Arlington, VA

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

On October 8, the New England Journal of Medicine published an unprecedented editorial entitled “Dying in a Leadership Vacuum.” Without mentioning Donald Trump’s name, the editorial presents a devastating indictment of Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After using specific metrics to demonstrate why and how the national governments of many other countries have done a far superior job regarding COVID-19 than the U.S. government, the editorial notes:

“Governors do not have the tools that Washington controls. Instead of using those tools, the federal government has undermined them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was the world’s leading disease response organization, has been eviscerated and has suffered dramatic testing and policy failures. The National Institutes of Health have played a key role in vaccine development but have been excluded from much crucial government decision making. And the Food and Drug Administration has been shamefully politicized, appearing to respond to pressure from the administration rather than scientific evidence….”

The editorial concludes:

“[T]ruth is neither liberal nor conservative. When it comes to the response to the largest public health crisis of our time, our current political leaders have demonstrated that they are dangerously incompetent. We should not abet them and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans by allowing them to keep their jobs.”

Specific impacts on Arlington

Donald Trump’s leadership failures regarding the COVID-19 pandemic have harmed Arlington residents in the same kinds of ways that those failures have harmed residents of Riverside, California, or Austin, Texas, or Oshkosh, Wisconsin, or Brunswick, Maine. But Trump has caused additional harm here in Arlington over and above the harm he has inflicted everywhere else.

White House Coronavirus Task Force member Dr. Anthony Fauci, who “has been a voice of logic and stability since the pandemic began,” identified the September 26 Rose Garden ceremony for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett as a COVID-19 super spreader event:

“[P]eople were crowded together, were not wearing masks. So the data speak for themselves,” Fauci told CBS News Radio host Steven Portnoy….A significant number of attendees of the Rose Garden ceremony later tested positive for COVID-19, including Trump… .”

This Rose Garden event led health departments from D.C. and nine other neighboring jurisdictions (including Arlington) to protest the lack of contact tracing and the increased risks to residents throughout the Washington region of contracting COVID-19.

The Coney Barrett event was not an isolated one in terms of specific Arlington health impacts. In August, Trump spoke to a crowd of several hundred at a Pentagon City hotel. “Reporters covering the event noted that many conference attendees did not seem to heed requests to physically distance and wear masks in the ballroom.”

Staffers at Trump’s Rosslyn HQ have been correctly criticized for not following CDC guidelines:

[S]taffers were not social distancing and no one was wearing masks, a likely violation of Virginia’s mask requirement for indoor public spaces … .”

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Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The 2020 School Bond is worth $52.65 million. These bond funds will be used for the following projects:

Major infrastructure such as HVAC replacement which impacts air quality for schools: $15.4 million;

Building refreshes and kitchen renovations at ATS, Key and McKinley: $7.65 million;

Security entrances at Taylor, Gunston, Jefferson, Williamsburg, Wakefield: $5.30 million;

Planning and design to meet 10-year projected capacity needs at all school levels: $24.3 million*.

Arlington voters should vote YES, with the understanding that comprehensive long-term capital planning must be an urgent priority. More information on this bond is here.

Background

APS facilities are used more than 58,000 hours annually by the entire Arlington community, including: community membership in APS aquatics facilities; evening and weekend programs run by Arlington County Parks and Recreation; holiday and summer camps when schools are not in session; and a wide range of community fairs, arts events and other special meetings. All these uses are in addition to serving approximately 28,000 students in the pre-K through grade 12 programs.

When major work needs to be done ranging from replacing internal school systems or roofs, or if buildings require significant renovation, or additions or new buildings are to be built, these projects are referred to as Capital Improvement and Major Infrastructure Projects.

Why you should vote YES

This year, APS departed from the traditional 10-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) in order to align with the Arlington County FY 2021 CIP which is focused on the short-term due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This 2020 school bond sticks to sustainable decisions which address immediate needs without creating conflicts with imminent policy decisions under development in other departments. This school bond is focused on ensuring good financial stewardship by taking care of the facilities we have and carefully setting the stage for expected growth in the next 10 years.

I support a YES-vote. Read More

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Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

On September 15, The Arlington County Board approved a $3.8 million contract to design an ART operations and maintenance facility. Initially part of the Board’s non-public-comment consent agenda, this contract and its accompanying staff report had a lot to hide.

Background

The County purchased 2631 and 2635 Shirlington Road in 2018 for $24M with plans to use the space for a public facility. The 2018 Four Mile Run Valley (4MRV) Area Plan recommended the space optimize density (up to 120′) due to its strategic location adjacent to I-395.

Also, in 2018, the Board adopted a new community engagement strategy to integrate better public insights into community projects thus achieving better outcomes and controlling costs associated with late-in-plan changes.

The Green Valley Civic Association (GVCA) has repeatedly taken the County to task for its lack of community engagement, communication and resource allocation. During the 4MRV planning process, residents of this area offered comments like these to ARLnow.com: “[T]he county’s “engagement process was lousy from the beginning.” “[T]he county has indeed held plenty of meetings, it’s the quality of those meetings that [are a] concern.” In a June 2020 letter to the editor of the Sun-Gazette, GVCA leaders concluded: “It is no longer acceptable for the County to say “we’ll try to do better” or we’re “for equity.” [I]t’s past time to prove it.”

Community engagement

This new ART facility proposal designates public engagement at the county’s “involve” level, yet the county’s transportation department actions to date have fallen short on public engagement for this project. At the September 15 Board meeting, Chair Libby Garvey disparaged resident engagement thereby underscoring the county’s disdain for what the community brings to the planning process. Garvey apparently forgot that only two years ago she had proclaimed: “We need always to work to build trust that we are listening to our residents.”

Arlington County has been lauded in many surveys as having one of the most highly educated group of residents. Yet, this ART facility project demotes public input to just the “aesthetic elements.” Sadly, the county isn’t taking into consideration that community members may have better, and perhaps more strategic and innovative, ideas than the county about the use of scarce space.

The Board’s vote to hire an architect for $3.8M to prepare a concept plan with insufficient public consultation is likely to increase the costs of an already expensive project. The county now can reject any suggestions for improvements to the design due to the timing and cost to make changes.

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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

A new community group has formed to support restorative justice policies in Arlington.

The group, Arlington Advocates for Restorative Justice (“AARJ”), will sponsor a virtual public panel discussion on September 9 at 6:00 PM. Two academics renowned for their work studying restorative justice will participate: Thalia González from Occidental College and Carl Stauffer from Eastern Mennonite University.

These panelists will discuss the efficacy of restorative justice in its various applications and imagine, in conjunction with the audience, what a fairer and more just Arlington might look like. You can register here.

What is restorative justice?

Restorative justice (“RJ”) is an approach to wrongdoing that seeks, to the greatest extent possible, to repair or ameliorate harms caused by an offense, through communication and affirmative measures collaboratively agreed upon between those the offense harmed or affected and the offender or offenders.

Since the latter part of the twentieth century, many communities worldwide have incorporated RJ into criminal justice and public education disciplinary systems. Studies show that RJ generally increases victims’ and offenders’ perceptions of fairness, and suggest that its adoption may reduce recidivism.

The criminal justice system in the United States is broken. It is a system that exacts punishment as an end in itself rather than bringing about positive change to address underlying causes of crime and the need for victims, offenders, families, and communities to heal.

The U.S. represents 5% of the world’s population yet incarcerates 25% of its prison inmates; and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Our schools often fail effectively to help students in their moments of greatest need, instead following disciplinary policies that lead students to drop out rather than helping them change or avoid negative behaviors. And it is often our most oppressed and disadvantaged communities that bear the brunt of the failings of our predominantly “retributive” approach to violations of law and community norms.

We need a paradigm shift in how we deal with wrongdoing.

County’s “Restorative Arlington” initiative

In December 2019, the County Board took an initial step toward creating a “Restorative Arlington” by approving a one-year employee loan from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to the Arlington County Manager’s Office. Liane Rozzell, a Senior Associate at the Foundation and an Arlington resident for 21 years, became the Restorative Justice Project Coordinator. This agreement took effect on January 2 and will expire on December 31, 2020.

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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

Recent collaborations between local governments and school systems in other localities, including Alexandria, San Francisco, and New York City, offer promising new instructional and childcare examples for Arlington to follow.

As I discussed in my last column, COVID-19 has exposed again why certain categories of vulnerable and disadvantaged APS students need the special attention and support that new programs like these will provide.

Making hard decisions regarding which APS students would be eligible, where these new activities would take place, who would staff and supervise them, and other details certainly present challenges. But Arlington can and should rise to the occasion.

Alexandria

Alexandria has a plan that “promises to offer child-care options for ‘those families who need it.” Further information released so far is available here.

San Francisco

San Francisco is planning “an unprecedented educational assistance program for the fall meant to help up to 6,000 children with their distance-learning needs.”

Starting in September, dozens of recreation facilities, libraries and community centers across the city will be transformed into “learning hubs,” spaces where young students who may struggle with remote instruction can go each day to access their digital classwork and the social interactions that virtual schooling cannot provide.

Officials are prioritizing low-income families, children in public housing or the foster care system, homeless youth, and others in living situations that make remote learning particularly challenging. At first, the hubs will serve students in kindergarten through sixth grade, a group that has lower rates of infection, but officials will consider making the hubs available to older students. They will operate five days a week during ordinary school hours and will be staffed by experienced nonprofits and other organizations…”

The barriers for distance learning are not just access to Wi-Fi, it’s making sure that children have a quiet place to even connect in to their Zoom calls, and have the support they need to … submit homework and participate virtually…

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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

On July 14th, APS chose the best of a bad series of options by deciding to reopen schools 100% virtually.

All the options were bad because of a public health failure:

Outrage over schools’ inability to fully reopen should not, of course, be directed at schools themselves, but at the public health failure that makes it impossible for most of them to do so.

COVID-19 presents APS with a unique opportunity to take stock of what is working, abandon what is not, and creatively and equitably implement an effective 21st-century education for all.

Instructional and student achievement

Learning to read, spell, and write is a fundamental basis for all school learning, but APS’ reading achievement gap is widening. APS’ 2018/19 reading SOL pass rates by subgroups further prove that our minority communities (Black, Hispanic, Students with Disabilities, Economically Disadvantaged, and English Language Learners) will be the most impacted by APS’ virtual reopening. Their literacy skills lag behind their White, Asian, and Multiple Race peers (Black – 72%, Hispanic – 66%, White – 94%, Asian – 86%, Multiple Races – 92%, Students with Disabilities – 54%, Economically Disadvantaged – 63%, and English Language Learners – 38%.)

For students struggling to read and/or write, learning new content and demonstrating mastery in any subject area already was challenging in a 100% in-person learning environment. Students with poor literacy skills, who are required to work more independently in the virtual learning environment, will face even bigger challenges for APS to overcome.  Read More

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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

Among the County government’s recent blunders are its disrespectful behavior as described by residents of the historically African American Green Valley neighborhood and its erasure of Black Lives Matter supportive chalk art on Juneteenth.

The Juneteenth erasure generated justified outrage and inspiring community-wide responses.

These latest inequitable actions come on the heels of other poor County government decisions I’ve discussed recently.

Would changes in the form of our government help?

Elect 7 County Board members

Arlington’s current “County Manager Plan” form of government was adopted in 1930:

[T]he County Board elected at large meant a governing body more responsive to the needs of the county as a whole… [T]he ‘continuous, contiguous, and homogeneous’ nature of Arlington had now found expression in its form of government.

Arlington has had five County Board members elected at large ever since. But in 1930, those five members represented 26,615 residents (5,323 per Board member). Now they represent 236,842 (47,368 per member).

Alexandria — a city not a county — has seven elected representatives (including the Mayor) representing a current population of 159,428 residents (22,775 per representative).

If Arlington had seven County Board members elected at large, that would be 33,835 residents per member. Having seven members elected at large would be a significant improvement. It would provide many more opportunities for our elected leaders to hear directly what many more residents think of actual or proposed government policies and practices.

Don’t elect County Board members by district

Some residents believe Arlington should elect at least some County Board members from geographically defined districts. But, where to draw the lines? Electing members by districts would not be a net plus. There are many very important communities and issues in Arlington that have a confined neighborhood focus, but these tend to be so localized that we’d need too large an increase in the total number of County Board members. Instead, we should study the benefits/costs of adopting something like D.C.’s elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners.

Alter election times & terms

Our current five Board members are elected in a 1, 1, 1, 2 annual sequence, and serve four-year terms. The costs/benefits of alternatives should be carefully studied. The most substantial changes include simultaneous elections of all at once and/or two-year terms. I support simultaneous elections of all at once, four-year terms, and a two-term limit.

Adopt ranked-choice voting

Arlington County should exercise its recently obtained authority to adopt an ordinance providing for ranked-choice voting (“RCV”) in both County Board primary and general elections.

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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

Arlington County and APS face extraordinary challenges because of COVID-19.

With many questions left unanswered, on June 9 Governor Northam approved general guidance for a phased reopening of Virginia public schools.

COVID-19 must become the catalyst for County government and APS completely to reorganize and integrate their operating and capital planning now.

County Board July 7 special election

Independent candidate Susan Cunningham appropriately devotes an entire press release to many helpful suggestions for accelerating County/APS collaboration, including:

“The County Board, School Board, County Manager, and new Superintendent should sit down together immediately to prioritize what’s essential for our school community and the entire Arlington community.”

Democratic nominee Takis Karantonis astutely concludes:

“I am a strong supporter of the work done by the 2015 Community Facilities Study group [“CFSG”]. I have been frustrated by a seeming lack of support among School and County Board members for the thoughtful recommendations in that study.”

Republican nominee Bob Cambridge correctly confirms that “effective management requires initiatives such as cost-benefit analyses.”

School Board November 3 general election

In responses to a questionnaire sponsored by my colleagues at Arlingtonians for our Sustainable Future (ASF), the three School Board candidates also advocate major reforms now:

Symone Walker, the Independent candidate:

“[I]t is time … to better manage and direct Arlington’s growth in a more paced and modulated manner. I favor the approach to retrofit and repurpose existing APS and county facilities as has been done in Fairfax County and the City of Alexandria. I favor this approach as practical, more efficient and environmentally friendly, and the most cost-effective.”

The two ACDC-endorsed candidates:   

Cristina Diaz-Torres has “long supported APS and the County engaging in more robust cost-benefit analysis procedures for construction. This is particularly important given the current economic crisis and the likely drop in both tax revenue and (potentially) bond capacity.”

David Priddy states “for years we have had conversations around facilities owned by the county and facilities owned by APS. The two were not in agreement. That meant we did not have the full picture when properly planning for future growth.” Read More

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Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the autho

A new report by the Civic Federation (CivFed report) analyzes Arlington’s recent historical spending on park and recreation investments funded with Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) bond dollars.

The CivFed report’s results are summarized in a table on page 1. Roughly 86% of all bond funds were dedicated to recreational uses. By contrast, less than 5% was spent on land acquisition and less than 2% was invested in open space and natural habitat.

Resource allocation mismatch

This funding allocation history is inconsistent with the public’s stated priorities for outdoor park and recreation investments, as determined by the County’s 2016 “statistically valid” survey, which ranked investments in trails, natural areas, and wildlife habitat as top priorities to satisfy unmet or partially unmet needs in our community.

In three of the last four park and recreation bond referenda appearing on November ballots, land acquisition was offered as a rationale for borrowing the funds. Yet, CivFed’s report notes a consistent shortfall in the County’s acquisition of new public land — just 1.82 total acres acquired since 2015, well below the annual 3-acre per year target in the 2019 Public Spaces Master Plan (PSMP).

Although the County has made significant investments in trail modernization and expansion through various funding mechanisms (including transportation funding), the same cannot be said for land acquisition or for investment in natural areas and wildlife habitat.

Beyond the 2016 community survey priorities, the County has set aggressive goals in its plans for stormwater management and flood resilience, as well as energy-use reduction coupled with urban heat island mitigation. See the 2014 Stormwater Master Plan and the 2019 Community Energy Plan.

Acquiring land to preserve and harness natural County infrastructure is essential for meeting these goals while simultaneously allowing the County to satisfy previously identified unmet or partially met needs for natural open space supporting human health as well as wildlife.

CivFed’s recommendations

On May 19, the CivFed voted overwhelmingly (63-5-1) to approve an important resolution making three recommendations to guide future park and recreation investments:

  1. The County should balance its capital investments to “fund passive park features (including wildlife habitat and open space), trails, and parkland acquisition on a more equitable basis with respect to its recreational investments.”
  2. The County should “demonstrate more forward-thinking and commitment to land acquisition for passive park use,” especially through the purchase of land identified as a “Generational and Unique Opportunity” in the PSMP.
  3. The County should “consider as a high priority dual-purpose sites that can be used for flood mitigation and Open Space-Natural Habitat,” as described in the 2014 Stormwater Master Plan.

Planning for Arlington’s future during a pandemic

On May 19, in response to uncertainty prompted by the pandemic, the County Manager proposed a scaled-back, one-year CIP just for 2021, rather than the traditional 10-year plan.

Stormwater management/flood resilience continues to be included as a funding priority in this one-year CIP. This priority is consistent with CivFed’s third recommendation to acquire land that serves a dual purpose.

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Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority (NOVAParks) owns and operates Arlington’s primarily natural Potomac Overlook, Upton Hill and W&OD Trail regional parks.

But NOVAParks seems to have lost the trail outlined in its own Mission Statement which emphasizes (at p.7) enriching our lives “through the conservation of regional natural and cultural resources.”

Arlington’s statistically valid resident park survey (at p. 4) found that our community’s three most desired park features are multi-use trails, hiking trails, and natural areas & wildlife habitats. Yet NOVAParks is now single-mindedly pursuing funding for a project to dramatically widen the W&OD trail to create an environmentally damaging commuter thoroughfare.

NOVAParks’ W&OD trail widening project

NOVAParks proposes replacing the two-mile-long, 10-12 foot-wide segment of the trail paralleling Four Mile Run between N. Roosevelt St. and North Carlin Springs Road. In many areas the new trail will be two parallel paved trails — a 12-foot-wide bike trail, an 8-foot-wide pedestrian trail, a 2-foot median and outside buffers — for a total width of at least 26 feet, equal to some residential streets! Elsewhere, the trail will be widened to 16 feet with outside buffers for a total width of at least 20 feet.

This project should be withdrawn

This project will destroy almost two acres of green space while adding almost two acres of impermeable paved surface, including within Chesapeake Bay Resource Protection Areas (RPA’s) and flood plain along Four Mile Run, threatening increased flooding in Arlington’s BonAir and Bluemont parks. NOVAParks has failed to conduct an “alternatives assessment” of less expensive and environmentally destructive solutions. Finally, NOVAParks has failed to conduct any safety assessment of whether its proposed wider trail, with potentially higher bicycle speeds and volume, will actually increase bicycle speeds, and therefore the frequency and severity of accidents.

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Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The Rouse property is a 9-acre parcel of privately-owned land, located in the Dominion Hills neighborhood at 6407 Wilson Boulevard (corner of N. McKinley Road). On March 4, ARLnow.com reported this property might be for sale for “around $30 million” (roughly double the current assessed value):

“The property is listed as a ‘generational’ site in the county’s Parks Master Plan (page 162).”

Columnist Charlie Clark reported on April 27 that the owner is evaluating a serious offer. If the County loses the strategic opportunity to acquire this unique property, that represents a serious leadership failure.

Declining parkland to population ratio

Arlington comprises only 26 square miles, significant portions of which are controlled by the federal government. We are the smallest U.S. county.

As approved in April 2019, the Parks Master Plan included a public commitment to acquire 3 acres of open space per year for the next 10 years. Honoring this commitment is vital because of the continuing decline in Arlington’s ratio of parkland to population.

A comprehensive 2016 report by the Arlington Civic Federation (“Civ Fed report”) documents this decline (at p. 5):

“As of 2015, Arlington County had 1,784 acres of parkland within its borders. Of those 1,784 acres, 949 acres were owned by Arlington County, 700 acres were owned by the National Park Service (most of which is Arlington Cemetery), and 135 acres were owned by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.

“In 1995, Arlington County had 10.8 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents. By 2014 the County’s population had grown by over 43,000 residents, and the parkland to population ratio had declined to 7.9 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents.

“By contrast, Washington, DC, has 13.2 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, and Fairfax County has 28.3 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents.”

Arlington’s ratio of parkland to population certainly has continued to decline since 2016, as Arlington’s population has surged, enabled by repeated County government decisions to accelerate development and to authorize even more density.

An Arlington Profile 2019 report projects that Arlington’s population will rise by about 50,000 people by 2040. Without adding more parkland inventory, our ratio of parkland to population will continue to degrade.

As explained by my colleagues at Arlingtonians for our Sustainable Future (ASF), many public uses for this land — if not developed for market-rate residential housing — include parkland, flood maintenance and/or a community land trust for affordable housing (e.g., see here) If the last, some affordable housing units could be built, carefully blended into the parkland setting.

Despite the Parks Master Plan’s commitment to acquire 30 acres of open space over the next 10 years, the County’s current (pre-COVID-19) Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) contains zero dollars to acquire open space. Acquiring the uniquely large Rouse property, and devoting all or significant portions of it to parkland, would be a major down payment on this commitment.

Even in these challenging budget times, the County still could afford to make this acquisition because of the flexibility provided by the County’s ample cash reserves.

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