Dems to Discuss School Board Caucus — “Unsurprisingly, perhaps, into this climate of culture war skirmishes surrounding public education comes opposition to the Arlington County Democratic Committee’s long-standing caucus process and even opposition to Democratic endorsement of candidates for school boards seats… At its February meeting, Arlington Democrats will debate the issues raised by its critics and vote on whether and how to change its caucus and endorsement process.” [Blue Virginia]
Winter Outdoor Dining Guide — “Before the pandemic, we never imagined that al fresco dining season in Northern Virginia would stretch into the teeth of winter. And while the wave of the latest Omicron cases seems to have peaked (fingers crossed!), those who are cautious about Covid but still want to support local businesses might choose to eat outside in the fresh air. Here are 11 restaurants cranking up the heat on outdoor dining spaces, and adding fun elements like fire pits or tented igloos.” [Arlington Magazine]
Steep HQ2 Energy Offset Costs — “The cost for Amazon.com Inc. to offset carbon emissions at its PenPlace development and meet Arlington County’s energy expectations will run upward of $5 million, according to a study by the company’s Seattle consultant.” [Washington Business Journal]
Beyer Calls for Long Covid Data — “A pair of Democratic House members asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a letter Tuesday to release data on the number of Americans who suffer lingering symptoms of coronavirus infection, including breakdowns along race, gender and age… Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who has sponsored legislation to fund studies of long covid, co-signed the letter with Pressley.” [Washington Post, U.S. House of Representatives]
More on Pentagon City Apartment Upgrades — “An existing 12-year-old apartment high-rise adjacent to what will be Amazon’s massive HQ2 campus, Metropolitan Park, in Arlington County, Virginia, has been acquired… and the investors plan a multimillion makeover fitting for HQ2’s panache. ‘We are going to make these apartments the coolest and most desirable homes on the park,’ said Steve Schwat, UIP founding principal.” [WTOP]
Two Crystal City Hotels Sold — “An Atlanta real estate investment manager has acquired a pair of Crystal City hotels a little more than a month after their former owner primed them for future redevelopment. Affiliates of Noble Investment Group paid a combined $64.3 million in mid-December for the 162-room Hampton Inn & Suites Reagan National Airport and the 248-room Hilton Garden Inn, according to Arlington County land records… There do not appear to be immediate changes planned for the hotels themselves, except for their names.” [Washington Business Journal]
It’s Wednesday — Today will be sunny, with a high near 30. Sunrise at 7:18 a.m. and sunset at 5:23 p.m. Tomorrow will be sunny, with a high near 33. [Weather.gov]
(Updated 4:40 p.m.) County commissioners welcome Amazon’s latest revisions to plans for the second phase of its HQ2 in Pentagon City — but are pushing for more greenery and accessibility.
Phase 2 will be anchored by a lush, futuristic building, dubbed “The Helix,” and feature three, 22-story office buildings, three retail pavilions, a childcare center, a permanent home for Arlington Community High School, 2.5 acres of public green space, multi-modal pathways and underground parking.
Amazon is massaging out the details with county staff, commissioners and community representatives to ready the plans for Planning Commission and County Board review, possibly in the spring. The tech giant has already updated the three office buildings, pathways and green spaces in response to requests for more architectural diversity and plantings.
“The team has been careful reviewing all comments and believe together, we are making PenPlace a better project for the entire community,” said Joe Chapman, Amazon’s Director of Global Real Estate and Facilities, during a meeting last night. “We are committed to the process and to the community.”
Project designers presented their changes during a Site Plan Review Committee meeting last night (Monday). County staff, commissioners and community members asked for better accessibility for people with disabilities, more pedestrian safety features, increased tree canopy and even more plants.
“In general, everyone really likes the presentation and appreciates the refinements to the design from the [Long Range Planning Committee] to now, and from the comments raised in the online period,” Planning Commission member Elizabeth Gearin said. “There’s very strong and widespread appreciation for changes to the design, for the early incorporation of sustainability, biophilia and art.”
Still, commissioners recommended leveling the entrances to underground parking garages so drivers have clearer views of pedestrians. They and county staff asked Amazon to revisit a set of stairs leading from Army-Navy Drive to an “elevated forest walk” on the northern end of the site.
“We’d really like to see the stairs removed and replaced with ramp that everyone can use equally,” Gearin said.
Those suggestions follow up on changes Amazon made this summer to the Army-Navy frontage, “to greatly improve what was seen as a foreboding frontage,” county planner Peter Schulz said.
Others called for more and taller trees throughout the site — not just in the “elevated forest.”
“Anything less than towering oak will look out of place next to 22-story buildings,” said Arlington Tree Action Group member Anne Bodine.
Running Store Coming to Pentagon City — “Federal Realty Investment Trust has leased the last bit of vacant retail space at Westpost, the 14-acre mixed-use development a short walk from where Amazon.com Inc.’s new headquarters buildings will stand. The leases put the roughly 297,000-square-foot retail center on course to be fully occupied in the first half of 2022 after a handful of notable vacancies, including the nearly 34,000-square-foot former Bed, Bath & Beyond to be replaced by a Target store, and the roughly 4,500-square-foot space where Road Runner Sports will replace a shuttered Unleashed by Petco.” [Washington Business Journal]
Library Seeking Latino History Donations — “Over the last three decades, Arlington’s Latino community has rapidly grown and stockpiled a wealth of history. And this week, librarians and historians at the Center for Local History at Arlington Public Library are asking for donations of documents to archive the county’s Hispanic history. The project is called Re-Encuentro de Arlington Latinos.” [WTOP]
Rock Climbing Gym Goes Green — “Earth Treks Crystal City prides itself as a rock climbing outlet for people living in a metropolitan area and the business in northern Virginia hopes its roots in rock climbing can bring forward better environmental practices… Earth Treks announced recently its partnership with a Virginia company that allows its climbers to bring in old and rundown equipment — shoes, water bottles and harnesses — which will be reused in a variety of ways, including to make dog harnesses.” [WUSA 9]
Synetic Returns to Theater — “Last night night found me in Crystal City, where Synetic Theater was back in its performance venue for the first time since the pandemic, staging a production of ‘The Madness of Poe…’ Performers were not masked, a nice change after recent experiences with a number of troupes who use Arlington Public Schools facilities and are not allowed to let their actors, though all vaccinated, go without masks.” [Sun Gazette]
New Commuter Bus Service Funded — “The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission plans to fund a new express bus service, part of efforts aimed at reducing congestion connected with Interstate 66 and the Beltway. The commission approved a plan yesterday to fund the bus service with over $5.1 million for two years. Routes would run from the Reston South Park and Ride lot to key destinations in Arlington County that include the Pentagon, Pentagon City and Crystal City.” [Reston Now]
More Studies for Route 7 Bus Route — “A regional study of the proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) route from Tysons to Alexandria is moving into a new phase that will assess options through the Seven Corners area. The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission voted last night (Thursday) to approve a contract for the fourth phase of its Envision Route 7 mobility analysis study.” The bus might also make a stop at the East Falls Church Metro station in Arlington. [Tysons Reporter]
Green Building Update — “The County Board today adopted an update to the Green Building Incentive Policy for site plan projects that strengthens Arlington’s commitment to sustainability and carbon neutrality… ‘By raising the bar on green building incentives for site plan developments, Arlington is reaffirming our commitment to our goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050,’ Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey said.” [Arlington County]
Big Storm Expected Mid-Week — “A major winter storm is set to wallop the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast on Wednesday and Thursday, with many areas from western Virginia to southern New England expected to see heavy snowfall. But for the immediate Washington area, a messy mix of precipitation is more likely than a major snowstorm.” [Capital Weather Gang, Twitter]
Arlington Officer Honored — “Arlington County Police Officer Anthony Gatto was among 18 law-enforcement personnel from across the region who were cited Dec. 11 with the area’s 23rd annual ‘Law Enforcement Awards of Excellence for Impaired Driving Prevention.'” [InsideNova]
Arlington is looking for public input on a plan to use energy more efficiently.
Tonight (June 4) from 7-9 p.m. at the Central Library Auditorium (1015 N Quincy Street), county staff plan to host an open house during which the community can ask questions or offer feedback on an update to the county’s Community Energy Plan (CEP).
Goals for the project include:
- Increase the energy and operational efficiency of all buildings: By 2050, the plan aims to have total building energy usage in Arlington be 38 percent lower than in 2007. In the report, staff says both code-required reductions for buildings and incentives for voluntary efficiencies — a carrot and stick approach — will be required.
- Ensure Arlington’s energy resilience: The report notes — and anyone in Ballston two weeks ago can confirm — Arlington’s energy infrastructure is vulnerable to extreme weather and other factors. The report says Arlington will need to use new technologies to rely on more local sources of energy and potentially establish “microgrids” to make critical pieces of infrastructure like Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall and the Virginia Hospital Center more independent from blackouts across the county.
- Increase locally generated energy supply: The plan aims to have Arlington County follow the example of Discovery Elementary, which won accolades for using all its energy generated on-site, and establish more solar energy collectors and other green energy sites across Arlington.
- Move more people with fewer greenhouse gas emissions: The goal here is fairly self-explanatory, but the general idea is to get more Arlingtonians using buses, bicycles, and other non-car means of transportation, while encouraging those who are required to use cars to shift toward hybrid and energy-efficient vehicles.
- Integrate energy goals into all county government activities: The report says Arlington should aim at having government facilities reduce CO2 emissions to 71 percent below their 2007 levels by 2040. The approach would involve a mix of smaller efficiencies in energy and water usage and larger shifts in making new government facilities more energy efficient from a design standpoint.
- Support residents and businesses that reduce energy usage: The final goal of the report involves using county staff and resources to help encourage locals — from individuals to business owners — find ways to rethink energy usage in their own lives.
“We invite the community to drop in and spend as much time as needed to learn about the draft CEP update, CEP implementation details, and provide feedback on the proposed changes to the 2013 CEP,” Rich Dooley, Arlington’s community energy coordinator, said in an email.
A new report says some levels of pollution are down in the Potomac River, but cautioned that the once-troubled waterway isn’t out the woods yet.
Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments analyzed data collected between 1985 and 2016 and found that “water quality improvements have reduced pollution significantly.”
Both are common nutrients for soil and water, but runoff from farms and waste treatment facilities can lead to excess amounts flowing into waterways. When too much nitrogen enters a river it can cause plants to overgrow and choke the oxygen from the water, killing fish and in some cases making the water toxic to young children.
Too much phosphorus causes algae blooms that are deadly to fish. Blooms have been spotted north of Chain Bridge, according to the report.
MWCOG’s report released on Wednesday said its pollution analysis found that:
The amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus — which, in excess, contribute to water quality problems — contained in the discharge from wastewater plants in metropolitan Washington has declined dramatically since the 1980s and is on track for further reductions. The number and extent of harmful algal blooms in the upper Potomac estuary has declined significantly. Populations of aquatic plants and animals that live in this portion of the river, such as submerged aquatic vegetation, some fish, and some waterfowl have grown closer to their historical abundances.
“Scientists are still interpreting how much time elapses between various nutrient reduction efforts and when their impact shows up in the Potomac estuary and the [Chesapeake] Bay,” the report notes. “What is certain is that additional efforts to reduce nutrients and sediment from agriculture and urban runoff will be needed to achieve the river’s long-term water quality goals.”
The report says local governments are working to reduce other contaminants like mercury, prescription drugs, and chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Potomac Conservancy noted that with less pollution people are increasingly using the river “as a place to hangout, recreate and live.”
In the future, citizen scientists are likely to be a part of making these reports happen. Last month, people volunteered to start collecting weekly water samples of the Potomac and the Anacostia so scientists can track E. coli levels in both rivers.
Local governments have spent billions over the last three decades to clean up the rivers, mainly by redirecting sewage flows, and managing stormwater runoff better.
In Arlington, volunteers have cleaned up trash along streams and riverbanks for three decades.
Image (top) via Flickr pool user Wolfkann, chart (middle) via MWCOG
Ride Hailing ‘Strike’ Today — “Getting an Uber or a Lyft may be impossible — or take longer and cost more — Wednesday when drivers for both companies plan to strike in major U.S. cities to protest what they say are unfair wages and poor working conditions.” [Washington Post]
APS Poaching Fairfax Teachers — From a candidate for Fairfax County Board of Supervisors: “Today I met a veteran teacher who is leaving FCPS because Arlington County will pay her $12,000 more annually. Meanwhile, all I hear about is how we are fully funding our schools. We still have some catching up to do Fairfax County.” [Twitter]
County Employees Getting Reusable Straws — Updated at 10:10 a.m. — “This week is [Public Service Recognition Week], and Arlington County employees will be celebrating with their new, reusable steel straws, distributed… as a thank you for their hard work.” [WDVM]
Another Traffic Enforcement Push in Clarendon — Yesterday Arlington County Police conducted “high-visibility traffic enforcement” at Clarendon Boulevard and N. Danville Street,” reminding drivers to “be [street smart] and yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk.” [Twitter]
No State GOP Candidates in Arlington Yet — “Thus far, there have been no nibbles on the line among potential Republican candidates for state legislative seats. The party’s filing deadlines passed on May 2 and 5 for GOP prospects for the 47th and 49th House of Delegates districts and 31st state Senate district without any candidates formally expressing interest.” [InsideNova]
Arlington’s sometimes controversial Public Spaces Master Plan was approved in a unanimous vote by the County Board on Thursday (April 25).
The idea of the update is to provide a framework for the county’s plans to preserve natural resources and public activities as part of the broader comprehensive plan. However, the meeting launched discussions over whether the county relies too much on paved public spaces, and how sports fields and mountain biking fits in.
Michael Hanna, a member of the Environment and Energy Conservation Commission, noted that while the plan would add to public spaces, more needed to be done to differentiate green space from other uses. County Board Member Katie Cristol agreed with Hanna later in the meeting, saying moving forward the county would need to do more to separate those uses.
“For a long time in our site plans, we’ve let concrete be public spaces,” Cristol said. “Plazas have a role, but in recent years [we] have tried to recognize the nature of biophilia.”
During the years-long public engagement process about the plan, which was last updated in 2005, arguments emerged over what shape Arlington’s public space should take. County staff said there were several issues raised by the public in the final stretch of the approval process that would require future assessment after the plan’s approval.
One source of public consternation throughout the planning process was what critics said was inflated estimates of demand for sports fields. Peter Rousselot, an ARLnow columnist and leader of the Parks4Everyone advocacy group, argued that athletics fields were being over-reserved rather than over-used, an inefficiency leading to an artificial appearance of demand.
County Manager Mark Schwartz noted that the county is reviewing its scheduling process. The plan includes analyzing field utilization to improve data on current and projected uses as a priority for the plan.
The final version of the plan also swapped the earlier estimates of future need with a more general arrow indicating whether demand is expected to increase or decrease. The language concerning the need for two additional diamond fields by 2035 was changed from “Arlington will need…” to “Arlington could need…”
Still, Justin Wilt, a member of the county’s Sports Commission, stood by the earlier projected needs and said his commission urged the construction of at least one multi-use athletic center in Arlington, citing a lack of indoor recreation activities in the county.
Another group advocating for a space in the plan were mountain biking enthusiasts. Several mountain biking advocates attended the meeting, including a parent who said he had to take his children out to Reston to access mountain biking trails.
“I’m here to support off-road cycling facilities in Public Spaces Master Plan,” said Grant Mandsager, a public speaker at the hearing. “These facilities are in high demand and can be a great benefit to Arlington residents.”
While staff said there was a demand to add mountain biking-specific paths to the plan, the potential impact on natural resources in areas those paths would cut through would require further study.
“The advisory committee felt this issue raised too late in the process,” said Hanna. “To proceed with mountain biking… all ramifications need to be examined, particularly the threat to natural resources.”
In the end, the approved version of the plan settled on:
“Interest was also expressed in mountain biking, however, prior to exploring potential locations for mountain biking, the community would need to have a more robust and broad conversation.”
Parks4Everyone said in a statement this weekend that it was pleased with the final Public Spaces Master Plan, which “has the potential to address community needs, maintenance, and field priorities through data-driven transparency and prioritization of financial resources and land being appropriately allocated.”
“Only after residents pushing, Commissions digging in, and a decisive January 8th Civic Federation vote… did the PSMP become more reflective of the core issues affecting our parks,” the group said. “The PSMP needed to convey the priorities and needs of the vast majority of Arlingtonians including more trails, green open space parks, and natural areas.”
The final version of the plan also included several recommendations highlighted as actions critical to the success of Arlington’s public space system:
- Add at least 30 acres of new public space over the next 10 years.
- Secure or expand the public spaces envisioned by sector, corridor and other plans adopted by the County Board – including the Clarendon Sector Plan, Virginia Square Sector Plan, Courthouse Sector Plan, Rosslyn Sector Plan, Crystal City Sector Plan, and Columbia Pike Form Based Codes – and ensure they provide amenities that meet the county’s needs.
- Utilize level of service as a planning tool to manage public space assets efficiently.
- Analyze athletic field utilization to improve data on the current use and assess future athletic field needs.
- Ensure access to spaces that are intentionally designed to support casual, impromptu use and connection with nature.
- Complete the implementation of adopted park master plans.
- Develop park master plans for all new parks or when renovation of an existing park requires a major rearrangement of park amenities.
- Ensure and enhance access to the Potomac River, Four Mile Run and their tributaries while improving the tree canopy, native vegetation, and other natural resources along waterways.
- Expand Arlington’s network of connected multi-use trails.
- Update the Urban Forest Master Plan and Natural Resources Management Plan through a combined process.
- Protect, restore, and expand natural resources and trees
Prior to the County Board’s 5-0 approval of the plan, Chair Christian Dorsey noted that few parties would be fully pleased with the compromises made in the plan.
“It’s an exceptional document that reflects an extraordinary effort,” said Dorsey. “I realize there are people engaged in this project who aren’t thrilled with everything that they see, but again, if we take that non-specific, line by line lenses and look at it comprehensively, we have to recognize that this is a tremendous step forward.”
Flickr pool photo by Dennis Dimick
Protest in Front of Nestle Office in Rosslyn — “On Tuesday, Greenpeace activists hauled a 15-foot-tall heap of garbage, artfully crafted to resemble one of those deep sea fish that’s about 90 percent jowl, out in front of the Nestlé’s U.S. headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.” [Gizmodo, Twitter]
‘No Stopping’ Arlington’s Growth — “Historically a commuter bedroom city for Washington, D.C., Arlington, VA continues its development renaissance with a variety of mixed-use projects that will shuttle in new residents, create open spaces and make new room for more restaurants and companies.” [GlobeSt]
Arlington Ponies Up Incentives for DEA — “The Arlington County Board is set to vote later this month to grant up to $11.5 million in financial incentives to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Pentagon City landlord to keep the agency from relocating to neighboring Alexandria, just shy of half of what it has promised Amazon.com Inc. for its second headquarters.” [Washington Business Journal]
Possible Meteor Lights Up the Sky — There were numerous reports of a meteor seen over Arlington, the D.C. region and much of the East Coast around 11 p.m. last night. [Twitter, BNO News, NBC Washington]
County Touts Green Initiatives Ahead of Earth Day — “Few communities can boast Arlington’s ceaseless commitment to sustainability — which is why one day in April can barely hint at the work that happens in the months before and after.” [Arlington County]
Flickr pool photo by Tom Mockler
Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.
As Arlington continues to prepare for Amazon’s arrival, justified concerns have been raised about the impact of Amazon’s coming here on our environment, our parks, and our schools.
Concerns relating to the environment take place in the context of a Virginia legal system that reserves to the state, rather than municipalities like Arlington, many decisions regarding regulation of products and practices that harm our environment.
Today, I’m focusing on some promising new community initiatives that highlight the environmental threats posed by some of these products and practices. I’m not focusing on whether the appropriate response to any particular environmental threat should be:
- citizen or regulatory action
- in Arlington or Richmond
- some combination of the above
Film screening of “StyrofoamMom” — a locally produced documentary
On Saturday, April 6, from 5:30 to 8:30 pm, a group of organizations are sponsoring a dinner and open-house reception featuring a showing of a locally produced documentary, “StyrofoamMom.”
StyrofoamMom is a name given to Miriam Gennari, an Arlington resident, by Chris Zimmerman, a former County Board member, when she caught him eating from a Styrofoam® container. Gennari ran for School Board in 2013 focusing on environmental stewardship and literacy in Arlington Public Schools.
Gennari has been advocating the Arlington County government for 10 years, asking our government to develop policies and strategies regarding Arlington’s most ignored single-use plastic, expanded-polystyrene. Her hope in sharing the film is that with new student leadership, she can hand the microphone over to the youth of Arlington and the region, to work with government and business leaders to finish the job properly.
StyrofoamMom was made with critical support from Arlington Independent Media (AIM) and its state-of-the-art studio, video and sound equipment, as well as the talents of hundreds of volunteers. At the event AIM will announce its decision to bestow two local student scholarships. This new “green crew” will be taught filmmaking and will produce environmental films in multiple languages. Students will be trained in studio, field, editing and radio production.
The dinner, reception, and film are being organized and sponsored by Eco Teen Action Network, supported by Global Co Lab Network and Smithsonian Conservation Commons, together with student environmental clubs, organizations and business leaders.
The Global Co Lab Network is a local Arlington non-governmental organization created to focus experts and stakeholders on youth and their ideas for change. Utilizing living room gatherings or “Co Labs,” combined with virtual rooms or “Dream Hubs”, the Global Co Lab Network is working with the Smithsonian Conservation Commons to build a local and global network of teens. The Network will showcase its efforts at the 50th anniversary of Earth Day at the Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, DC. in April 2020.
Event host JBG SMITH
The event and film screening will be hosted at a JBG Smith building in National Landing. For JBG Smith, hosting this event demonstrates a willingness to encourage young people’s interest in discussions regarding sustainability. The reported sustainability values expressed by both Amazon and JBG Smith have been driven by consumer demand. With universities investing in the area, bright and creative minds will be coming together to discuss the complexities of building a mega community and the waste and pollution it could produce if not carefully planned.
The Global Co Lab Network is sponsoring the April 6 event to highlight its goal to empower the next generation to address environmental issues. Arlington has not made this a priority, but it should. Global Co Lab Network has observed that there are very few environmental clubs at schools in Arlington compared to other places. This is unfortunate since we are a county that prides itself on our green environmental culture.
Amazon’s new HQ at National Landing, together with the new talent it has the potential to attract, can bring together a new focus on environmental sustainability and specific plans to achieve it.
Arlington must decide which priorities are most important to it, and how those priorities will be implemented. The April 6 event will combine the new perspectives of young people, veteran activists, and other partners who can work together to make Arlington a green, healthy, sustainable county that will serve as an example in the United States.
Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.
Arlington’s lengthy, detailed public space planning documents might seem dry and technical at first glance, but an impending update to those plans has sparked a bitter fight in the county.
Though the sparring centers largely around reams of statistics and data, the debate cuts to the heart of a key question for leaders in the 26-square-mile county: how should Arlington divvy up its limited amount of public land?
The newly revised “Public Spaces Master Plan” is designed to provide lots of answers to that question for Arlington officials. Last updated in 2005, the document sketches out the county’s goals for building and maintaining its parks, fields, trails and other open spaces.
Since 2015, community leaders have been working to update the document in a process commonly known as “POPS,” or “A Plan for Our Places and Spaces.” A county advisory committee has been sharpening the document’s specifics for months, and the County Board now looks ready to schedule public hearings and a vote on the plan’s update this weekend.
But critics charge that the plan is fatally flawed, and some have spent more than a year working to build opposition to one of its key elements. Chiefly, they’re concerned that the new document calls for the county to set aside more space for athletic fields than it actually needs, which could gobble up room for other important facilities (namely, schools and parks).
Opponents of the plan also argue that county staff have been deceptive in providing data to guide this process, undermining many of the master plan’s conclusions.
Others close to the process, especially those representing parks or sports groups, feel those concerns are misguided, and insist that the new plan will provide an adequate roadmap for meeting the growing demand for field space in Arlington. But, with the issue coming to a head in the coming weeks, the plan’s critics are hopeful that the Board will take their concerns seriously and act accordingly.
“The county is going to use this document to make decisions for the next 20 years,” said Peter Rousselot, a leader with the “Parks for Everyone” advocacy group and a regular ARLnow columnist. “But through it all, we’ve had the sense that [county staff] weren’t an honest broker on this. And that matters, when this stuff might someday be taken as gospel, and staff might point to it and say ‘the County Board voted 5-0 to approve this.'”
Both critics and supporters of the plan acknowledge that the latest draft of the document has gone through sufficient changes since it was released last fall to be a lot more appealing to all involved. Yet emotions around the issue are, undoubtedly, still running high.
“There have been lots of accusations against county staff, and we’ve met with [the plan’s critics] several times,” said Caroline Haynes, a co-chair of the POPS advisory group and the chair of the county’s Parks and Recreation Commission. “But some people we’re just never going to please. We’re just not.”
How many more fields does Arlington need?
Rousselot, who has long been active in county politics, says he became interested in the issue as other local activists began to bring it to his attention. Kari Klaus was a key driver of those early efforts, based on her previous work examining the county’s plans for parks in Aurora Highlands, and the pair worked with some other concerned community members to found Parks for Everyone.
Chiefly, Klaus and Rousselot became concerned about the plan because of one, highly technical, piece of data contained within the document: something called “population-based level of service” analysis.
In essence, the calculation involves county staff looking at Arlington’s population data, national averages and other “peer localities” to see how many parks and fields Arlington needs to serve its residents. In this case, staff judged Arlington’s peers to be other suburbs of major cities including: Alexandria; Bellevue, Washington; Berkeley, California; and St. Paul, Minnesota.
Using that data, staff came up with ratios designed to guide how many facilities the county needs to add going forward.
For instance, Arlington currently has 53 rectangular, athletic fields — the plan’s estimates suggest the county should be striving to have closer to 61 instead. Similarly, the document shows that Arlington has 43 “diamond” baseball fields, while 54 might be a better number to serve its current population. And both of those projections will only grow as the county swells with new residents over time.
Those estimates disturbed and frustrated Rousselot and Klaus. They say they couldn’t understand how the county landed on those figures, instead of relying on current data showing how often people use the county’s existing fields.
Several people interested in the matter filed a series of public records requests to get more county data, and became increasingly frustrated that staff would only release limited information about their process for calculating those numbers.
But, from what they did find, Rousselot and his fellow critics became convinced that the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation wasn’t following the industry’s best practices for coming up with “level of service” calculations. They argue that the number of people actively seeking to use county fields would provide a much better baseline to work off of than simply the number of people living in the county in total.
“DPR had lots of data on supply and demand, but staff didn’t use it to inform themselves about what this population-based LOS number ought to be,” Rousselot said. “And it was so hard to even get them to acknowledge they had this data.”
In response to the group’s extensive criticisms, County Manager Mark Schwartz released a lengthy statement defending staff’s methods. Chiefly, he argued that “population is an easily understood way to project needs and is used regularly by the county and [the school system] to anticipate future capacity.”
Haynes echoed that point, stressing that all of the advisory committee’s work suggested that the population-based calculations were the “most straightforward method” possible for staff to use. Otherwise, she says the county would have to rely on a cascading series of assumptions about how much field use would increase (or decrease) over time, which might prove increasingly inaccurate as time goes by.
Rousselot, however, argues that such a standard for calculating field needs is “deceptively simple,” and doesn’t allow much room for nuance as decisions get made in the future.
“There is something quite appealing at first blush about how simple it is,” Rousselot said. “But the way history tells us DPR operates is that these numbers become much more gospel like than they deserve.”
Is demand real, or deceptive?
But Haynes vigorously defended county staff’s management of the process, and their willingness to re-examine their own methods. She said the advisory committee has broadly been “very pleased” with the county throughout the process, which she finds slightly “incredible” given that they’ve been working together for the better part of four years now.
And she believes that the open space plan’s critics miss an obvious point about the county’s current conditions — field space is already at a premium for sports teams and casual users alike.
“Arlington is growing and we need more of everything,” Haynes said. “Sometimes we have four to six teams playing on any given field.”
But Rousselot and the plan’s critics charge that field demand can be deceptive — he sees the county’s management of its fields as the root cause of any problems. Many field reservations are managed by volunteers, not county staff, which he feels has led to plenty of inefficiencies. Other fields are unusable because they haven’t been maintained well, which Rousselot chalks up to the county’s shrinking maintenance budget.
“It’s left a lot of sports teams angry and under the impression that they can’t get fields,” Rousselot said. “But the process of scheduling and maintenance has been, to put it diplomatically, a mess.”
Haynes argues it would not be “an efficient use of county resources” to task staff with managing fields, and says the county has done some work with its Sports Commission to encourage better communication with sports leagues to determine who needs certain fields and when.
And Schwartz pointed out in his statement that the county is currently reviewing its processes on both those fronts.
“We do not have it figured out yet — but we are doing better maintenance, better scheduling, and creating more opportunities for the fields to be available for casual use when not scheduled,” Schwartz wrote.
What happens next?
Fundamentally, Haynes believes that the county has been responsive to all of the concerns Rousselot and others have raised.
And she doesn’t want the concerns of a few critics derail the passage of a plan that’s been years in the making, particularly when many others support it. A petition backed by the Arlington Sports Foundation supporting the plan now has nearly 1,300 signatories.
“What we’ve heard is a very small group of people who have been very vocal about it,” Haynes said. “There is so much good stuff in here, but we’ve really gotten sidetracked on just a few issues.”
But Rousselot and his allies believe they’ve convinced enough people around the county of their point of view that they are more than just lone voices in the wilderness.
Most notably, the Arlington Civic Federation, one of the county’s oldest and most revered civic organizations, threw its support behind their efforts. Rousselot and other critics presented their case at one of the group’s meetings, and after some follow-up study of the plan, the federation’s members voted 66-17-3 to issue a resolution broadly echoing Rousselot’s critiques of the plan.
Specifically, the group urged the county to strip those level of service recommendations from the plan, arguing that “available data appears to demonstrate that the LOS for athletic fields has been significantly overstated.”
“The fact that they have come out so overwhelmingly in favor of this makes it pretty hard for people trying to argue that it’s four or five malcontents raising these issues,” Rousselot said.
Rousselot credited the group’s intervention for spurring some changes to the plan, and even Haynes would agree that staff and her committee has been able to make some tweaks to the document in recent weeks.
Specifically, she said they’ve sought to stress that “this is a high level planning document, it’s not proscriptive,” particularly when it comes to how closely the county should follow its recommendations about how many fields it needs to build. As Rousselot puts it, the revised plan “softens the Moses tablet-like” quality of those recommendations, making it a bit less likely that officials hew quite so closely to those numbers in the future.
Still, the document’s critics would rather see the population-based level of service recommendations removed entirely before the plan is passed, but that looks increasingly unlikely.
Then-County Board Chair Katie Cristol wrote an October letter to Klaus and Rousselot saying that four of the Board’s five members supported leaving that section of the plan in place. She said Board members felt the metric was “the more appropriate one for our community, where different stakeholders have widely divergent assumptions about future [field] utilization.”
The lone Board member to support revisions to that part of the plan was John Vihstadt, Cristol wrote, but the independent lost his seat to Democrat Matt de Ferranti last fall.
Accordingly, it would seem the current plan has enough support to pass in its current form sometime this spring. The Planning Commission voted last night (Wednesday) to recommend that the County Board advertise public hearings on the plan at its meeting Saturday — that would set the stage for a final vote on the plan in April.
With the process nearing its conclusion, Rousselot is encouraged that Parks for Everyone achieved some of its goals. But he’s still holding out hope that leaders will just go a few steps further in tweaking the plan’s prescriptions.
“Assuming the Board adopts at least some of the changes we recommended, then we’ll be better off than we would’ve been if we hadn’t raised the issue,” Rousselot said. “How much better off will depend on what happens next.”
Photo via Arlington County