Northern Virginia particularly, officials say that a lack of interest from developers is far from an issue.

“We are not having trouble with the development community coming and wishing to develop,” said Sharon Bulova, the chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. “But making sure that those new residential homes and units are affordable is really the challenge.”

Arlington is certainly grappling with that issue as well. County officials are locked in a debate about the best way to meet their own affordable housing goals — possibilities range from setting aside more cash to spur affordable developments to opening up zoning rules to allow a more diverse array of housing types.

Helen McElveen, Alexandria’s housing director, expressed optimism that the private sector will step up in some regard on that front — she noted that dominant Crystal City developer JBG Smith has expressed a particular interest in funding more affordable homes.

But she also cautioned that local governments themselves will always have a dominant role to play in subsidizing apartments affordable to the lowest income renters.

“Affordability won’t happen unless governments act,” McElveen said. “We don’t live in a market with a lot of affordable stock or even workforce stock being delivered… We know we can neither build our way out of this nor preserve everything.”

The COG’s analysts expect that their next steps are to study “the specific challenges (public and private) to developing more housing” in those “activity centers” around mass transit options, and deliver recommendations for overcoming those issues.

That will surely take some time to sort out, but planners say they’re well aware of the urgent need for answers to the questions.

“If we can not keep up with the growth, employers will not expand and our region’s growth is hurt,” Trueblood said. “But if we can produce the housing needed for the region to grow and for economy to be vibrant, we’ll reduce the displacement pressures facing everyone.”

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Lee Highway Planning Process Kicks Off Tonight, Setting Up Lengthy Debate Over Corridor’s Future

Arlington leaders are starting a planning process to chart out the future of the Lee Highway corridor in earnest tonight (Tuesday), setting the stage for a lengthy debate over how the county allows development along the many neighborhoods lining the highway.

Officials are holding a community kick-off for “Plan Lee Highway” at 6:30 p.m. at the newly renamed Washington-Liberty High School (1301 N. Stafford Street) tonight, giving anyone interested in the corridor’s future a chance to learn more about the process and offer their thoughts.

A group of dozens of community leaders, known as a “community forum,” has already begun some initial discussions on how the process should go forward. In essence, officials are hoping to sketch out a new “area plan” for a five-mile stretch of the highway, guiding future public and private development from the East Falls Church Metro station to the Lyon Village neighborhood near Rosslyn.

The question of how much more density planners allow along the highway will likely come to define the ensuing debate.

Though many shopping centers and apartment complexes sit on the highway itself, most of the neighborhoods just off the roadway are reserved for single-family homes. Officials are now examining a variety of “nodes” on the highway that could someday become home to mixed-use developments or different types of housing, a focus that will become all the more important as Amazon moves in and puts a strain on the county’s supply of available homes.

The future of those shopping centers will be another key concern, as the county weighs how best to transform them to protect existing businesses thriving on the highway while also luring in new development.

Planners also hope to focus on transportation along the corridor, as the county considers ways to ramp up bus service on the highway and make it a bit more walkable as well.

County officials are expecting the planning process to stretch over the next three years, given the size and scope of what leaders will examine.

The Lee Highway Alliance, a group of businesses and other concerned citizens living along the roadway, will hold regular design studios over the coming weeks to accept more community input, with another “public workshop” tentatively scheduled for September.

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Plans Taking Shape for Large New Mixed-Use Development on Amazon’s Doorstep in Crystal City

JBG Smith is starting to sketch out its plans for a major redevelopment of a Crystal City property that will drop hundreds of new apartments and thousands of square feet of retail space directly adjacent to some of Amazon’s new office space in the area.

The developer has now filed preliminary plans with the county detailing the future of a vacant office building at 1900 Crystal Drive. The company has already started some demolition work for the current structure, and previously announced plans to build two new mixed-use buildings in its place, accelerating the project now that Amazon is on the way.

The tech giant plans to lease space at two of JBG’s properties on the same block, buildings at 241 18th Street S. and 1800 S. Bell Street, so this new development could offer Amazon workers with apartments within easy walking distance of the new headquarters.

Developers throughout the area have been racing to build new housing across Pentagon City and Crystal City since the company announced its plans in mid-November, though the neighborhoods do have slightly higher than average residential vacancy rates, for now.

JBG kicked off the redevelopment process in earnest in late January, asking for a slew of county zoning changes and a “site plan amendment” to key the full redevelopment of the block. The plans call for the construction of two large towers, holding a total of 790 apartments. One will be 26 stories tall, the other 25 stories.

Each one will also have space for ground floor retail: 19,390 square feet of space in one tower and 16,800 square feet in the other, according to documents filed with the county.

The developer is envisioning a “pedestrian plaza” in between the two buildings, with room for just under 9,000 square feet of retail in the plaza. The plans even allow for a park to be built nearby, though the documents don’t specify where, exactly, it will be located on the block — but if it is built, a “grand staircase” will connect it to the pedestrian plaza.

When it comes to parking, JBG plans to partially rely on the existing underground garage on the site. The developer plans to demolish part of the garage, but leave 306 spaces unchanged. Then, it hopes to add a new section of the garage with 290 new spaces for a total of 596 available in all.

The project is a long way from being approved, however — the county’s Site Plan Review Committee will now scrutinize these plans, before they head to the Planning Commission and County Board. Vornado/Charles E. Smith previously secured permission to build a 24-story building on the property, but that approval lapsed in 2015. The company spun off its local property holdings in a merger with JBG the next year.

This is far from the last redevelopment JBG is planning in the neighborhood in the coming years. In addition to its large “Central District” project (bringing a new movie theater, grocery store and office space to the area), the company previously told its investors that it could look to redevelop properties including 2001 Jefferson Davis Highway, 223 23rd Street S., 101 12th Street S., and the RiverHouse Apartments (1400 S. Joyce Street).

Though JBG is by far the largest property owner in the area — controlling about 71 percent of the market’s office buildings — county officials hope other landlords take similar steps to refresh nearby buildings.

As for Amazon itself, the company won’t file any plans with the county until the Board signs off an incentive package to formally bring the headquarters to the area. The Board won’t take up that issue any earlier than March.

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‘Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste’: Amazon Prompts Debate Over How to Make Arlington Homes Affordable

Arlington leaders agree that Amazon’s impending arrival in the county demands urgent action to address housing affordability — but there’s a lot less agreement on what sort of policy response is necessary to hold down the area’s skyrocketing housing costs.

Some of the changes officials are envisioning are relatively modest ones, expanding on existing efforts that began long before the tech giant announced its plans to bring 25,000 workers to the area. After all, many have argued that the new headquarters set to pop up in Crystal City and Pentagon City won’t prompt the sort of explosion in gentrification that Amazon’s opponents fear.

Other experts see a need for more ambitious tactics, like allowing more development in Arlington to flood the market with more homes. That could well be a politically explosive change in the county, particularly if it means increasing density in Arlington’s oldest residential neighborhoods.

Or perhaps there’s a need for a more creative approach — some progressive activists are championing the creation of a “community land trust,” a strategy embraced elsewhere around the country to allow for the communal ownership of affordable homes.

It presents local leaders with a series of choices that could well define the county’s destiny for decades. And with Amazon’s workers set to start arriving by the thousands next year, officials won’t have long to make up their minds.

‘We should never let a crisis go to waste,” said County Board member Erik Gutshall. “Amazon is bringing a sharp focus to these fundamental issues, and it’s providing us with the opportunity to double down on the sort of planning we’ve done for decades.”

Building on existing efforts

County Board Chair Christian Dorsey agrees that the urgency of addressing housing affordability has been “magnified” since Amazon’s momentous mid-November announcement.

But, fundamentally, he says “the world, as I see it, in terms of housing strategy is not very different than it was” before officials knew they’d won a new Amazon headquarters.

“We’ve identified the tools we’d like to deploy,” Dorsey said. “Now we have to do the hard work of deploying them.”

For instance, the county has long relied on its “Affordable Housing Investment Fund” to provide loans to developers building affordable homes. Those projects often include apartments guaranteed to remain affordable to renters, known as “committed affordable” homes, that are most valuable for people at the lowest end of the income scale.

The County Board allocates cash to the fund each year, and that contribution has recently hovered around $15 million annually. The county is facing a budget squeeze in the coming fiscal year, but as tax revenue from Amazon’s new properties and workers trickles in over the next few years, Gutshall believes the Board should “earmark some of that specifically” for the loan fund.

Similarly, he notes that the Board will also be able to force Amazon to send cash to the program as it builds new offices (most of which will be located in Pentagon City), as developer contributions are the Board’s main tool for seeding the fund with money.

But as market forces persistently push the costs of new development higher, researchers believe the county also needs to preserve the affordable homes it already has.

“Buying up and preserving existing middle-income housing, that stretches public subsidy dollars much further than trying to build stuff from scratch,” said Jenny Schuetz, who studies housing policy with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “The county should be doing more of that preservation work and they should be focusing on that area near the new headquarters.”

The Board has indeed worked to preserve some affordable homes already by setting up “housing conservation districts” to protect older, “garden apartments” designed to be affordable to middle-income renters. Officials first passed the policy in 2017, with plans to eventually allow developers to replace protected homes with even larger affordable developments, but there’s been little movement on the issue since then.

Gutshall argues that the county needs to “accelerate” some of that work, as it seeks to expand “missing middle” housing, commonly understood as homes that fall in between apartments and single-family houses. The Board already loosened some of its regulations for accessory dwelling units, or “mother-in-law suits” on the same property as another home, and Gutshall wants to further tweak zoning rules to allow for more duplexes and small apartment buildings to be built around the county.

“We need to be thinking about how we can keep the character of residential neighborhoods, but still open up housing types and allow for better transitions on the edges,” Gutshall said. “At the same meeting we vote on the Amazon deal, I would love to see a ‘missing middle’ directive… to really identify key areas where think we can make some rapid progress addressing this.”

Touching the ‘third rail’?

Yet the scale of the affordability challenge confronting Arlington has convinced many experts that such changes aren’t enough.

Many observers see a clear and urgent need to ramp up the supply of housing more rapidly, even if that means the construction of the same sort of high-end apartments that are already commonplace in the county. Those homes themselves might not be affordable for low-income renters, but experts argue that any new apartments will have a positive impact on the market as a whole.

“People moving into those new homes come from somewhere,” said Eric Brescia, a member of Arlington’s Citizens Advisory Commission on Housing, who also works as a Fannie Mae economist. “Think of it like the market for cars. A lot of poorer people buy used, not new, at first. New apartments help free up the older stock for people of more modest means.”

But the question becomes where those new apartments will fit, and that leads to some very thorny debates for local leaders.

Anyone walking along one of Arlington’s Metro corridors can see that neighborhoods like Rosslyn and Ballston are already jammed with high-rise developments. Most of the rest of Arlington is reserved for single-family neighborhoods — as much as 87 percent of the county is zoned only to allow for that type of development, according to one recent analysis — but officials might need to reverse that trend as Amazon ramps up the pressure on renters.

“Many people are saying it’s time to look at this exclusive, single-family detached development and how wasteful it is in terms of land use,” said Michelle Krocker, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance. “But if anything is going to shake communities to their core, this will be it.”

Schuetz points out that these are often wealthy neighborhoods, full of residents “that turn up in large numbers and vote” if they fear encroaching density. But she doesn’t see any choice for the county but examining the prospect of allowing more development in a wider variety of places.

“You have these neighborhoods within a mile, walking distance, of the Metro, but they’re only zoned for single-family homes,” Schuetz said. “It’s just not efficient.”

Dorsey acknowledged that such discussions have always been a bit of “a third rail,” politically, and he understands the impulse of homeowners who might “worry about what more density would look like in their neighborhood.”

“I don’t fault people for wondering if we’re intending for the same density as in Ballston to come to every low-density neighborhood,” Dorsey said. “I get that… that’s why we have to talk about this with real specificity.”

And Dorsey says the Board isn’t considering any sweeping changes to zoning rules across Arlington, even if advocates favor such a move. Instead, he expects a more modest first step is increasing density along some sections of Lee Highway, where the Board is already gearing up an extensive study of its plans for the corridor.

“The potential we have in Arlington is along our major transportation corridors, Lee Highway in particular, where there is more than enough opportunity for substantial amounts of new housing,” Gutshall said. “If we’re able to unlock that, that will carry us through our next 30 to 40 years.”

Following in Bernie’s footsteps?

Beyond these debates about zoning and density, some activists see room for another, very different path for the county to pursue as Amazon looms.

Tim Dempsey has been working with advocates and local leaders on the idea of a “community land trust” since first coming across the idea while reading a bit more about Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during his 2016 presidential bid.

While he was still just the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders helped create a land trust, among the first of its kind in the nation. In the unusual arrangement, a nonprofit buys up available land, then builds homes atop it.

Anyone can then move in and pay a mortgage on the homes themselves, while the nonprofit retains the ownership of the land. That protects home prices from wild fluctuations, particularly the sort of speculation that could follow Amazon’s arrival in the county, Dempsey said.

“This prevents the land from falling into a speculator’s hands in the first place,” said Dempsey, who sits on the steering committee for the Sanders-inspired group Our Revolution Arlington

And more than just providing low- and middle-income people with a place to rent temporarily, Dempsey believes this method “allows people to have many of the benefits that come with home ownership, like building equity, tax deductions and having very stable housing.”

“They might not get the full value of owning a home, but they probably would never be able to get into homeownership to begin with, otherwise,” Dempsey said. “This could address long-standing social justice issues when it comes to home ownership.”

Without such a model in place, Dempsey fears Amazon will push already skyrocketing home prices higher and force people out of Arlington. That’s why he’s already brought the idea to many Board members and other local affordable housing advocates, where he says it’s largely earned a warm reception.

That’s significant, because Dempsey believes the county has a key role to play in setting up the trust — the county would likely need to provide the cash to get the effort off the ground, and could take a leading role in acquiring land for any future nonprofit.

Dorsey says he’s certainly willing to examine the issue in more detail. But he urged the trust’s proponents to strive for the true “end game” of such a program, rather than getting hung up on setting up a trust, per se.

“I don’t want to get so focused on the prospect of a land trust that we don’t look for the true essence of this opportunity: how do we acquire property that can be made into affordable housing?” Dorsey said. “It could be a land swap, or allowing an entitlement to build something that’s more dense to get a different opportunity elsewhere.”

Where Dorsey and Dempsey can agree is that such a trust would be most effective if it’s a regional effort.

Indeed, with Amazon’s workers expected to settle all throughout the D.C. area, experts of all stripes are unanimous that Arlington can’t hold down housing prices on its own, no matter which strategies leaders pursue.

“Arlington can obviously play a part in this, but housing markets are regional,” Brescia said. “And we need more collaboration across the region.”

File photo

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Nonprofit Opens New ‘Columbia Hills’ Affordable Housing Complex

A new affordable housing complex off of Columbia Pike is now open to renters.

The Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing held a ribbon-cutting Wednesday (Jan. 30) for its Columbia Hills Apartments at 1010 S. Frederick Street. The new development includes two eight-story buildings with room for a total of 229 committed affordable homes.

The event marked the culmination of roughly two years of construction on the $91 million project, which was financed with a mix of federal tax credits and state and local loan funds. The 1.2 acres of land necessary for the development was donated by M&T Bank.

“I’ve spent a lot of cold winters living in my car,” new Columbia Hills resident Henry Ashby said at the event, per a press release. “I feel very blessed to be here today as a resident of Columbia Hills.”

All of the apartments in the buildings will affordable to people making up to 60 percent of the Area Median Income. In Arlington, that works out to about $49,260 per year for a one-person household, or $70,320 for a family of four.

Ten apartments will be set aside as “permanent supportive housing” for people who have previously experienced homelessness, while another 39 will be affordable to people making below 50 percent of the AMI. That’s applies to a one-person income of $41,050 annually, or $58,600 for a family of four.

“This is about providing homes to people who are earning an income that is not reflective of the contributions that they make to our community, but are just reflective of the way our market economy works,” County Board Chair Christian Dorsey said. “An increasing number of people who are burdened by the housing cost in our region absolutely deserve a place to live that is not only safe and decent but represents the highest standards that we can build in Arlington.”

The disappearance of affordable homes in the county has indeed been an emphasis for the Board in recent years. County officials have pledged to make the creation of similar guaranteed affordable homes a priority as part of its “Affordable Housing Master Plan,” particularly with Amazon on the way, but the county has struggled to meet its own goals as real estate prices continue to rise.

APAH, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, is also hard at work on a variety of other affordable developments around the county, including ones in Virginia Square and Rosslyn.

Photo 1 via @libbygarvery, photo 3 via @apah_org

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Arlington Must Open Up Single-Family Neighborhoods to Different Housing Options, Advocates Argue

The vast majority of land in Arlington is reserved for the construction of single-family homes, and affordable housing advocates argue that’s going to have to change if the county wants to adequately handle the region’s looming, Amazon-inspired population influx.

A new report released by the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance last week argues that Amazon’s decision to bring 25,000 jobs to Arlington in the coming years “should create a regional sense of urgency and commitment to address our housing supply and affordability gap,” a sentiment broadly shared among local and state leaders following the company’s momentous announcement. But where the advocacy group strikes a starker tone than other observers is in its policy prescriptions for meeting that challenge.

The NVAHA’s researchers point to data showing that about 86.7 percent of land in Arlington is zoned exclusively to allow new single-family homes, compared to just under 12 percent where multifamily development, like apartment buildings, is permitted.

They believe that sort of zoning scheme not only chokes off the county’s ability to add more housing, and meet its current supply pressures, but also cuts off the potential for people of more modest means to ever move into the county’s more affluent neighborhoods.

Accordingly, the group sees the clear potential for “allowing more diverse housing types in detached single family neighborhoods,” reversing the current paradigm where the “path of least resistance” for developers is simply to build ever-larger single-family homes in those areas.

“It should be noted that efforts to increase density and flexibility in use have been controversial, both within the region and across the country,” the group wrote. “Awareness of the socioeconomic bias that shaped low-density and exclusionary zoning is not widespread, and the predominance of the neighborhood form in many urban and suburban areas has created strong consumer demand for such communities, making discussions of regulatory reform more politically contentious. However, these barriers are not insurmountable and the moral imperative of breaking down exclusionary barriers justifies the effort.”

The NVAHA acknowledges that there is indeed a role for local governments to subsidize the creation of housing that is guaranteed to remain affordable in order to reach the poorest renters, or to prioritize the preservation of existing affordable homes.

But the advocates also stress that the “disproportionate number of higher-income earners” moving into the area means that market realities will make it difficult for county officials and other leaders to build enough housing on their own. That means relying on more private development, they say, while working to ensure that developers don’t only build high-end apartments that are out of reach for people in lower income brackets.

“By-right development should be liberalized to streamline the costly entitlement process and promote more naturally affordable building types and development scales,” the researchers wrote.

They suggest that duplexes, townhomes and other small apartment complexes could be housing options for the county to consider, and they do note that the county has done some work in this area with its strategies to promote the creation of “accessory dwelling units.” Arlington officials did take some steps to allow smaller apartments attached to larger homes, commonly known as “mother-in-law suites,” but the NVAHA sees room for more bold changes on the issue.

The researchers note that discussions around creating more “missing middle” housing, to fill the gap between subsidized affordable units and luxury homes, often concentrate that the new homes “around transportation corridors or the areas near existing mid-density or mixed-use neighborhoods.” Instead, they see a need for more “diversification” of new housing types all across the different regions of the county.

“A broad-based approach diffuses demand over a wider area,” the group wrote. “If demand for such units is not limited to a small number of neighborhoods by government fiat, any potential impacts on roads, school capacity, and neighborhood form are more likely to emerge gradually, enabling adequate planning and preparation.”

Of course, the advocates would concede that Arlington won’t be able to solve the housing affordability problem on its own, particularly as officials expect that Amazon’s workers will choose to live around the entire region. Accordingly, they urged leaders from across D.C., Maryland and the rest of Northern Virginia to confront the issue together.

“These discussions need to happen in Bowie and Bethesda, as well as Arlington and Alexandria,” NVAHA Executive Director Michelle Krocker wrote in a letter introducing the report. “Regional benefits equal regional responsibilities… Will our elected officials put jurisdictional differences aside and respond for the good of the region?”

Flickr pool photo via NCINDC

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Morning Notes

Apartment Fire on Carlin Springs Road — Firefighters are braving bitter cold conditions this morning to fight an apartment fire on the 3400 block of Carlin Springs Road, in the Falls Church section of Fairfax County, just over the Arlington border. Eight people were rescued from the burning apartment building. [Twitter, Twitter]

Garvey Presses for Civility — “One member of the Arlington County Board is making a concerted effort to remind residents of the need for civility in public discourse… [Libby] Garvey said she has noted that, on contentious issues, those with an opinion frequently are digging in their heels.” [InsideNova]

Lowering Child Care Costs in Arlington — “Arlington County has the highest child care costs in the Washington region, largely because we have high land values, tighter regulations, and affluent households. To start to bring down the price and make licensed child care more accessible for more residents, Arlington has embarked on a Child Care Initiative to address local zoning ordinances and child care codes that impact cost.” [Greater Greater Washington]

AWLA Alum in Us Weekly — Olympian Gus Kenworthy was pictured in a recent issue of Us Weekly magazine with Birdie, the dog he adopted from the Animal Welfare League of Arlington this past summer. [Instagram]

Startup Leaves Crystal City — “A notary startup that has called Arlington home since 2015 appears to have moved much of its local operation to Boston as part of a restructuring.” [Washington Business Journal]

Vacancy Increasing at Crystal City Shops? — “Of the 88 storefronts underneath 1750 Crystal Drive, 42 were vacant this week when Bisnow walked the corridors.” [Bisnow]

Crystal House Plan ‘Could Set a Precedent’ — “Plans to double the number units at the Crystal House Apartments will be a litmus test for future development in Crystal City, as Amazon.com Inc.’s second headquarters ushers in 25,000 jobs to the area over 12 years.” [Washington Business Journal]

Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf

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Queens Court Affordable Housing Redevelopment Project Wins More County Funding to Move Forward

Arlington officials are sending another $8.8 million in loan funds to support the redevelopment of Queens Court in Rosslyn, supplying a nonprofit with the cash it needs to move ahead with construction of the new affordable housing complex.

The County Board unanimously approved the loan at its meeting Saturday (Jan. 26), committing a total of $16.7 million to the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing’s effort construct two new buildings on the property at 1801 N. Quinn Street.

In all, the developer plans to build 249 apartments at the site which are guaranteed to remain affordable to renters, replacing 39 garden apartments built back in 1940. One new building will have room for 90 apartments, earning loan funds from the county last February, while the other will have 159. That second phase of the development prompted the loan approved this weekend, which is drawn from the county’s “Affordable Housing Investment Fund.”

Most of the apartments, dubbed “committed affordable” units due to the nonprofit’s guarantee to hold rent prices steady for the next 75 years, will serve people making 80 percent of the Arlington’s “Area Median Income.” The county currently pegs that amount at $49,260 annually, for a household of just one person.

But some other homes will be set aside for people at 50 percent and 40 percent of the AMI, tabbed at $41,050 and $32,840 annually for one-person households, respectively.

“It’s a substantial project, with a lot of units,” said County Board Chair Christian Dorsey. “But, within those units, we’re providing some affordability that we don’t normally get.”

Dorsey also hailed the project as one that will “accomplish a lot of our objectives of our master plan” governing the county’s affordable housing goals, which stipulates that officials work to generate 585 new affordable homes each year. However, the county has consistently fallen short of meeting that goal since signing off on the plan four years ago.

The Queens Court project also includes a 9,000-square-foot public park and playground, which the Board also approved Saturday, designed as a northern extension of the new Rosslyn Highlands park. A developer building a new mixed-use complex around the corner, at 1555 Wilson Blvd, will add new green space to the area as it builds atop the existing park.

The county will shell out just under $1.5 million for the section of the park attached to Queens Court, while APAH will spend another $125,000 on the effort.

The nonprofit is hoping to have all its construction contracts for the Queens Court project drawn up by this spring, and hopes to wrap up work on the redevelopment sometime in 2021.

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Long-Vacant Ballston Office Building Could Soon Lure New Tenants as Part of Revitalization Bid

A Ballston office building that’s sat largely empty ever since a federal agency moved out a few years back could soon lure a bevy of new tenants to the space.

The Arlington Square building, located at 4401 Fairfax Drive, looks set to experience a bit of a revitalization. The County Board is set to consider a series of zoning changes for the property tomorrow (Saturday) to lure in two tenants, and other retailers look to be on the way as well.

Built in 1988, the eight-story building was long the headquarters of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But the agency took off for Falls Church in 2014, as part of a series of federal tenants leaving the area, and the building has been “mostly vacant” since then, county staff wrote in a report to the Board.

The Brookfield Property Group bought Arlington Square for $33.5 million back in 2017, paying substantially less than its previous owner did in acquiring it for $53.9 million in 2010, according to county property records. The developer now “intends to attract a variety of uses and tenants to occupy the building,” staff wrote.

Specifically, the building’s owner is looking for a zoning change in order to lease out about 2,800 square feet of space on its ground floor to a “private college.” The Board report doesn’t name the institution looking to move into the space, but it does say that it will offer classes on nights and weekends, with “degrees in a Master of Business Administration, Bachelors of Science in Business, Bachelors of Science in Information Technology and general studies and electives programs.”

A behavioral therapy provider, known as “Mind Body Health,” is also hoping to move into about 2,400 square feet of space on the building’s second floor. The business is currently based in Courthouse, in a building at 2200 Wilson Blvd, and is looking for a new permit to operate in the space.

Brookfield is also planning on adding two retailers to the ground floor, to further “activate the streetscape,” staff wrote. One, the soup-and-salad restaurant Zoup!, has already posted signs at the location. The other looks to be Poke It Up, according to a report from Eater D.C., a chain with a location in the Pentagon City mall.

County staff are recommending that the Board sign off on the proposal, hailing its potential to bring more business to “a building that has sat largely vacant for five years.”

The Board has certainly put an emphasis on reversing the county’s rising office vacancy rate in recent years — though Amazon’s arrival in Crystal City and Pentagon City will make a huge impact on that effort, officials have warned that neighborhoods like Ballston and Rosslyn still have some catching up to do.

Photo via Arlington County

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Ballston Redevelopment Project Faces More Delays, Impacting Plans for New Metro Station Entrance

A Ballston redevelopment project that’s been in the works for more than a decade now could soon face yet another delay, complicating Arlington’s push to build a second entrance for the neighborhood’s Metro station in the process.

Since 2005, a rotating cast of developers has sought to tear down the office building at 4420 Fairfax Drive and transform it into a mixed-use building instead. Current plans call for a new, 23-story structure to be built on the property, complete with 237 apartments and 9,200 square feet of retail space.

But the trio of companies backing the redevelopment effort — Washington Capitol Partners, Kettler Development and Bognet Construction — haven’t made much progress since buying the property for $21.8 million back in 2015. Like developer JBG Smith before them, they’ve been unable to so much as tear down the existing, five-story building on the site.

Accordingly, the developers are asking the county for a bit more time to complete the project, generally dubbed “the Spire at Fairmont.” The site plan governing the project is currently set to expire in July 2020 — they’re hoping the County Board will agree to push that deadline back to December 2022 instead.

But the companies are also envisioning a few other changes. Not only do they want to cut back on the number of parking spaces they’ll offer on the property — moving from 289 spaces down to 237 — but they’re asking for a change in their obligations regarding the planned western entrance for the Ballston Metro station.

When JBG first secured the Board’s sign-off on the project roughly 13 years ago, it agreed to partially design and build the new station entrance at the base of the new building. That was a crucial concession for county officials, who hope to ease Metro access for people living and working along N. Glebe Road.

Now, the project’s backers are asking the Board to let them hand over cash to fund the second entrance, instead of building it themselves. The developers are also proposing to let the county start work on the project, which will include the addition of two elevators to reach the underground station, right away by granting officials an easement to access the site. In exchange, they’re asking for an extension on some other zoning deadlines associated with the redevelopment.

The county seems inclined to accept the easement deal — staff are recommending that the Board agree to the arrangement at its meeting Saturday (Jan. 26). But officials seem a bit more uncertain about the proposal to accept cash for the station entrance, and the extension of the site plan deadline.

Some of that trepidation likely stems from the county’s history of challenges finding funding for the Ballston Metro project.

The county had hoped to win regional transportation funding for the new entrance, to the tune of about $72 million. But the complex structure of the deal hashed out by state lawmakers last year to provide dedicated funding for Metro meant that the very group set to send Arlington cash for the project — the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority — would lose tens of millions of dollars each year, diminishing the project’s chances to win the money any time soon.

Legislation proposed in this year’s General Assembly session could restore the group’s funding, but it’s far from a sure thing that it will pass. And the Board pushed back any plans to fund the new entrance for years in its latest update of the county’s 10-year construction spending blueprint, as officials grapple with some tough budget years.

Staff are suggesting that the Board defer any final decision on the matter until March, in order to allow negotiations to play out between the two sides.

Photos via Washington Capitol Partners

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Amazon Shouldn’t Spell ‘Doom’ for Most Local Renters, But Observers Still Fear Its South Arlington Impacts

For people fearful about how Amazon will impact Arlington, a single question tends to rise above all others — will the company’s arrival price me out of my home?

There are certainly plenty of other concerns surrounding the company, and the 25,000 jobs it has promised to bring to its new home in Pentagon City and Crystal City, stemming from its highly criticized business practices to its potential impact on roads and transit in the region.

But concerns about housing affordability have most consistently come to the fore since Amazon’s announcement that it would be setting up shop in Arlington, as renters worry that the company’s army of well-paid workers will set off an explosion in home prices and push them deeper into Northern Virginia’s suburbs.

In selling the proposed deal to bring the Amazon headquarters to the county, officials have argued that these fears are largely overblown. Over the last few months, all manner of local leaders have claimed that the company will arrive slowly enough for Arlington to absorb the new residents, and that the county won’t be forced to house every single one of the workers who will spend their days in the new office space.

And, in general, academics, advocates and real estate watchers around the area agree with that line of thinking. For the most part, the experts surveyed by ARLnow on the issue don’t believe that Amazon will have the sort of apocalyptic impact on housing and gentrification that some skeptics fear.

Yet they also caution that the company will almost certainly still push many people out of the county, particularly those of more modest means living in South Arlington neighborhoods. While the county may not face the same massive disruptive impacts as Seattle, which is still struggling to integrate one of the world’s largest companies into its metro area, observers warn that it would foolish to minimize the size of the challenge Arlington is facing.

“I don’t agree with the view of impending doom that Arlington will become San Francisco due to housing problems, but there are real concerns here to address,” said Eric Brescia, a Fannie Mae economist and a member of Arlington’s Citizens Advisory Commission on Housing.

The case against Amazon panic

Fundamentally, the argument minimizing Amazon’s impacts on the housing market includes the same key points.

First of all, the company plans to bring its 25,000 workers to the new headquarters over the next decade or so, not all at once. And, even then, not all of them are likely to live in Arlington, the thinking goes — many could choose to move to other Northern Virginia suburbs, or even to Maryland and D.C., to take advantage of Arlington’s connection to public transit networks.

Many other employees set to work at the headquarters probably already live in Arlington, considering that Amazon says it chose the D.C. region due to its bevy of “tech talent” already in the area.

That means that county leaders are planning on seeing closer to 15 to 20 percent of Amazon’s workers relocate to Arlington specifically, an influx of (at most) 5,000 people. In fact, a report prepared by George Mason University’s Stephen S. Fuller Institute as part of the state’s courtship of Amazon estimates that more than twice as many of the company’s workers will move to Fairfax instead of Arlington.

“This isn’t based on a wish, but based on our prior experience with other large employers,” said County Board Chair Christian Dorsey. “Can we guarantee it? Of course not… but this is the best we can do in projecting how this investment does and does not look like other investments that we’ve had.”

County Board member Erik Gutshall also points out that the D.C. region as a whole has been in the midst of a massive explosion in growth in recent years, and Amazon could merely feel like a drop in the bucket. Based on regional projections, Gutshall says the company’s is “expected to account for about 5 percent of regional job growth over the next 12 years.”

“That, to me, says this alone is not going to be a major driver of housing affordability problems,” Gutshall said.

Regional observers believe that the broad strokes of that argument are accurate.

Brad Dillman, the chief economist for national real estate developer Cortland, points out that Crystal City and Pentagon City both have slightly higher residential vacancy rates than the D.C. metro area as a whole, leaving some room for Amazon employees moving in.

And Christopher Ptomey, the executive director of the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing, notes that it’s hardly uncommon to see large government agencies (or other big companies) move into communities around the Northern Virginia area. Based on Arlington’s own past experiences with such changes, he sees no reason Amazon employees would behave any differently.

“Some people come here and decide Arlington has great schools and is convenient, so they’re willing to pay a little bit more to stay here,” Ptomey said. “Others prefer a bigger house and a wider lot and lighter traffic. I don’t think Amazon employees going to be particularly unique in that way.”

Uncertainties abound

Yet, with so many unknowns about the company’s plans still remaining, experts caution that it’s hard to make too many definitive declarations about the make-up of the company’s workforce just yet. That complicates efforts to make predictions about how they might behave when they arrive.

“We need to know: what’s the age range and family type of these workers?” said Jenny Schuetz, who studies housing policy as part of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “A bunch of 25-year-olds will want to live nearby, but they pay a lot more in taxes than they consume in services. More older families will require more space in high-performing schools, but some will want to live farther out.”

Indeed, Schuetz and other analysts warn that the county shouldn’t offer too much certainty about Amazon’s precise impacts until officials start to see how the company’s arrival changes the region.

Arlington officials have simultaneously downplayed the number of people arriving along with Amazon, while also trumpeting how other high-priced tech companies will likely flock to the area to do business with Jeff Bezos’ firm. Until Arlington can evaluate just how real that downstream impact is, experts say it might be useless to simply study just Amazon’s workforce.

“Will just Amazon come here or is this the beginning of D.C. becoming a major tech hub?” Brescia said. “That’s really unknown.”

But Schuetz notes that research shows, in general, “each new tech job spins off roughly five additional jobs.” That might be good news for the county’s economy, but it also complicates the math of predicting how many people will flow into Arlington.

“We know that big headquarters like this have a multiplier effect,” Schuetz said. “They will need supportive services and restaurants to serve the campus directly.”

However many people associated with the company ultimately arrive in Arlington, analysts point out that they are likely to be quite wealthy. The terms of the state’s proposed deal with Amazon require an average annual salary of $150,000 for the company’s employees, and other tech workers bound for Arlington are likely to pull in similar sums.

Even still, Dorsey believes those salaries “are not out of scale with typical earnings in the area,” minimizing the impact they’ll have on the county’s home prices.

A ‘housing crisis’ for low-income renters?

But critics of the county’s pursuit of Amazon believe that sort of mindset ignores the current conditions in Arlington, which already pose problems for renters. Tim Dempsey, a member of the steering committee for the progressive group Our Revolution Arlington, points out that many Board members (including Dorsey himself) won office based on pledges to combat the county’s pre-Amazon “housing crisis” for low-income people and the middle class alike.

“We already don’t have housing for middle-income earners, whether that’s school teachers, firefighters or policemen,” Dempsey said. “The county never asked the community if it was a good idea to bid for this, and when we raised these issues, we were told it was premature to even talk about this.”

Ideally, Schuetz says that Amazon’s workers and their peers won’t be competing for the same types of housing as the people Dempsey is worried about. In all likelihood, “if they’re displacing people, they’ll be displacing other high-income households” by moving into Arlington’s high-rent Metro corridors.

Dillman also foresees developers adding plenty of new housing around the new headquarters, noting that the pace of development has been especially slow in Crystal City as the area’s office vacancy rate has skyrocketed. That should, in theory, provide plenty of new, high-end homes for Amazon arrivals.

The “danger point” that Schuetz fears is what becomes of the “low-cost, older housing” in neighborhoods elsewhere in South Arlington, particularly along Columbia Pike, or in North Alexandria.

“Those could be the targets for redevelopment, where you could potentially charge higher rents,” Schuetz said. “And that’s the area where we’d see displacement.”

Michelle Krocker, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance, agrees that the fate of apartments running from the Pike to Bailey’s Crossroads and even Seven Corners is one of her prime concerns. But her research also suggests that observers “shouldn’t assume everyone will jump on the bandwagon and sell.”

“Many of these buildings have been in the same family for generations, going back to 1950s, 1960s,” Krocker said. “That means there can be tax consequences and liabilities if they entertain selling. And, for many, the buildings are cash cows.”

Of course, the county could take additional steps to preserve those sorts of buildings to address the issue. And officials say they’re already mulling all manner of strategies to combat housing affordability challenges.

To Brescia, how the county follows through with those plans could provide the clearest answer for anyone searching for the exact extent of Amazon’s impacts.

“It will all really depend on the policy response to this, across the region,” Brescia said.

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Plans for New Apartments Along Washington Blvd in Virginia Square Take Shape

Plans to redevelop several small businesses in Virginia Square into a new apartment complex are coming into focus, in a section of the neighborhood long targeted by the county for a bit of revitalization.

A developer is firming up plans to build a seven-story apartment building on a 1.7-acre property at 1122 N. Kirkwood Road, near the road’s intersection with Washington Blvd. Documents submitted to county planners late last month show that Eleventh Street Development is angling to add 255 one- and two-bedroom apartments to the site, complete with two floors of underground parking totaling 190 spaces in all.

The entire area is line for some big changes in the coming year — the American Legion post nearby is set to become a new affordable housing development, while the YMCA is set for big upgrades as well — and Arlington officials have spent months now sketching out new planning documents to guide the area’s evolution.

Eleventh Street Development has long contemplated adding apartments to the site, which will displace three businesses on the property: Zolly Foreign Car Specialists, a State Farm insurance office and Slye Digital Media Systems. But the developer has, at last, kicked off the “site plan” process with the county, in order to secure the necessary permissions to get construction moving.

Notably, Eleventh Street seems to have abandoned plans to include any space for retail on the ground floor of the site, according to the plans. However, county officials “would like to continue the discussion” about that change, they wrote in a memo to the developer last January.

In general, the county signaled in the planning documents that it’s broadly satisfied with the initial plans. One of the few concerns officials expressed, however, is that the redevelopment might not meet some of the road re-design standards laid out in the long-range vision for the area approved in 2017, known as the “General Land Use Plan Study and Concept Plan.”

Specifically, the county wants to see a new “east-west connection” through the property, connecting 12th Road N. to N. Kirkwood Road.

Officials urge the company to consider “how the subject site would be designed or modified to facilitate circulation as envisioned,” and the developer acknowledged that request. However, the company does plan to add some streetscape improvements along both Washington Blvd and Kirkwood Road.

The project is now set to head to the county’s Site Plan Review Committee, though the group has yet to put the development on its agenda just yet.

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Morning Notes

Roads ‘Looking Good’ After Light Snow — Per Arlington’s Dept. of Environmental Services: snow removal crews are “reviewing school routes, especially bridges and County sidewalks, with @APSVirginia on a 2-hour delayed opening. Roadways looking good, treated as needed, but go slow and remove snow from vehicles before pulling out.” [Twitter]

Gov’t Closures Today and Monday — “Arlington County Government offices, courts, libraries & facilities will be closed on Jan. 21, 2019 for Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s birthday. NOTE: Commonwealth of Virginia offices (including Courts & DMVs)  will be closed Friday Jan. 18, 2019 for Lee-Jackson Day.” [Arlington County]

Amazon Incentives Clear First Richmond Hurdle — “A powerful General Assembly committee has passed and forwarded to the full state Senate legislation that would grant Amazon up to $750 million in financial incentives for locating a secondary headquarters in Arlington and Alexandria.” [InsideNova]

Who Said This? — A “big D.C. developer” reportedly called Crystal City “Ballston with lipstick,” which is more flattering than what an executive for Crystal City’s biggest property owner said about the community earlier this week. For its part, Crystal City is continuing to bask in the afterglow of its big Amazon win and this week’s announcement that PBS will be keeping its headquarters in the neighborhood. [Twitter]

Famers Market Offers Shutdown Discounts — The Westover Farmers Market, held on Sundays at the corner of Washington Blvd and N. McKinley Road, is offering discounts of 10-25 percent for furloughed federal employees and contractors until the government shutdown ends.

Arlington Family’s Furlough Story — An Arlington couple who both work for the federal government and are missing paychecks during the shutdown is more fortunate than many, given that they have savings with which to keep paying the bills. But it has meant cutting back on discretionary spending and things like child care and retirement contributions. [MarketWatch]

Arlington Man Arrested for ‘Ruckus’ in Ohio — “A man from Arlington, Virginia is facing charges in Youngstown after police say he created a ruckus at the downtown DoubleTree and threatened police… officers say he kept threatening them saying, ‘You guys are going to be sorry, and you’re going to regret this. I will find you when I get out.'” [WKBN]

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