Four community improvement projects are on this weekend’s Arlington County Board agenda.
The Board is expected to approve the $3 million slate of projects as part of its Neighborhood Conservation program. The somewhat controversial program, previously on the budgetary chopping block, awards funding to modest infrastructure improvement projects requested by local community groups.
The projects set for funding this fall include:
- Street improvements in the Glencarlyn neighborhood along 4th Street S., from Kensington to Illinois streets ($1.3 million)
- Pedestrian safety and intersection improvements in the Dominion Hills neighborhood at N. Larrimore Street and 9th Street N. ($1.2 million)
- Intersection improvements in the Highland Park-Overlee Knolls neighborhood at 14th Street N. and N. Ohio Street ($0.5 million)
- Landscaping and beautification in the Old Dominion neighborhood at 24th Street N. and Old Dominion Drive ($28,125)
Photo via Google Maps
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Flickr pool photo by Tom Mockler
A new group set to study potential reforms for the county’s “Neighborhood Conservation” program will soon start its work, with the broad goal of evaluating the program’s efficacy after it endured some deep cuts this year.
The county is now recruiting members for a working group on the subject, after staff sketched out their plans for the new committee to the County Board last Tuesday (Sept. 25).
The program, which lets communities lobby for money to complete modest improvement projects like new sidewalks or landscaping, has earned its fair share of critics over the years. Projects funded through the program have often been plagued by cost overruns, and the pace of its evaluation process has slowed dramatically, leading to some calls to end the program in its entirety.
The Board even slashed $23 million from its budget when setting a new Capital Improvement Plan in July, in order to cope with an increasingly challenging budget picture. The program’s supporters argued that amounted to effectively killing Neighborhood Conservation by starving it of funding.
But, in a concession to its backers, the Board also agreed to a year-long study of how the program is working to see how it might be reformed or otherwise reconstituted.
A draft charge for the working group presented to the Board calls for it to examine a variety of questions, with one more important than most: “are the goals and objectives of the NC program still valid in today’s environment, and are they being achieved?”
County Manager Mark Schwartz is planning on appointing one community member and a staffer from the county’s planning department to co-chair the group. Then, the rest of the group will include members from the following:
- Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Committees
- Parks and Recreation Commission
- Transportation Commission
- Neighborhood Complete Streets Commission
- Environment and Energy Conservation Commission
- Civic Federation
- Planning Commission
- Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development, Neighborhood Conservation team
- Department of Environmental Services, engineering bureau
- Department of Parks and Recreation, park development team
The group will also include two “at-large” members from the community.
The new group’s charge also calls for it to examine the cause of “unanticipated cost increases” for Neighborhood Conservation projects, which are often triggered by “unforeseen needs to address failing infrastructure incidental to the scope and implementation” of the projects.
The committee is also set to study whether the program’s funding is distributed “equitably” to projects around the county. A frequent criticism leveled at the program is that wealthier, older communities tended to benefit the most, as the process of lobbying for a project’s inclusion in the program could be quite time consuming, and most accessible to people already highly involved in civic life.
“Some parts of the county are way more involved and they communicate a lot more readily than others,” Board member Libby Garvey said. “There are a lot of voices we don’t hear, and they might live in communities that have a real need, but we don’t hear from them for a variety of reasons.”
That’s why county planner Anthony Fusarelli assured the Board that “we want to make sure the perspectives brought to bear in this effort are diverse and capture those viewpoints.”
Fusarelli added that the group will likely begin meeting by December, with plans to deliver a final report to the Board in the fall or winter of 2019.
As for projects already in the queue for Neighborhood Conservation funding, Schwartz says the county fully plans to move ahead in working on those in the meantime.
“We’ll reassess that, probably about a year from now, to see if adjustments need to be made,” Schwartz said.
Work could soon get started on the once-controversial overhaul of Nelly Custis Park in the Aurora Highlands neighborhood.
The County Board is set to approve a $643,000 contract for construction at the park, located at 701 24th Street S., at its meeting this weekend. Changes will include some fixes to the park’s drainage problems, new plantings and fresh playground equipment.
The latter feature attracted the most community scrutiny two years ago, with a group dubbed the “Friends of Aurora Highlands Parks” doing battle with neighbors over the utility of adding more playground space to the park. Opponents argued the playground was unnecessary, as it was the third playground in just over one block, and took up green space at the small park, which is just under one acre in size.
The spat ultimately led to county officials issuing a public apology for their handling of the situation, and the county ultimately convened a neighborhood working group to refine the project’s scope.
The current construction plans call for “a play space designed for ages 5-12 in addition to non-structured casual space” and replacements for “outdated” playground equipment, per a staff report prepared for the Board. The project will be funded as part of the county’s “Neighborhood Conservation” program, a fund set aside for minor neighborhood infrastructure improvements that could see big cuts and other changes in the coming years.
So long as the Board approves the contract Saturday (Sept. 22), the county hopes to begin work on Nelly Custis Park before the year is out and wrap it up by summer 2019.
Though it comes with some painful cuts and delays a variety of anticipated projects, a 10-year, $3.4 billion construction spending plan won the County Board’s approval this weekend.
The Board unanimously signed off on a new Capital Improvement Plan, commonly known as the CIP, at its meeting Saturday (July 14), marking an end to its months-long work to wrestle with the county’s budget pressures and lay out a new blueprint for major construction projects through 2028.
Ultimately, Board members made relatively few changes to County Manager Mark Schwartz’s proposed CIP, but did manage to find an extra $1 million for the Neighborhood Conservation program.
That means the program, designed to fund local infrastructure projects like sidewalk improvements or new landscaping, will have $37 million to work with over the next decade instead of $36 million, even though community leaders still fear the $23 million funding cut will imperil Neighborhood Conservation’s future. The Board also formalized plans to study potential reforms to the program, in order to ensure its long-term survival.
By and large, however, the Board didn’t have much leeway to pump much additional money into the CIP, considering that the county remains constrained by challenging factors like a decrease in commercial tax revenues and an increase in the amount of cash it needs to send to Metro as part of a deal to provide the service with dedicated annual funding.
“It’s kind of a carrots and peas CIP, rather than a steak and asparagus CIP,” said Board member John Vihstadt. “It’s a realistic one for where we are at this point in time, given our economic circumstances and near-term challenges ahead.”
Board generally members struck an optimistic tone about the CIP Saturday, but there is little doubt that they’re already looking ahead anxiously to 2020, when the Board will revise the spending plan once more. By then, the county’s revenue picture could improve, or lawmakers in Richmond could answer Arlington’s pleas and tinker with the Metro funding deal to free up more money for Northern Virginia transportation projects.
“In two years, we’re either going to have a lot more money or we’re going to have a lot less,” said Board member Libby Garvey.
That’s why Board Vice Chair Christian Dorsey stressed that he looks at the CIP as “a two-year document and an eight-year math exercise.” He was particularly adamant that parents concerned about school funding shouldn’t view this spending plan with trepidation, even as debate simmers over how the school system builds new space for high schoolers at the Arlington Career Center.
The Board’s CIP includes $614 million to fund the school system’s own construction plan, and the county wasn’t able to find much in the way of additional money to fund some of the more ambitious construction plans the School Board considered. Yet Dorsey is broadly optimistic that this new, limited CIP is far from the end of Career Center discussions.
“When our needs become more clear in the coming years, whether it’s schools or county facilities as well, and we’re able to price them out more, we’ll figure out how to pay for it,” Dorsey said.
There are certainly plenty of other cuts in the CIP the Board hopes to someday revisit. For instance, the plan pushes out the construction of second entrances at the Ballston, Crystal City and East Falls Church Metro stations far into the future, and cuts funding for improvements on some of the county’s arterial roads.
The CIP also contains only limited funding for planning at the Buck and Carlin Springs Road properties, a pair of sites officials have long eyed as potential homes for new schools or county facilities someday.
Board members were also eager to reiterate their support for the Long Bridge Park aquatics center. The project isn’t funded as part of this CIP, yet the county’s strained financial picture has nonetheless convinced some in the community to agitate for the pool’s delay or cancellation, in favor of sending its funding elsewhere.
“To try to cancel the contract now is not reevaluating past decisions in light of new information,” said Board Chair Katie Cristol. “To cancel a contract that breaks ground in a week would be setting a toxic precedent.”
Vihstadt, the lone Board member to vote against a slimmed-down version of the project last fall, reiterated his belief Saturday that the project should be delayed. Yet he also signalled that he was willing to let the matter go, for now.
“We had a vote last December, I was in the minority, I acknowledge it and I accept it,” Vihstadt said. “But I have no doubt if this process were going forward today, or if there were a vote on this particular issue today by the voters of Arlington, it would fail.”
Amid concerns about deep cuts on the way for the Neighborhood Conservation program, the County Board is kicking off a new effort to identify some potential reforms.
The Board decided Tuesday (July 10) to direct County Manager Mark Schwartz to draw up a process for studying the program in more depth over the next two years or so, in order to better understand how it can become more efficient and see where it might overlap with other county efforts.
“By adopting this, we’re saying, no, we’re not looking for a slow, or any kind of, death [for the program],” said Board member Erik Gutshall. “But we’re taking a moment here to hit the reset button and double down on the program, to invest the time and staff resources to study remaking the program to meet its original goals.”
Neighborhood Conservation was formed in 1964 as a way for communities to lobby for money to complete modest infrastructure projects, like new sidewalks or landscaping, but Schwartz targeted it for hefty cuts in his proposed 10-year Capital Improvement Plan.
In all, the program is set to lose $24 million over the next decade, leaving $36 million in its coffers to finish out existing projects selected for funding between now and 2028. Some civic association leaders have charged that such a steep cut amounts to killing the program in its entirety.
Tuesday’s decision by the Board essentially represents a middle ground between those two positions. The county’s tight financial position means it likely won’t be able to avoid some steep cuts to the program, but Board members also believe they can pursue some changes to Neighborhood Conservation to ensure its long-term viability.
“Hopefully, this keeps faith with the communities, while at the same time acknowledging the reality that the program has had some challenges,” said Board member John Vihstadt.
Vihstadt hopes the review of the program will provide a “holistic, countywide perspective,” including whether the county might be better served by directing Neighborhood Conservation funding to its “Complete Streets” program instead.
Schwartz is set to establish a working group and lay out a timeline for a review process by Sept. 30, with the ultimate goal of having results in hand by the time the Board reviews its next CIP in 2020.
In the near term, Board Chair Katie Cristol suggested sending a smidge more money to the program as “a show of faith.” County staff managed to earn an unexpected $1 million in state funding for some construction at one of Arlington’s group homes for adults with disabilities, and Cristol suggested using the savings to fund one additional Neighborhood Conservation project.
Yet the Board has plenty of other pressing needs left unaddressed by a challenging CIP, and Cristol’s colleagues didn’t immediately sign off on such a change.
The Board is set to finalize the CIP when it reconvenes Saturday (July 14).
Supporters of Arlington’s Neighborhood Conservation program are warning county leaders that the steep budget cuts they’re contemplating could effectively kill it.
County Manager Mark Schwartz is proposing slashing $24 million from the program’s funding over the next 10 years as part of his new Capital Improvement Plan, dropping its coffers down to $36 million through 2028.
Neighborhood Conservation has long helped dole out money for modest community improvements, like new sidewalks or landscaping, yet the county’s grim budget picture convinced Schwartz to target it for some hefty cuts. That prompted several community activists and managers of the program to lobby the County Board to restore that funding at a public hearing last Wednesday (June 27).
“This is almost a death knell for Neighborhood Conservation,” said Bill Braswell, a former chair of the county’s Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Committee. “All the interest in it will dissipate, and it will take forever to get started again.”
County staff say that these proposed cuts would mean that projects already in line for funding will still move ahead, but any new applications from neighborhoods will go on the back burner. Accordingly, Phil Klingelhofer, deputy vice chair of the program’s advisory committee, believes that such a delay would mean that any “neighborhood with a recently proposed project should expect to wait 15 to 30 years for a project to come to the top for current funding.”
“If you decide to accept this… we recognize this is really the end of the program, and at that point, you should take the final step and end the program permanently,” Klingelhofer said.
For some in the community, that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. Some activists have started arguing that the program has outlived its usefulness, including columnist Peter Rousselot, who points out that it can already take five or 10 years for a project to move through the Neighborhood Conservation process.
County Board member John Vihstadt has similar concerns about the program’s efficacy, noting that those delays are often driven by “quality control or monitoring issues” with the county switching contractors for some projects two or three times each. That’s why he sees this CIP process has a chance to reform the program, and “mend it, not end it.”
“Things are not good right now, and we’re looking at what we’re going to do,” Vihstadt told ARLnow. “If we’re going to fund the program, it needs to be modified and reformed.”
Braswell and Klingelhofer both told the Board at the hearing that they’d be willing to study ways to make the program run more efficiently, particularly if the alternative is steep funding cuts.
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Neighborhood Conservation Projects Approved — The Arlington County Board last night unanimously approved $5.5 million in neighborhood improvement projects, including “street improvements, streetlights, intersection improvements and a neighborhood sign.” [Arlington County]
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Flickr pool photo by John Sonderman
The projects have been advanced by a county committee via Arlington’s Neighborhood Conservation Program, which encourages neighborhoods to apply for funding for various types of local improvements.
The projects set for approval are:
- A new neighborhood sign for Long Branch Creek ($12,500)
- Street improvements and new streetlights along 31st Street S. in Fairlington, between S. Randolph and Woodrow Streets ($1.7 million)
- New streetlights on S. Oak, Ode and Orme Streets in Foxcroft Heights ($562,704)
- Intersection improvements along 2nd Street S. at S. Wayne, Uhle and Wise Streets in Penrose ($1.6 million)
- Street improvements along N. George Mason Drive between 11th Street N. and I-66 in Waycroft-Woodlawn ($1.4 million)
The County Board is expected to vote on the Neighborhood Conservation projects at its Saturday meeting. The measure also includes an additional $200,000 for the county’s “Missing Link Program,” which funds the construction of small stretches of new sidewalk to connect existing sidewalks.
Children already are climbing on equipment at the two newly renovated playgrounds at Woodlawn Park, ahead of this weekend’s ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The ceremony will take place at the park (1325 N. Buchanan Street) this Saturday, April 22, at 4 p.m.
Members of the community — including kids — helped design the new playgrounds. As part of the renovation process, the new equipment was installed farther away from the creek than the previous fixtures had been.
Invasive plants were removed and the area along the creek has been reforested with native trees, shrubs and perennials. The park also now offers better accessibility. Lawn aeration and overseeding will be completed next week.
The County Board approved funding for the $795,000 neighborhood improvement project in 2014, and construction began last August. A federal grant funded part of the reforestation.
The park remains open and usable in the time leading up to the ribbon cutting.
No new projects to improve pedestrian safety — such as sidewalk fixes or streetlight installations — will be approved until at least December after a vote last week by a citizen committee.
The Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Committee voted April 13 to suspend its spring funding round due to “anticipated increases in construction costs for projects that have already been approved by the County Board,” neighborhood conservation program coordinator Tim McIntosh said in an email.
NCAC represents 48 of the county’s 57 civic associations and leads the development of neighborhood plans. It also recommends neighborhood-initiated improvements for county funding, like sidewalks, street beautification, pedestrian safety projects, street lights and parks.
The NCAC’s decision does not affect existing projects already approved by the County Board. McIntosh said design work and construction on several plans will continue this year, but that the committee “wanted to reserve a portion of its 2016 bond to cover any cost overruns which may occur later this year for projects going out for competitive bid.”
“The focus will be on continuing design work for approved projects and making sure sufficient funding is on hand to complete them prior to approving new ones,” McIntosh said.
In an email, an anonymous tipster was critical of the NCAC approvals process and said more must be done to help improve pedestrian safety.
“Clearly, the NCAC system isn’t working as a method to help improve pedestrian safety,” the tipster wrote. “These projects are getting conflated with beautification projects and are now shut down due to poor project controls. The queue of vital pedestrian safety projects, many in the NCAC process for years already (projects that have neighborhood endorsement) is growing rapidly as Arlington traffic increases and there is now no way to address these problems.”
McIntosh said no decision has been made about the fall round of funding, set to be voted on in December.
“[Neighborhood Conservation] staff and the NCAC will evaluate whether or not to have the December funding round later this year,” he said.