Morning Notes

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

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

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

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

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

Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf

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Metro Suspends Track Work During Cherry Blossom Season, Some Single Tracking at Night

Metro will be suspending all daytime track work during the region’s Cherry Blossom season, however night work is still scheduled to impact Arlington.

Some track work will continue after 10 p.m., as the agency continues scheduled maintenance and capital improvement projects. Crews will be installing radio cables on the Yellow and Blue lines during Cherry Blossom season this year, causing single tracking in Arlington during the following times:

  • March 22-24 on the Yellow Line between Pentagon City and L’Enfant Plaza, and on the Blue Line between Pentagon City and Arlington Cemetery
  • March 25-29 on the Yellow Line between L’Enfant Plaza and Pentagon City
  • April 1-5 on the Yellow Line between L’Enfant Plaza and Pentagon City
  • April 7 on the Yellow Line between L’Enfant and Pentagon City

The transit agency says it will beef up service during the festival. Between Saturday, March 23 to Sunday, April 14, Metro lines will operate on the following schedule according to the announcement:

  • Trains will arrive at downtown D.C. stations every 4-7 minutes
  • Red Line trains could run every 6 minutes until 9:30 p.m.
  • All other Saturday trains running every 12 minutes
  • All other Sunday trains every 15 minutes

The Cherry Blossom Festival attracted 1.5 million visitors to the greater Washington region last year and netted $160 million in local revenue, reported the Washington Business Journal.

Visitors flocking to Cherry Blossom blooms are add trips aiding Metro’s flagging ridership which is now the lowest it’s been in 19 years. Historically, the petal-peepers provide some of Metro’s busiest days with little-used stations like Arlington Cemetery seeing 60-percent trip increases, according to the Metro’s now-defunct planning blog.

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

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

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

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

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

“Better service helps us all,” said Dorsey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Morning Notes

Free Amazon Mugs at Northside Social — Amazon is partnering with Northside Social to give out free branded to-go tumblers this morning. [Instagram]

Kojo Explores the Amazon Effect — “We’ll look back on Seattle’s history with Amazon and discuss how our local governments can navigate their relationship with the company. Plus, we’ll hear from a policy researcher on how the DMV’s housing market will shift over the next two decades as Amazon gets settled in the region.” [Kojo Nnamdi Show]

Amazon’s Tech Effect — “Within the [D.C.] area’s tech industry – the sector likely to be most affected by the [Amazon] news – leaders are either keeping mum about their reaction or publicly expressing excitement. But behind the scenes, experts say, there is a fair amount of apprehension.” [U.S. News]

Metro to Subsidize Late Night Uber Rides? — “With Metro hours due to remain limited for the foreseeable future, Metro plans to pay cabs or a company like Uber or Lyft $1 million to slightly discount trips for certain people rather than provide alternative bus or other service.” [WTOP, WMATA]

737 Max Grounded at DCA — “For people flying in and out of the Reagan National Airport, Wednesday’s grounding of all 737 MAX 8 and MAX 9 jets brought mixed reactions. Some flights were cancelled. Others were already in the air when the emergency order came down, and were grounded the moment they touched down.” [WJLA, NBC 4]

‘Poo’ at Wakefield High School — Arlington Public Schools has been slow to fix a direction sign at Wakefield High School that is missing the “L” in “pool.” [Sun Gazette]

Photo courtesy Dennis Dimick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

File photo

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Digital Screens Displaying Local Artwork Set to be Installed at Five Arlington Metro Stations

Arlington Metro riders might soon notice some digital screens displaying local artwork popping up at five stations sometime this spring.

WMATA plans to install the new screens at a dozen stations across the Metro system over the coming weeks, including several stops in Arlington itself: Crystal City, Ballston, Pentagon City, National Airport and Rosslyn.

The screens are part of Metro’s “Art in Transit Program,” which seeks to “work with cultural organizations and stakeholders to integrate art content into the new digital displays,” according a report by county staff. The County Board is set to approve an agreement this weekend that would allow Arlington Cultural Affairs to submit content to be displayed on the screens.

“Through this collaboration, WMATA is seeking to create a dynamic transit experience that increases community awareness and pride, and provides customers and the public with additional access to vibrant art produced by partnering organizations,” staff wrote in the report.

Other groups contributing artwork include the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the NOMA and Golden Triangle business improvement districts.

Arlington’s artwork is set to appear on the screens for “20 seconds at least every six minutes for a period of at least 28 days,” according to the report.

The Board is set to sign off on the project at its meeting Saturday (March 16), but riders should start noticing the screens as soon as this week. WMATA is scheduled to install the Crystal City screen from March 11-15, then bring the screens to the other Arlington stations sometime between April 29 through May 3.

This wouldn’t be the first public art project bound for the Ballston station, in particular — the station is set for a colorful, LED-light makeover sometime within the next few years.

File photo

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County Plans Incremental Transportation Projects Alongside Major Efforts to Prepare for Amazon

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With Amazon hoping to open a headquarters in Arlington, Crystal City’s transportation network can’t seem to stay out of the spotlight.

Major redevelopment is coming whether or not local resistance turns the e-commerce giant away, but the attention-grabbing headlines and all-at-once infrastructure proposals don’t reveal how mobility investment is a gradual process – or how Crystal City has been steadily improving its transportation infrastructure since long before the HQ2 contest even began.

Crystal City has long been slated for some major transportation investments: Long Bridge reconstruction could enable MARC to bring commuters straight from Maryland to Crystal City and let people bicycle straight to L’Enfant Plaza. A new Metro entrance would make it much easier to connect to bus service. A remodeled VRE commuter rail station would enable larger and more trains, Metroway expansion will strengthen ties with Pentagon City and Alexandria, and a pedestrian bridge to the airport would take advantage of the fact that DCA is three times closer to Crystal City than any other airport in America is to its downtown.

These projects are big: big visibility, big impacts, big cost. They have all been in the pipeline for years, and Amazon is bringing them renewed attention and new dollars.

However, these major investments aren’t the only projects that will update Crystal City’s decades-old transportation infrastructure. Just as important as these headline-making proposals are the more incremental projects that, block by block, are making Crystal City an easier place to get around — and, just like their larger counterparts, these smaller projects have been given some extra weight by HQ2.

Old Visions, New Funding

One document has guided much of Crystal City’s development for the past decade: the Sector Plan. The Crystal City Sector Plan made many suggestions for possible improvements. Not all of them have yet come to fruition, but many have, and the plan continues to drive Arlington’s conversation about Crystal City.

That conversation has recently become a little more ambitious. Amazon’s HQ2 announcement brings not only attention, speculation and more than a little resistance — it will also bring very definite funding. Arlington and Alexandria, combined, “have secured more than $570 million in transportation funding” while the commonwealth of Virginia has committed to $195 million for the same.

This new funding flows mostly toward old designs, all of them focused on alternatives to the car. Arlington’s Incentive Proposal discusses 10 transportation “example projects.”  Five of them fall within Crystal City itself, of which all but one follow ideas that originated in the Sector Plan (the remaining project, VRE station expansion, isn’t new either).

Moving Block by Block

Most of Crystal City’s streets were built in the 1950s and 1960s, and followed the “modernist” school of city planning.

They separated pedestrians from cars as much as possible, often putting pedestrians in bridges or tunnels; located stores in malls rather than on sidewalks; and spaced out intersections widely so that cars could accelerate to highway speeds. The Sector Plan calls to convert these into “Complete Streets” that will “accommodate the transportation needs of all surface transportation users, motorists, transit riders, bicyclists, and pedestrians.”  

It can be easy to think of transportation investments as one-off projects. The CC2DCA pedestrian bridge to the airport, for example, is an all-or-nothing endeavor. Half of a bridge wouldn’t be very useful for anybody.

Because of its focus on the street level, the Sector Plan calls for gradual change. It endorses street transformation projects that can be completed incrementally — block by block, street by street, improving the area’s transportation network over time. It seeks “to balance any proposed investments in transportation infrastructure with improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of the existing network, so that the maximum benefit can be delivered at the lowest cost.”  

This approach pairs well with Crystal City’s desirability for land developers. Most significant developments in Arlington are governed by the site plan process, through which the county negotiates with developers for community benefits — which might include a street renovation. Robert Mandle, chief operating officer of the Crystal City Business Improvement District, explained that “as a redevelopment plan, many [Sector Plan] improvements were anticipated as occurring in conjunction with opportunities presented from redevelopment.”

For example, the Crystal Houses III residential project includes a 0.7-acre public park paid for by the developer as well as improvements to the surrounding sidewalks that will enhance pedestrian mobility.

Another example of incremental transportation investment is the conversion of Crystal Drive to a two-way street for its entire length. The process began in 2004, funded at first by a private developer, but since 2013 all work has been county-funded. It began its third and final phase of construction on Feb. 22 and is expected to be finished by December. No streets will be closed.

Mandle, of the Business Improvement District, speaks highly of the project: “improving the pedestrian streetscape and the public realm has been a key priority for all of the two-way projects, including new street trees, wider sidewalks, and bicycle infrastructure… [the projects] enabled the creation of a strong retail main street, a key amenity for attracting businesses to the area.”

Mark Schnaufer, capital projects manager for Arlington County’s transportation division, adds that the two-way project “has helped create a grid system where people have multiple options for traveling around Crystal City, providing direct access from any direction.”

Another incremental street project, also under Schnaufer’s lead, is the block-by-block creation of Clark-Bell Street. Clark-Bell will run between Route 1 and Crystal Drive, parallel to them, and help create a more mobility-friendly environment by breaking up large blocks and providing an alternate north-south path.

Because county-led projects are gradual, they’re not likely to get swept up in the excitement of sudden news. Schnaufer emphasizes that the street improvement projects “are progressing as they did before Amazon’s decision.”

However, developer-led projects like Crystal Houses III follow the private sector’s schedule — and Amazon might kick that up a gear.

Route 1: An “Urban Boulevard”?

For many Arlingtonians, the archetypal image of Crystal City is of angular brown office buildings blurring past from a driver’s seat on Route 1.

The road is legally called Jefferson Davis Highway, which Arlington can’t change because it’s under VDOT authority, and it is the central spine that reaches from Pentagon City to Alexandria. At the moment, though, this road does as much to sever as it does to connect — and the most ambitious, most important project in the Sector Plan is an attempt to change that.

Specifically, the Sector Plans calls to “[m]aintain the capacity of the current Jefferson Davis Highway while enhancing its physical environment into an urban boulevard, and direct traffic primarily to arterial streets to minimize adverse impacts of cut through traffic into surrounding neighborhoods.”

So, what does “urban boulevard” mean?  It means wide, comfortable, welcoming sidewalks, bicycle and e-scooter accessibility, tearing down overpasses and designing buildings that form a natural, coherent enclosure to the street. It doesn’t mean slowing down cars — Connecticut Avenue in Northwest D.C., for example, carries similar volumes of traffic in a setting that is much for pleasant for pedestrians and bicyclists.

One major advantage of a more urban Route 1 is in the development that it will enable. By cutting off access ramps and frontage streets, and by potentially narrowing lanes, the reconstruction of this boulevard will actually free up substantial amounts of land along the sides of the street.

The Sector Plan dedicates much of this space to new development. New development brings many potential benefits — a more practical, mixed-use environment, new residential structures (perhaps for Amazon employees), and, by pressing closer to the street, a more coherent, urban atmosphere.

Another advantage will be closer connections to Pentagon City.  Mandle hopes that an improved Route 1 will “better unify the Crystal City and Pentagon City neighborhoods into a singular downtown area.”

Two intersections will be centerpieces of any attempt to change Route 1. First, in the north, the elevated crossing of 15th Street S. defines an automobile-oriented connection between Crystal City and Pentagon City. The Sector Plan calls for the overpass to be demolished and for the streets to intersect directly.

According to Schnaufer, this project could soon be taken up by VDOT as part of the agreement between Amazon and the commonwealth of Virginia, although specifics are still unclear.

Second, in the south, Route 1 meets the Airport Access Road. As it stands, the intersection is all but impossible to cross on foot.

The crown jewel of the Sector Plan is a proposal to convert that intersection and its looming overpass into a beautiful, green circle with Route 1 through traffic diverted into an underpass — just like, for example, Dupont Circle in DC. This proposal, dubbed ‘National Circle’, has never left the drawing board, and there does not seem to have been any new planning or design work done since the Sector Plan was published.

Crystal City in the 21st Century

Amazon chose Crystal City for HQ2 in large part because of the transportation that’s already there. Between 2001 and 2014, because of federal employment changes, Crystal City lost about as many jobs as Amazon will bring, leaving the area with empty Metro seats and a surfeit of parking. “As a result,” says the county, “there is tremendous capacity on existing transit services to carry many more people than we do today.”

Furthermore, Amazon itself is prepared to implement ‘transportation demand management‘ strategies, like transit commuter benefits. These strategies, in which Arlington is considered a national leader, help reduce the car commuting that clogs our streets with vehicles and our air with exhaust.

For Schnaufer, of Arlington County Transportation, this is a story about Arlington as a whole just as much as it is about Crystal City.  

“Arlington County is known as a leader, in Virginia and across the country, for how we design transportation infrastructure projects,” he said. “Both the quality of our existing street infrastructure and the County’s plans for future improvements help attract companies like Amazon to Arlington.”

Mandle agrees, saying that “Arlington’s commitment to both incremental and larger infrastructure projects, even prior to the Amazon deal, illustrates an awareness that these infrastructure improvements were critical to enhancing the area’s economic competitiveness and long-term growth.”

Ultimately, the Sector Plan’s goals for National Circle and its other high ambitions for a gradually-improving Crystal City will remain guideposts for the area long after Amazon’s arrival.

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In a Bid to Meet School and Metro Expenses, County Board Proposes Larger Tax Increase for New Budget

Growing expenses from the county school system and Metro have convinced Arlington officials to propose a substantial tax increase for the new year’s budget, with leaders advancing a tax hike that’s even larger than the one initially proposed by County Manager Mark Schwartz.

The County Board voted 4-1 to advertise a 2.75-cent bump to the county’s real estate tax rate at its meeting Saturday, nearly double the 1.5-cent increase included in Schwartz’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020. Board member Katie Cristol cast the lone dissenting vote.

That change would raise the real estate rate to $1.0205 per $100 of assessed value, generating about $21.4 million for the county in all. The average homeowner would pay an extra $360 or so if the rate goes into effect, though most other county tax rates will remain unchanged.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that the Board will end up approving that exact tax bump — the advertised rate merely represents the upper limit of the rate officials can ultimately approve by the time the budget process ends in April, and they can always bring the rate back down if they so choose.

Most Board members said Saturday that they hope to eventually to do just that, but with the exact size of the budget challenges that the county will face still uncertain, leaders opted to post the higher rate to afford themselves some extra flexibility this spring.

“I don’t want to be in the position of erring because of a box we set ourselves in early,” said County Board Chair Christian Dorsey. “I’m comfortable having that [higher rate] to allow us the proper flexibility to make sure that, at the end of this budget season, we don’t end up with regrets.”

The Board was bracing for Schwartz himself to propose a similarly sizable tax hike in his first draft of the budget, given his warnings this fall that the county would need to close a budget gap of anywhere between $20 million to $35 million, without taking the schools’ needs into account.

But a larger-than-expected rise in property values filled up county coffers a bit, prompting Schwartz to propose the 1.5 cent tax increase and $5.2 million in cuts to balance the budget. Yet Schwartz also cautioned that he had no way of knowing quite yet just how much money the school system or Metro will ultimately need, convincing officials of the need for some extra wiggle room.

The extra quarter of a cent on the tax rate above Schwartz’s proposal would be set aside for Metro’s needs, a move championed by Dorsey, who also serves on WMATA’s Board of Directors. The transit system will set its new budget next month, and there’s no telling just how much cash that could demand from localities like Arlington — General Manager Paul Wiedefeld is proposing major service increases designed to increase ridership, but county officials have thrown cold water on some of those proposals.

As for the school system, Superintendent Pat Murphy will present his opening budget proposal to the School Board later this week, but he’s previously estimated that a flood of new students (and the opening of new schools to accommodate them) could put Arlington Public Schools in a budget hole of as much as $43 million.

Accordingly, Board members hoped to add an extra penny to the tax rate beyond Schwartz’s proposal, generating an extra $7.8 million to dedicate specifically to schools.

Board member Erik Gutshall says school leaders have been especially keen on a larger tax increase recently, particularly after the Board decided to hold the tax rate flat last year. Many around the school system felt that the Board promised them that they’d work to address school needs this year instead, and they’re looking to see officials deliver on that pledge.

Josh Folb, a leader of the Arlington Education Association, even argued that a 3-cent tax increase would be the most appropriate step for the Board to take.

“Without that flexibility, the Board will not be able to negotiate in good faith with the schools when they present their budget of needs in the coming days,” Folb said.

Board Vice Chair Libby Garvey, a former School Board member herself, said she’d have favored advertising the full 3-cent increase, but acknowledged she wouldn’t have the votes with her to make that happen.

Indeed, Cristol argued instead for the Board to advertise a 2-cent tax hike. She pointed out that the Board managed to find some extra money for both schools and Metro without raising taxes in last year’s budget, and worried that even advertising the 2.75-cent tax hike would send a poor message to local homeowners.

“Raising it any further undermines our commitment, or way of framing, we have taken to this community, this idea we’ve had softness in the office market and we were committed to doing everything we needed to do to raise that, rather than just balance the cost of our increasing needs on the backs of our residential taxpayers,” said Cristol, who’s up for re-election this fall. “I think that’s really penetrated and allowed us to have much a healthier conversation with most quarters of our community about Amazon’s arrival and why it’s necessary.”

But Cristol was the only Board member to support that proposal, with others arguing that last year’s budget cuts were painful enough that leaders aren’t eager to repeat that process this time around.

“If there’s fat to be found [in the budget], we’ve crossed that bridge already,” Gutshall said. “Last year, we hopefully didn’t cut to bone, but we came very, very close in some particular areas.”

As part of his proposal, Schwartz included an extra $3.4 million in potential cuts that the Board could consider if it doesn’t want to raise taxes at all. Those changes would affect another 19 county staffers, and involve changes like the elimination of library services at the Crystal City Connection and Glencarlyn Library, reductions in county transportation and human services staffing and cuts to some police department programs.

But Schwartz pointedly did not endorse those changes, urging the Board to opt for the tax hikes instead.

The Board will now hold a series of work sessions and public hearings on the budget and tax rates, with a final vote on the new spending plan set for April 23.

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County Manager Pitches Tax Hike to Meet School Needs, But Otherwise Avoids Many Cuts in New Budget

Arlington’s top executive is calling for a real estate tax hike and some select staff cuts to meet rising expenses passed along by county schools.

However, County Manager Mark Schwartz’s proposed budget for the new fiscal year is not quite as unpalatable as he’d initially feared.

Schwartz offered a first glimpse at his budget proposal for fiscal year 2020 to the County Board at a work session today (Thursday). The headline number: a 1.5-cent tax increase.

Unlike last year, when the Board opted to keep the tax rate level, Schwartz is envisioning bumping the base real estate rate to $1.008 per $100 of assessed value.

That’s a 4 percent jump from last year, factoring in the increase in real estate assessments, generating an extra $11.7 million for the county on an annual basis and costing the average homeowner an extra $277 annually. Schwartz plans to leave most other tax rates and fee schedules untouched.

In all, the annual tax burden on the average homeowner would reach $8,890, including car taxes and fees, trash collection charges, and water and sewer fees.

Neighboring Fairfax County, meanwhile, is considering holding its tax rate level at $1.15 per $100, while Alexandria’s rate is also likely to be held steady at $1.13.

Schwartz hopes to save $5.2 million by slashing a total of 29 full-time staff positions and one part-time role from the budget. Eleven of those positions are currently unfilled, and Schwartz is characterizing those cuts as ways to reform inefficient programs rather than as painful losses for the county.

The county manager had originally projected doom and gloom for the new year’s budget, predicting that the county would need to close a gap of anywhere between $20-35 million on its own, with the school system tacking on a $43 million deficit too. But Schwartz told reporters today that the county’s budget picture has improved substantially since those initial estimates in the fall, giving him a bit more room to maneuver.

“This budget been a little bit more of a meandering trail than a straight line,” Schwartz said. “I thought I’d be coming to the community proposing a budget with reductions to fundamental services in the county. We’d be doing less maintenance, we’d have fewer programs. That’s not really the case.”

Schwartz chalks up the sudden change partially to property values ticking up a bit more than the county anticipated — assessments saw a 3.5 percent increase this year, while Schwartz says the county projected a 2 percent jump.

That’s not to say that the county is out of the woods, fiscally speaking.

Schwartz says he’s still not sure just how large the school system’s budget gap might be, and the extra $24.8 million he plans to send to Arlington Public Schools next year still likely won’t be enough to meet all their needs. APS is opening three new schools next year, prompting plenty of new expenses, and persistently rising enrollment projections means that the school system will need to keep adding new buildings going forward.

“They still have something of a gap that will require cuts,” Schwartz said. “I can’t really quantify what those cuts would be, but I’m sure we’ll hear from the schools community and the School Board when the [County Board] has to decide what to advertise that my penny [on the tax rate] for them wasn’t enough.”

That tone toward the school system could set off yet another round of wrangling between the county and the School Board, which has repeatedly argued for more cash to fund school construction. School leaders narrowly avoided class size increases last year, but the Board is already warning that they may not be able to do so this time around.

Another potential spot of trouble for the county is Metro. Schwartz plans to spend an additional $45.6 million to support the transit service in FY2020, with only a 3 percent increase in expenses to fund Metro operations specifically. That’s a key figure because the deal to provide dedicated funding to Metro mandates that Virginia localities can’t increase spending on the transit service by more than 3 percent each year, but WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld is courting a bit of a dispute on the issue.

He’s proposing a Metro budget that calls for substantial changes aimed at boosting ridership, which would require localities to blow past that 3 percent spending cap. Wiedefeld argues that he’s crafted a way to avoid violating that stricture — Arlington officials disagree, and Schwartz said he had no desire to push the envelope on this front.

“We had a deal, this is the deal and to the extent that there’s more [money] that has to be added, we can talk about it,” Schwartz said. “But I wasn’t prepared to make the choices on my own right now to defund a county program in order to do something I think might be questionable.”

Aside from Metro, the rest of the budget includes raises of 3.25-3.5 percent for all county employees, including pay bumps of up to 5.5 percent for Arlington first responders, a key part of last year’s budget deliberations.

Schwartz also hopes to add four new staff positions geared around adapting to Amazon’s growing “HQ2” presence, assuming the Board signs off on an incentive package next month to bring the tech giant’s new headquarters to Crystal City and Pentagon City.

Most of those staffers will be dedicated to handling the surge in development activity the county is expecting to see related to Amazon’s arrival, even though the tech company itself will only have limited development demands. For instance, Schwartz pointed out that the county is planning on receiving three times as many applications for site-plan developments as they do in the average year, a clear sign of interest in major mixed-use development.

“There’s a whole bunch of other plans I’m assuming people have had on their shelves that they want to dust off, based on what they perceive as new economic circumstances,” Schwartz said. “And that’s a lot of what they’ll be be available to address.”

Schwartz is projecting that the fees attached to those extra development applications will generate an extra $1 million or so each year. He’s leaving that money untouched in his budget projections, giving the Board the full discretion to spend it “to address any other impacts from Amazon that they think are appropriate.”

Given expected new rent pressure from Amazon’s planned 25,000 local employees, Schwartz is also putting an emphasis on new money for affordable housing.

He hopes to send an extra $500,000 to the county’s housing grants program, which hands out cash to low-income and disabled renters to help them afford homes in the county. Schwartz is also planning another $200,000 for the Affordable Housing Investment Fund, a loan program designed to help spur the construction of reasonably priced homes in the county.

He also wants to make more of the cash the county sends to that fund each year “ongoing,” instead of being subject to yearly appropriations from the Board. Under the budget proposal, $8.7 million of the $14.5 million AHIF contribution would stay in the county’s budget going forward — an increase of about $1.5 million in ongoing cash.

That’s a change desired by several Board members, and Schwartz added that he also hopes to move away from the Board’s tradition of using leftover “closeout” funds at the end of each budget year to fund the program.

“That’s not a sustainable way of doing it, so year over year, we’re chipping away at it,” Schwartz said. “I’m not saying we’ve solved the affordable housing issue, but we’re doing more than we’ve ever done before, and we need to do more than that.”

The Board will now vote Saturday (Feb. 23) on an “advertised” tax rate — that will then become the highest rate the Board could ultimately set, though it could opt for a lower tax rate.

Schwartz says he has prepared options for the Board should they opt not to raise the tax rate, but he expects the cuts that would entail would not be palatable to Board members.

Final budget adoption is scheduled for April 23.

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Ballston’s Metro Station Set to Become Home to Colorful, Motion-Activated Public Art Project

Ballston’s Metro station could soon see a colorful, motion-activated, LED light display as part of a new public art project.

Dubbed “Intersections,” the project is being backed by the Ballston Business Improvement District and is still many months away from completion.

But the BID is picking up steam on the effort, according to documents prepared for the County Board, and it’s designed to “create a dynamic, ever-changing feature that will turn an ordinary subway entrance into a place of surprise, wonder and delight.”

The BID is teaming up with a Dutch “design/art collective” to create the art installation, which will consist of spotlights projecting a variety of different colors onto the canopy stretching over the Metro station’s entrance.

The lights will also come equipped with a “a grid of sensors” to “pick up the activity of the people moving in and out of the Ballston station, making the pedestrians active participants in the work,” according to a description of “Intersections” on the BID’s website.

“Pedestrians have a direct influence, in that their presence under the canopy will effect the spawning of lines that travel over the canopy,” the design team wrote about the project, according to a county staff report. “Where these animated lines intersect one another, they will give life to ‘autonomous artifacts of light.’ Once these artifacts pass a threshold, they will form the basis of a more involved visual effect. Afterwards, the installation will reset to its initial state.”

The BID is funding the project with the help of a collection of Ballston businesses, and it’s one in a series of public art installations the group has commissioned over the years.

In a report to be reviewed by the Board at its meeting Saturday (Feb. 23), the BID says it has yet to receive Metro’s approval for the project, but it expects to win WMATA’s sign-off soon. Once that’s done, it’ll take about 15 months to fully design and construct the installation, likely to be completed sometime in fiscal year 2021.

The BID described these changes as part of its annual funding request to the Board. The business group is funded by a property tax in Ballston, and the BID is asking the Board to hold the tax rate steady this year to maintain its existing operations.

Board members agreed to a small rate hike last year to account for a dip in property values in the area, and the BID argues that it still needs the extra cash. The Board will begin its full round of budget deliberations in earnest Saturday, in what could be a challenging year.

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Morning Notes

Dorsey: Safety Over Late Night Hours — “Metro Boardmember and Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey… says Metro’s first responsibility is not to run as much service as possible, but to keep the service that is being run as safe as possible. He supports more maintenance.” Meanwhile, Metro is considering a plan to subsidize late night Uber and Lyft service. [Twitter, Washington Post]

Arlington Redistricting on Kojo Show — The always-controversial redrawing of school boundaries in Arlington was the topic of a recent discussion on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, featuring APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy and community leaders. [Kojo Nnamdi Show, Twitter]

Zoning, Permitting Offices Closing Tomorrow — “Arlington’s planning and DES permitting offices are running away for a long romantic Valentine’s weekend. When they return [on Tuesday], they will live as one exclusively on the tenth floor of 2100 Clarendon Blvd.” [Arlington County, Twitter]

Snow Threats Coming This Weekend, Next Week — “In the past day, computer models have begun advertising the potential for a snow event on Saturday. And it may mark the start of a series of winter storms that streak across the Washington region.” [Washington Post]

Check Out ARLnow’s Instagram — ARLnow’s Insta currently features photography from around our fair county. Coming soon: more photos, plus contests and other exclusives. [Instagram]

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BREAKING: Person Struck by Train at Courthouse Metro Station

(Updated at 7:50 p.m.) A person has been struck by a train at the Courthouse Metro station.

Firefighters are on the scene and have entered the trackbed, after power was shut off to the third rail.

The person appears to have intentionally jumped in front of train, according to Metro Transit Police, and was reportedly found deceased by firefighters.

Trains are now single-tracking on the Orange, Silver and Blue lines as a result of the incident. The station is temporarily closed to passengers.

Photo courtesy @SteveBoyntonVT

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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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Lawmakers Revive Push to Raise Taxes for Metro Funding, A Key Priority for Arlington Officials

A pair of state lawmakers are pushing to revive a proposal to raise some Northern Virginia tax rates to fund Metro, a key priority of Arlington and other localities around the region feeling a budget squeeze.

A bill now backed by Del. Vivian Watts (D-39th District) and Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49th District) would bump up taxes slightly on real estate transactions and hotel stays in the jurisdictions that benefit from Metro service. The legislation is broadly similar to Gov. Ralph Northam’s push to raise those rates last year, as lawmakers squabbled over the best way to find a dedicated funding stream for the troubled transit service.

That effort failed, even as state lawmakers did agree on a bill to send $154 million to WMATA annually, as part of a first-of-its-kind, three-way deal with Maryland and D.C. to send dedicated money to Metro each year. Republicans, led by Del. Tim Hugo (R-40th District), insisted on pulling cash away from other sources instead of raising taxes to pay for the deal.

Primarily, that change redirected funds from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, a regional body that hands out sales tax money to help localities fund major transportation projects. Arlington officials, in particular, were irked to see the group lose cash, as many were counting on the NVTA to help the county fund major transportation projects while Arlington’s own budget picture grew a bit grimmer.

One of the main projects the county was hoping to fund with NVTA money — a second entrance at the Crystal City Metro station — is now set to receive millions in state funds, thanks largely to its inclusion in the deal to bring Amazon to the area.

But Arlington officials have also had to push out plans to build new entrances at the Ballston and East Falls Church Metro stations, in part due to the NVTA’s money problems. The County Board included a request for just this change as part of its legislative wish list for the new General Assembly session, and local Democrats have broadly been receptive to renewing this fight in the months since Northam’s effort failed.

The governor himself previously told ARLnow that he’d seek to bring back the tax increases to restore money for the NVTA — his spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this piece of legislation.

Should it pass, the bill would send about $30 million back into the NVTA’s coffers each year, according to documents prepared for the Commonwealth Transportation Board. However, the NVTA has estimated its annual funding losses due to the Metro deal as closer to $100 million each year.

“We appreciate Del. Watts’ efforts to restore funding to the NVTA,” Executive Director Monica Backmon told ARLnow via email. “We have not conducted a detailed analysis of the bill at this time. However, we anticipate discussing this bill and others at the Feb.14 authority meeting.”

A NVTA spokeswoman added that Watts’ bill is the only one introduced this session to restore the group’s funding via the tax increases.

But with Republicans still holding narrow majorities in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate, the bill could well face an uphill battle.

Notably, House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-66th District) assigned the legislation to the House’s Rules Committee, a group of powerful lawmakers. While other committees are balanced to reflect the partisan makeup of the House, the Rules Committee is dominated by Republicans on an 11-6 margin, leading many Democrats to accuse Cox of sending bills to the committee to expedite their failures.

The group is also unique among House committees in that it can send bills directly to the floor for a vote, rather than casting a ballot on whether or not to advance the legislation. That allows Cox to force a vote from the full House on a bill, should he choose to do so.

The committee has yet to schedule a hearing on the bill, however.

File photo

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