Progressive Voice: The Truth About Arlington’s Neighborhood Conservation Program

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.

By Howard Solodky

Much has been said recently about Arlington County’s Neighborhood Conservation (NC) program that pays for neighborhood infrastructure projects such as sidewalks, streetlamps and traffic safety improvements. Because of misconceptions and rumors about the program and its overlooked public benefits, some have even suggested the program be terminated, while others have simply advanced unfounded criticisms. It’s time to set the record straight.

The Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Committee (NCAC), formed in 1977, administers the program with the valuable help of county staff. Representatives from most of the county’s civic associations participate on the NCAC and review and recommend action on projects proposed for their respective neighborhoods. This “bottom up” approach has resulted in the completion of missing link sidewalks, traffic flow enhancements and other pedestrian and commuter safety projects that would otherwise go unidentified.

County bonds fund the projects, with awards made through a rigorous, but fair, “points” process managed by the NCAC. The program has completed hundreds of neighborhood improvement projects and demand remains high. Notwithstanding that, the 2019-2028 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) cut NC funding from $12 million to $5 million for 2019-2020 and then to $4 million for the following two-year cycle.

Recent criticism falls into two categories: Lack of equity; and cost effectiveness.

Lack of equity. Allegations of unfair distribution of NC projects among Arlington’s roughly 60 neighborhoods have arisen because some neighborhoods don’t participate in the program. The reality is that more than 85 percent of Arlington’s civic associations are active on the NCAC, and projects are not concentrated disproportionately in any particular neighborhood. One look at a map showing the dollar amounts and location of projects over the past 17 years reveals widespread geographic distribution. Three of the top five neighborhood beneficiaries, measured by dollars spent, are in south Arlington.

Length and cost of process.  While, historically, the time elapsed from project approval to completion could take five years or more, that is no longer the case. Through right-sizing county design and engineering staff assigned to the program, the time from County Board approval to project completion now averages roughly two and one-half years, similar to the time it takes to design, engineer and complete a typical county transportation project.

Another factor contributing to length of process is the county’s aging, and in some cases inadequate, infrastructure. With limited bond proceeds available to the NC program, and infrastructure repairs and improvements needed in many neighborhoods, only a fraction of the qualified NC projects can be funded each year. The rest must wait in line. Terminating or reducing the NC program won’t solve this problem; only more financial resources will.

Alleged cost overruns are also often cited, even though close to 90 percent of NC projects are completed within budget. Moreover, 15 years ago, if the NCAC approved the construction of a sidewalk along a neighborhood street, the program would only pay for the cost of the actual sidewalk. Today, because of state and local legal requirements, a “simple” sidewalk project also entails costs for site control and management, storm water management, water mains and meters and potentially for underground utility conduit repair or replacement. The county requires that those costs be borne by the NC program, rather than by the Department of Environmental Services (DES) that has historically paid for those items. These “cost overruns” are, in fact, hidden savings for the budgets of various DES departments.

The 2019-2028 CIP required that the County Manager form a Neighborhood Conservation and Community Infrastructure Working Group to review and make recommendations regarding the NC program. That Working Group might want to consider how to:

  • Account for and share within DES the numerous costs that have been imposed on the program;
  • Discuss with DES staff and the County Board how to shorten their project review and approval processes; and
  • Reach out to neighborhoods that do not participate actively to more effectively educate them on the benefits of the NC program.

The future of the NC program is uncertain during this period of budgetary belt-tightening. Decision-makers need to move beyond the unsupported criticisms of the program, gain a better understanding of the hidden benefits realized from an all-volunteer program that identifies needed infrastructure repairs and improvements before that infrastructure breaks down, and fairly apportion among the divisions of DES the costs associated with NC capital projects. These steps can help preserve the scope and vitality of a valuable, community-based, neighborhood improvement program.

Howard Solodky is a tax attorney who recently retired from the law firm of Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP, and is the Old Glebe Civic Association’s representative on the NCAC.


Progressive Voice: Matt de Ferranti — The Better Choice for County Board

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com

By Nathan Zee

As an Arlington resident for 17 years, and a former PTA president with two elementary-age children in the Arlington school system, I’ve been closely following the race between Matt de Ferranti and John Vihstadt for County Board.

Four years ago I voted for John Vihstadt — and I now regret it. John campaigned on promises to reduce the commercial vacancy rate, proactively address school capacity challenges, support parks and recreation, including youth sports, and deliver other core services. He also promised to replace the Columbia Pike streetcar proposal with a robust Bus Rapid Transit System.

John Vihstadt has not delivered. Over and over again, he emphasizes a “delay and obstruct” approach to governing — often in response to only a few shrill voices — which results in rising costs for core services over time.

In the face of a capacity crisis plain to any parent of an APS student, John spearheaded efforts to delay the new Alice West Fleet Elementary School. The school is scheduled to open in 2019 instead of 2018, which increased construction costs and trailer expenses. He led the charge to postpone addressing youth soccer capacity challenges with his vote against adding lights at the Williamsburg Middle School and has aligned himself with a group focused on reducing the number of sports fields in Arlington. This is despite years of work from community groups and constructive solutions at other lighted fields across Arlington. He also voted to delay the contract award for the new Lubber Run Community Center.

John Vihstadt has failed to lead or advance Bus Rapid Transit on a meaningful timeline along Columbia Pike. Earlier he was loudly vocal against the streetcar, but over the past four years he has been strangely silent in showing what being “for” Bus Rapid Transit really means. His delay tactics, always pushing decisions on down the road, increase future costs to taxpayers while denying us much needed services today.

As I cast my vote for County Board on Nov. 6, this time I’m choosing Matt de Ferranti, a candidate who is more deliberately and urgently focused on making things better for future generations. Matt de Ferranti will make fiscally smart, prudent investments to achieve progressive goals like education, parks and recreation activities and the basics like storm water management. He will make decisions with plenty of community input, yet without dragging out decisions and actions for years.

Matt de Ferranti has clearly articulated what he will focus on as a member of the County Board.

His priority is bringing down Arlington’s commercial vacancy rate more quickly and more purposefully. Unless the county brings in new businesses (and revenue) more quickly, Arlington will never be able to fund our countywide priorities like schools. Matt advocates bringing in different types of businesses in the fields of the future, like cybersecurity, while investing in small and independent business to create jobs that grow our commercial tax base.

Matt de Ferranti supports our world-class school system. In his leadership role on the School Board’s Budget Advisory Council, he’s demonstrated the ability to make tough choices like taking the lead on reducing the APS budget deficit by $20 million in a tight budget year while prioritizing spending on core services for our students. Matt has actually shown he can make the tough choices on governing instead of just saying “no.”

Matt understands the importance of community centers, parks and youth sports. He is opposed to efforts that will shrink the number of sports fields, and is committed to identifying cost-effective solutions and putting them into action promptly, putting into practice the same sound judgment that helped the school system.

Matt’s values demonstrate fiscal responsibility. Please don’t fall for Vihstadt’s fear mongering about wasteful spending or tales from many years ago. John’s way is to rail “against” something, but it’s much harder to do the heavy lifting of government and nimble decision-making that shapes what Arlington is “for,” and there Vihstadt has failed. His delay and obstruct approach results in higher future costs while limiting progress for us today.

We need a fresh perspective on the County Board. Matt de Ferranti will make the tough choices in a timelier, cost-effective manner for investing our limited resources to address countywide challenges. Let’s elect Matt de Ferranti for County Board on Nov. 6.

Nathan Zee is a long-time resident of the Arlington Forest neighborhood. He’s married with two children and loves to call Arlington his home.


Progressive Voice: Confronting the Realities of Poverty in Arlington

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Anne Vor der Bruegge

Along with Arlington’s high national rankings for its schools and livability, consider this fact: Arlington is home to tens of thousands of people living in or near poverty. Arlington’s median household income is $110,000, but there are significant income and quality-of-life disparities from one neighborhood to the next.

Nearly 20,000 people in Arlington live below the federal poverty level, which is $25,100 for a family of four — yet living costs for such a household here average three times that. Child care and health care workers, office cleaners, and restaurant, retail and construction workers are likely to be struggling with poverty. Some of Arlington’s baby boomers, disabled individuals and veterans are also among those.

While the statistics are sobering, individuals’ stories illustrate just how precarious living in poverty can be. One woman’s window was broken by a baseball. Confronted by the property manager with a $32 repair fee and worried about being evicted, she desperately handed over the cash. That $32 was her weekly bus fare to work. Looking for a ride made her late, so her manager docked her two shifts. She could no longer pay her babysitter, which meant she lost her job, bringing her back to the real possibility of eviction.

What can be done, collectively, for families that constantly live so close to the edge?

Beginning this fall, Arlington’s Department of Human Services (DHS) and a wide array of nonprofits convened by the Arlington Community Foundation are piloting a new approach with 200 families to break the downward spiral of poverty. Using the Bridges Out of Poverty framework, this public-private partnership represents a re-design of the safety net system to reduce bureaucratic hurdles and strengthen connections so people in poverty can gain traction and move forward.

The 200 Bridges pilot uses a two-generation approach with parents and their children to build opportunities for adequate housing and child care, jobs with better wages, health care, and educational advancement. This united effort involves unprecedented collaboration across the County, nonprofit system and families.

The Bridges Out of Poverty partners have streamlined the myriad consent forms for different organizations into one common form, while still complying with HIPAA privacy rules, so individuals no longer have to repeat their history over and over. They’ve reduced the “agency time” spent navigating the system, so people can use those hours more productively.

200 Bridges goes beyond services that stabilize families (such as emergency shelter or food) to address two important factors recognized in poverty research as requisites for forward mobility: having control over one’s life and a sense of belonging in the community.

A job loss, a catastrophic accident, an abusive partner, or addiction can put any of us in crisis mode. But people with a family legacy of economic security and community connections can recover from these crises far better than those coming from generational poverty. Brain science shows that the toxic stress of living in crisis limits one’s ability to maintain focus and take the long view to make a plan. A broken window and unexpected $32 charge play out very differently for someone in the middle class than for someone who is poor.

Anita Friedman, Director of Arlington County DHS, shares, “We envision that families participating in 200 Bridges will be empowered to identify what they need to thrive, and to more easily connect to the network of resources we have to support them. Our goal is for families to build social and financial capital for themselves and their children.”

Beyond this pilot, what can be done to address the root causes of poverty–too few decent paying jobs, lack of affordable housing, childcare, health care and opportunities for educational advancement?

Arlington County, the Community Foundation and the many nonprofit partners hope to use what is learned through Bridges Out of Poverty and other complementary initiatives to create policies that improve mobility for everyone in Arlington. For example, the experiences of these 200 families will inform efforts underway in Arlington’s Child Care Initiative, which aims to provide more affordable quality child care so that all Arlington children have a strong start in life and their parents can work.

Ultimately, it will take broad community will to acknowledge the reality of poverty in Arlington and support equitable policies and practices to create the conditions for all our residents to reach their potential.

Anne Vor der Bruegge is Director of the Arlington Community Foundation’s Nonprofit Center. She has lived in Arlington since 1982.


Progressive Voice: Strengthening Transition into the Community after Incarceration

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Beth Arthur, Sheriff

Reentering the community after incarceration is daunting. Imagine being locked up for days, weeks, months or years knowing the stigma society attaches to it. Often, incarcerated individuals are unemployed with drug or mental health issues. They often have no family support and no housing, money or even photo identification when they get out. They may have no idea where to start to get back on their feet.

As part of our evolving and open philosophy to new strategies to ensure the success of inmates, we are concentrating fresh effort on this transition back into the community. This builds on our core responsibilities such as managing the Arlington County Detention Facility (ACDF) and overseeing Arlington’s courthouse/courtroom security (Juvenile, Domestic Relations, County, Circuit and General District courts)/civil process service.

Through 18 years serving as Sheriff for Arlington County, my staff and I have continually looked for better ways to securely serve Arlington’s 230,000 residents and to effectively manage and prepare the inmates for life after incarceration.

One example is the new Community Readiness Unit (CRU), established in May 2018. It focuses intensely on individualized reentry planning, work readiness and programming for substance abuse, mental health and life skills.

“The CRU is producing a steady flow of purpose and promise,” says Inmate Service Counselor Camille Watkin. “Most of the inmates who participate in the re-entry and community readiness classes are also dedicated to participate in GED classes/tutoring, mental health, substance abuse awareness and work force programs in the community.” Watkin added, “This group of inmates are seeking and learning coping skills.”

The CRU builds on early work of the Arlington County Reentry Committee (ACRC), created in 2009 to ensure successful offender reentry, reduce recidivism and enhance public safety for Arlington residents. ACRC’s goal is to assist those incarcerated with supportive services — such as job training or mental health services — so that they may more easily transition from jail to the community and sustain a life that will not lead to repeat offenses.

“After completing the ACT Program (Addictions, Corrections Treatment), I was placed in the CRU,” says one inmate. “In the few weeks I’ve been in this unit, I’ve created a much needed network system and sharpened the tools I need to ensure success.” He added that the CRU “has allowed me to sustain my recovery by participating in NA/AA and the Cognitive Distortion Recognition program. I’m staying positive and productive prior to my reentry to the community in a few days.”

One distinctive of the CRU is that it brought many of the ACRC programs together in one male housing unit for individuals that are eligible. Individuals must be post-sentence 12 to 14 months or less, reside in the DMV area, participate in a formal interview and have no detainers from other jurisdictions. (Reentry services are also available to the one female inmate unit in the detention facility.)

Some of the CRU’s programs may seem surprising, such as Fatherhood, Wellness, Money Management, or Peer Group and Cognitive Distortion Recognition. Yet such topics can be just as vital to a person’s successful transition as programs on Employability Readiness, Individual Re-Entry Planning or Addiction Awareness. All classes are conducted by Sheriff’s Office case managers, Arlington Department of Human Services (DHS) staff, Offender Aide and Restoration (OAR) staff and volunteers.

Our hope is that everyone that reenters the community from the CRU will, like the inmate mentioned above, have a network system and the tools they need for success. The key is helping them identify and eliminate barriers before they get out.

ACRC assists incarcerated individuals with a discharge plan focused on their needs, appropriate resources and referrals to enhance successful reentry to the community. Resources include ID cards, mental health and substance abuse services, shelter, and job placement. Our partners include DHS, OAR, the Public Defender’s Office, and the Adult Probation and Residential Program Center-Shelter.

Inmates returning to the community face many challenges and those who have difficulty adjusting often re-offend. As the sheriff of Arlington County, I am committed to ensuring that individuals who are remanded into the custody of my office receive opportunities to “right” their wrongs and become successful citizens of our community.

Sheriff Beth Arthur was first elected in 2000 and is the first woman elected to a County Sheriff’s position in Virginia. She has served more than 31 years with the Arlington Sheriff’s Office. She is a member of the Virginia Sheriff’s Association Board and served as its first female President from September 2012 through September 2013 and is a member of the Board of Regents for the Leadership Center of Excellence.


Progressive Voice: Columbia Pike — Promises Kept?

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARL.now.

By Eric Harold

When I emerge from the natural oasis of the Four Mile Run creek bed, I am greeted by an Ethiopian family teaching their son to ride his bike on the Arlington Mill Plaza. Following the spirited African rhythms enjoyed by a group of friends gathering near the bridge, I catch the tempting scents of the Bolivian food truck readying for the lunch crowd. I am reminded why, many years ago, my wife and I quickly fell in love with Columbia Pike — a vital and vibrant corridor with good local businesses, active neighborhood associations and energetic mixed-income communities. Still, we recognized this high potential area was struggling to develop as a valued Metro corridor.

After 20 years, thousands of hours of planning meetings, and many county initiatives later, the Pike appears to be thriving. We had envisioned three legs of a stool that would solidly support Columbia Pike in the future: a streamlined development process, a Pike neighborhoods’ plan with a goal of preserving over 6,000 affordable housing units, and a blueprint for greatly improving the transit system to support expected growth.

So are we where we wanted to be 20 years ago?

While some development has happened, the transportation “leg of the stool” has wobbled. Four years ago, the County Board abruptly canceled the long-planned streetcar, endangering and undermining progress in other areas. Pike neighborhoods were told that transportation investments would continue. What we received was a mediocre transit plan, delayed construction of the transit stations, and no attention to much-needed utility undergrounding.

To be clear, the current growth and development on Columbia Pike was spurred on with the implementation of the Form Based Code, an alternative development process that offered streamlined reviews and approvals for developments that supported our community’s vision and needs, as described in the Code and associated plans. As a result, we are seeing redevelopment of properties along the Pike that is bringing new residents along with some affordable housing and new amenities. We are seeing the development creep west on the Pike, as well.

But with this development comes some significant challenges. New development brings new residents, many with children attending already overcrowded schools. Businesses that were “early adopters” to the Pike, like P. Brennan’s, have shuttered. Storefronts remain empty at key locations along Columbia Pike, while new developments like Centro Arlington and 4707 Columbia Pike will bring more retail spaces to fill.

As we look forward to the next 20 years, the Columbia Pike communities need the County’s focused effort and planning to ensure continued growth along the corridor while addressing the significant weaknesses in the current plan implementation.

What should happen now?

  • Update Transit Plan now: Fast and efficient completion of the current projects outlines in the Multimodal Street Improvements plan will send a clear signal that Columbia Pike remains a critical area of growth for the county. More important, however, should be revising the Transit Plan for Columbia Pike, to include updating capacity projections based on current development and growth patterns.
  • Increase daytime population: Current development has been entirely mixed-use residential and commercial. Commercial vacancies remain high while businesses struggle, primarily due to very low daytime population. The Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization (CPRO) and the County need to provide incentives that will bring offices and other services to the Pike.If we are going to be true to maintaining Columbia Pike as a diverse community, we need to provide spaces and encourage services to support low-income and disadvantaged populations. Clinics, job training services, and other community assistance can fill vacant spaces and increase daytime traffic. Providing incubator spaces, shared work locations, and other office/business development can help improve the mix of development. Combined, this has the potential to make the Columbia Pike corridor a true live-work destination while maintaining the vibrant, mixed-income communities we love.
  • Improve planning with/for Arlington Public Schools: The Career Center property, just a block off Columbia Pike and now in the middle of conceptual planning for new school/community uses and space, is a prime example of the need for better integrated planning between APS and the County. Creative use of spaces along the Pike has the potential to help APS manage student population growth.

Columbia Pike has come a long way in the 20 years that I have lived here. The time is now for the county to aggressively help reinvigorate our plans and processes so that Columbia Pike remains the vital and vibrant community we love.

Eric Harold resides in Barcroft with his wife and four children. He served as president of his civic association, served for 13 years on the Environment and Energy Conservation Commission (E2C2), and now serves on the APS Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Projects (FAC).


Progressive Voice: Autonomous Vehicles — On the Street Where You Live?

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Kelley Coyner

Less than a year ago the city of Arlington, Texas, became the first municipal government to deploy an automated transportation service — a cute shuttle named Milo. In a couple of weeks, Arlington, Texas will move ahead with an autonomous vehicle (AV) taxi.

Meanwhile in Arlington, Virginia, we are beginning to look at how to launch similar services. The technology is moving forward quickly, especially for lower speed AVs that mix well with pedestrians and bicyclists. What should we be thinking about this technological game changer?

Money talks: First focus on economic development, job loss and creation, and revenue loss

Our Arlington and its neighbors — including their transportation agencies — need to look at the impacts of AVs (what some people call “self-driving” vehicles) on their revenue. Greater fuel efficiency and shifts to electric vehicles will accelerate the downward spiral of gas tax revenues. Changed ownership models also may undercut personal property tax and rental-car tax revenues. Decreased demand for parking may cut into parking revenues and an anticipated decline in traffic violations will reduce revenue from fines. Secondary impacts include the potential for decreased revenue from transit and toll fares.

Understand equity

AVs can dramatically improve opportunities for blind, older and younger riders — if we consider those travelers in the planning and design. You need only try to find your Lyft or Uber in Clarendon to appreciate that we need to pay attention to the last 50 feet from home or restaurant to your ride. Also, let’s make sure that shared vehicles are universally designed starting with wheelchair access. Meanwhile nationally, job and wage losses could hit transit and taxi drivers, delivery drivers, truckers, bus operators and Lyft/Uber drivers disproportionately, so training programs will need to come into play.

Figure out what you want your place to be like

Over the years, Arlington, Virginia, has given thought and taken action on the intersection between transportation and land use. How might AVs change all this yet again? How might they change our affordable and workforce housing? Is there a new paradigm for transit-rich hubs that also include shared-AV drop-off areas, electric charging stations, and rich networks of walking and bike paths?

What to worry about: Favor safety gains and protect against cyber dangers

There are indeed real reasons to be worried about the vulnerability of automated vehicles to cyber-attack. The answer is to address that risk, not to let it highjack automated technologies that protect occupants and people in the path of the AVs, such as pedestrians, bicyclists and people at bus stops.

That said, I am flabbergasted when anyone is dismissive about the potential of saving a portion of 37,000 lives that are currently lost to human-caused crashes each year. Most traffic accidents are attributable to human error. To be sure we need to take steps to operate AVs safely. Experts such as researchers at Rand note that the sooner we start adopting automated technologies, the more lives will be saved.

Define your principles and set measurable objectives to reach them

Beyond those first four paths I think cities should take, there are still many ways to maximize the safety and environmental benefits while guarding against increased congestion, sprawl, job loss and the further weakening of public transit. Arlington should start by understanding how AVs can help and hurt us and then set a course that allows us to experiment safely with AVs.

We should avoid esoteric debates about obscure hypotheticals, and instead, focus on understanding the implications of an automated mobility. Then pull out all the stops to safely channel the technology revolution on the street where you live.

Kelley Coyner is CEO and Founder of Mobility e3. A Senior Fellow at George Mason University, she advises cities on how to analyze the pluses and minuses of autonomous vehicles. She lives with her family in central Arlington.


Progressive Voice: Putting a Human Face on the Immigration Debate

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Cheryl Moore

In August, I travelled to Dilley, Texas, to volunteer for a week with immigrants who are seeking asylum. The South Texas Family Residential Center, 80 miles south of San Antonio, houses 2,400 women and children, most from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, who were apprehended by border patrol agents when trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t speak Spanish very well, but when I heard from an attorney friend about this opportunity, I felt compelled to go. With so many stories in the news about family separation, detention and the cruel treatment of immigrants at the border, this was my chance to “do something,” even if I didn’t know exactly what I would be doing. I wanted to be a witness to what is happening to immigrants coming to the U.S. amidst this unwelcoming political climate.

Along with other volunteers with the Dilley Pro Bono Project, my mission was to help women prepare for their Credible Fear Interview (CFI) with asylum officers. Receiving a “positive” after their interview means they are freed from detention (after paying a bond or submitting to wearing an ankle monitor) and can begin the long process of seeking asylum, as is their legal right under U.S. law.

It was not an easy week. We worked 12-hour days, filled with non-stop activity, noise and, often, tears.

For much of the week, I helped women fill out basic forms. As I showed them where to write their name, date of birth and other details, I learned part of their story. The answers to questions on the forms also offered clues about wrenching decisions some of the women had had to make when deciding to leave their country.

Some mothers asked, “Do I only put the name and birthday of the child who is here with me?” Clearly, many had had to leave another child behind. As a mother myself, I couldn’t imagine making that choice.

Other volunteers spent the week helping women prepare for their CFI by asking them to recount the testimony they would tell the asylum officer. Why did they leave their country? What persecution did they face there? What might happen if they went back home?

The extreme danger and violence our clients described was appalling — gangs, rape, death threats, kidnapping, extortion. We learned more about the culture and government of the countries that these women were fleeing, and about the extreme poverty and inequity that contribute to crime and lawlessness. It was clear that these women were escaping from systems that would never protect them. They were victims, not criminals; yet they were in a detention center.

With many CFI interviews looming toward the end of the week, I was asked to do some CFI preps on my own, working with an interpreter by telephone. Thanks to the in-depth training we received and wise counsel from the Dilley Pro Bono Project legal staff, I was able help two clients. It is not often that I feel I’m holding someone’s fate in my hands, but I did that day.

After I returned home, their faces swam before my eyes as I tried to go to sleep at night. Fortunately, I was able to check on their status and it appears that they both have been released from detention, and presumably are now with family or friends as they proceed through the asylum-seeking process.

While I may have helped some women start a new chapter in their lives, I will never know how their stories unfold. As with all mission work, the difference is in me. The women I met are part of my story now.

Back in Arlington, I will never look at the woman from Central America standing next to me in the supermarket line without contemplating her story. I will wonder what happened to make her leave her birthplace, and I will pray it wasn’t as bad as some of the stories I heard in that Texas detention center.

Above all, my week at the detention center reminded me that immigrant detention and family separation are more than just policy issues. They are human issues.

Cheryl Moore has lived in Arlington for 35 years. She has been a volunteer for Arlington Public Schools, her church, civic association, the Arlington Community Chorus, and many nonprofit organizations serving the Northern Virginia community. She continues to work on her Spanish language skills.


Progressive Voice: Arlington’s Kodak Moment?

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Erik Gutshall

In the 1990s Eastman Kodak dominated the world of photography and held the patent for the world’s first digital camera — yet by 2012, it was bankrupt. Kodak’s failure to respond fast enough to the rapidly changing world around it would forever redefine the once ubiquitous “Kodak moment.”

As the speed of life continues to accelerate, Arlington, perched atop the summit of many “best of” lists, should heed the caution of Kodak’s tale by striving to meet our current challenges with deliberate speed and gusto. While our current success was built on innumerable extensive multi-year community efforts, we must now embrace a more agile model — employing an iterative test-learn-tweak-grow rapid deployment methodology.

Whether the sudden arrival of dockless electric scooters, redevelopment pressure on Lee Highway, or the daily exit of valued Arlingtonians frustrated by housing costs, the urgency for the county to respond to a multitude of threats and opportunities is evident. Unfortunately, our ability to respond is too often hampered by our “bandwidth,” including a lack of staff resources and the time and energy for the requisite citizen engagement process.

Budget constraints render hiring more staff and consultants not feasible. Further, simply pushing more decision-making through our current lengthy civic engagement framework will only backfire with increased frustration from both staff and citizens worn thin by inefficient and tiresome processes.

Kodak’s leaders effectively sealed their fate by insisting they could keep doing what they had become very good at doing their first 100 years. Arlington need not make that mistake. Just as social media re-invented how we share “Kodak moments” with each other, we must re-invent how we engage in decision-making, while embracing three essential priorities:

1.     Smaller pilot projects first instead of grand comprehensive plans.

2.     Streamlined quality of civic engagement, not exhaustive quantity.

3.     Strengthening community trust.

Pilot projects by their nature, define a problem, test ideas, gather reactions and analyze results as a road to permanent solutions. They offer ample opportunity for community input, but without bogging down in multiple rounds of gestation. County staff engender trust in quality civic engagement by sharing information early, widely and completely. Likewise, Arlington’s new agile approach demands a citizenry willing to avoid “paralysis by analysis” and to move forward, even in the face of vocal minority opposition.

There will still be a place for major processes to develop such things as a Lee Highway Corridor Master Plan, but whenever possible, we can break larger issues down into more manageable components for trial-and-error prototyping. No longer untouchable monumental documents adopted at contentious County Board meetings, our major plans will be living documents whose values guide incremental evolution as we pilot-evaluate-modify-expand — always solving real-world problems for real people.

Beyond doubt, robust innovation in county government will produce occasional failure. But if Arlingtonians embrace each failure as a necessary component of continual improvement instead of assigning blame, we will assuredly find greater success than our current sluggish approach.

This new, iterative approach is ideal for a “Missing Middle” initiative to pilot new planning, zoning, and financing tools to create innovative neighborhood-scale housing forms for the middle class. We know the status quo is failing to deliver housing other than high-rise condos for anyone who can’t afford a single-family home. We don’t know yet exactly what will work. We could spend five years studying and talking about it, certainly hardening opinions yet without really gaining much more confidence. Or we could invite developers and citizens to propose what they think would work, pick one or more limited sites for pilot, learn from that experience, adjust and expand.

The County Board can pounce on an early win for rapid deployment by quickly enacting a handful of zoning ordinance amendments to correct technical errors and process noncontroversial amendments consistent with adopted policy.

In Fortune magazine’s eulogy of Kodak’s demise, they observed, “It is the more nuanced story of how easy it can be to get things wrong, even when trying with the best of intentions to do everything right. It’s a cautionary tale of the need for deeper understanding of what innovation really means, and how it is infinitely more vital than most people think it is, even as it isn’t about any single product or widget or technology.”

Arlington would be wise to define our moment — and our future — with an embrace of iterative rapid deployment innovation.

Erik Gutshall is a member of the Arlington County Board elected in 2017 and former Chair of the Planning Commission. A small business owner, he lives in Lyon Park with his wife, Renee, and their three daughters.


Progressive Voice: Canvassing in the Time of Choler

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.

By John F. Seymour

Updated 3:45 “Why am I doing this?” It was a lovely summer morning and I could be watching my grandson’s soccer game, or finishing the crossword, or dividing perennials. Instead, I was knocking on the doors of 35 strangers in Arlington.

The homeowner looked at me with the familiar impatient frown. But it (thankfully) morphed into a wry grin as she saw this thin, white-haired, unprepossessing guy. I could see the speech bubble above her head –“No clue who this is, but he seems harmless.”

I introduced myself as a volunteer for Arlington Democrats. I asked whether she was registered to vote, and was likely to vote in the upcoming election. For a likely Democratic voter, I simply highlighted the importance of every vote–a message made more credible following the one-vote loss of the Democratic candidate for the House of Delegates in Newport News in 2017 and the repercussions of that loss on the evenly-divided House. I was prepared to engage on issues, but Saturday morning conversations with the uninvited typically hold little appeal — for either person. I thanked her and went on to the next door. Thirty-two doors to go.

So why do we canvass, particularly those of us who guard our own privacy, dislike arguments and are by temperament very reserved?

The Practical Reason: At bottom, we do it because we believe in the party’s platform and values and have the time to, perhaps, nudge turnout a tiny bit. Door-to-door canvassing is generally believed to increase voter turnout among frequent voters–at least marginally. Turnout in non-presidential elections is particularly important for Democrats. And Arlington Democratic turnout has become critical in statewide races.

Where Sen. Warner and then-Gov. McAuliffe won with narrow statewide voting totals (a 1% margin for Warner and 2.5% margin for McAuliffe), Arlington voters provided winning margins of more than 40% for both candidates–enough, together with other northern Virginia jurisdictions, to offset deep red voting elsewhere. Although Sen. Tim Kaine’s re-election race this year is unlikely to be close, turnout can help with down ballot candidates, proposed constitutional amendments, and bond referenda.

The Real Reason: But canvassing these days is, at least for me, far more important as an outlet for outrage at the flood of voter suppression measures championed by Republican legislators in Richmond. Virginia’s photo ID law–among the strictest in the country–purports to fight an epidemic of voter fraud but is viewed, by all but the most credulous, as a tactic to disenfranchise eligible Democratic voters.

Indeed, Republican legislators have fought hard for legislation requiring any voter submitting an application for an absentee ballot by mail to submit a photo ID. Such a law seems absurd because the registrar would have no corporeal being standing before him to compare to the photograph. The absurdity did nothing, however, to discourage the Virginia House and Senate from passing the bill on party line votes, although the Republicans were unable to override then-Gov. McAuliffe’s veto.

Virginia also remains one of four states to permanently disenfranchise citizens with past felony convictions, unless the Governor grants relief. Such laws have their roots in Virginia’s Reconstruction Era efforts to deny civil rights to newly freed slaves. In most states, convicted felons regain the right to vote upon release from prison or at thereafter.

Although then-Gov. McAuliffe expanded upon the efforts of prior governors by issuing an Executive Order restoring voting rights to convicted felons upon completion of their sentences, the order was subject to a successful Republican legal challenge. Currently, the Governor has begun to issue voting restoration orders on an individual basis, over the strong objections of Republican legislators.

Absentee voting, too, continues to be curbed by Republican lawmakers. Republicans continue to oppose efforts by Virginia Democrats to extend and legitimize early “no-excuse” absentee voting. Republicans have even opposed legislation seeking to allow certain caregivers or voters older than 70 to vote absentee without an excuse. As Republicans are well aware, Democrats lead Republicans by a wide margin in absentee voting.  Broadened absentee voting rights, irrespective of their obvious benefits in furthering democracy and civil society as a whole, simply do not serve Republican interests.

In the face of efforts to dampen voting rights, canvassing represents, for many of us, an individual act of defiance against the dysfunctional ugliness of contemporary politics and Republican efforts to preserve and extend Jim Crow-era restrictions on state voting rights. However time-consuming and awkward it can seem, canvassing is the very stuff of democracy. In these days when a governing national party sows discord and incites contempt for government and its institutions, canvassing is not an antidote to cynicism and despair. But it can be, even for the shy, a weekly tonic.

John F. Seymour is a long-time resident of Arlington, Virginia.


Progressive Voice: Time for Arlington to Choose — Factions or the Future?

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Maura McMahon

People familiar with the Federalist papers may see James Madison’s factionalism alive and well in Arlington’s governance and citizen advocacy today. It is borne out in colored t-shirts, divisive rhetoric, project delays and failures to make bold decisions. It is personified by the ongoing “North” v. “South” Arlington discourse and evident in the demographic differences of our neighborhoods and schools.

Factionalism should not fuel our decision-making. Limited assets, needs of a growing population, and operating costs of an expanding school system have come to a head. Disconnected planning and out-of-sync budgets and processes preclude our ability to efficiently serve common interests:

  • The Neighborhood Conservation Advisory Commission (NCAC) emphasizes neighborhood-specific interests, pitting neighborhoods against each other without prioritizing concerns.
  • Development projects that over-emphasize site-specific matters and neighbors’ preferences fail to maximize benefits to the larger community. Opportunities are lost due to leaders’ reluctance to operate outside familiar norms or to engage private developers in addressing the full implications of a project’s impact.
  • Decision timelines that are out of sync with appointed working group schedules or charges dilute the importance of broad community input, ignite civic distrust, and prolong real solutions.

For instance, a delay in establishing the Career Center Working Group (CCWG) put its work off-track of a crucial budget process. Critical decisions were rushed and based on incomplete information before the group’s work concluded. The relevance of more than 30 community volunteers’ and staff members’ time and effort was put into question.

The Career Center site is approximately 12.5 acres and home to Patrick Henry Elementary School, Arlington Community High School, Arlington Tech, numerous academic programs within the Career Center, and the Columbia Pike public library. Since January, CCWG has worked to develop a plan to add 800 seats to the Career Center facility and evaluate how to optimize future development on the site, including amenities for a possible fourth high school.

The complexity of redeveloping this parcel illustrates the necessity to look beyond the immediate school needs and to employ coordinated planning. It is a prime prospect for a new Arlington Way: re-prioritizing County projects to synchronize planning across departments and Arlington Public Schools (APS), providing maximum benefits to various stakeholders, and meeting critical needs in a more timely and cost-effective way.

Such an approach could simultaneously extend the range of benefits beyond schools to Parks and Recreation, transportation services, the public library, commercial development, and the vision for a revitalized Columbia Pike.

Arlington County says its Comprehensive Plan “… is one of the (County’s) most important decision-making and priority-setting tools” and guides “coordinated development.” But it is comprised of several plans for an array of independent concerns and does not include APS.

By integrating schools and the various County priorities:

  • The county’s Creative Preschoolers program could work with APS to expand preschool access;
  • Urban Forestry could help APS and the county create natural playgrounds with interactive play elements to complement science and physical education curriculum and enhance benefits gained from exposure to nature;
  • The county could revise permitting processes to reduce school construction costs and timeframes;
  • Transportation could coordinate bus routes for secondary students, in turn expanding transit services for all residents and enabling APS to extend existing bus resources to its growing elementary enrollment;
  • The county could implement zoning and housing policies that generate economically diverse neighborhoods and schools, reducing disparities and maximizing opportunities;
  • County and School Boards could cooperate to eliminate obstacles that prevent the optimal use of existing sites and facilities.

Madison cited “factionalism” as a threat to sound public policy. Today, the Joint Facilities Advisory Committee and Advisory Committee on Transportation Choices are steps forward. But the County can make swift progress through smart inter-departmental planning. APS can accomplish more by employing holistic decision-making and a long-term vision. As citizens, we can reject factionalism and unite around our common goals.

Collectively, we can reaffirm Arlington’s standing as a leader in progressive governance and community engagement, turning opportunities like the Career Center site into models of exceptional achievement instead of exercises in frustration and divisiveness.

Maura McMahon is the mother of two children in Arlington Public Schools. An Arlington resident since 2001, she has served in numerous capacities including the Thomas Jefferson, South Arlington, and Career Center working groups. McMahon is president of the Arlington County Council of PTAs.


Progressive Voice: Uniquely Arlington

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.

By Joan Horwitt

You may know that Arlington is geographically the smallest self-governing county in the U.S. It is also home to the country’s most famous cemetery. But what else makes Arlington truly unique?

To the short list, I would add the one-of-a-kind LAWNS 2 LETTUCE 4 LUNCH program, a highly successful, home-grown school and multi-neighborhood collaboration to promote healthy eating and community engagement. Nowhere else in the country — to the best of my knowledge — do hundreds of elementary school children and neighbors come together in the spring and fall, grow a bountiful crop of organic greens and celebrate their harvest with a spectacular multi-ingredient Fiesta Salad extravaganza for more than 700 students, teachers and neighborhood volunteers.

It is now a common yet extraordinary sight at the Fiesta Salad celebration, held at Ashlawn Elementary School, to witness girls and boys vying with each other to see who can eat the most salad servings. We now have scores of stories from students and parents that indicate how attitudes and behavior about healthy eating can be transformed.

LAWNS 2 LETTUCE 4 LUNCH, which spans three Ashlawn-connected neighborhoods, is a model that could and should be implemented countywide, in part to strengthen community engagement and because 26 percent of Arlington’s children are already overweight or obese even before they start kindergarten, according to a report in 2015 by the Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth and Families.

Starting eight years ago, LAWNS 2 LETTUCE 4 LUNCH became a program of the nonprofit Reevesland Learning Center that I and other volunteers formed, inspired by the legacy of the late Arlington dairy farmer Nelson Reeves who tended an iconic vegetable garden adjacent to his farmhouse overlooking Bluemont Park. He became famous for sharing his crop and knowledge with neighbors. After his death in 2000, Arlington County purchased his property but his garden disappeared — until it was reimagined by local residents as the Reevesland Learning Garden, a centerpiece of the LAWNS 2 LETTUCE 4 LUNCH program.

Every planting season in the Reevesland Learning Garden, and at two other sites, hundreds of Ashlawn students get excited about curriculum-based lessons in math, science and language arts while they plant organic seeds in raised beds that were built by volunteers. The seeds have colorful, intriguing names. “Tennis Ball,” a beautiful green Bibb lettuce, was one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites at Monticello, and “Mayan jaguar” is an intriguing dark green romaine with maroon speckles. And students sometimes select red romaine seeds that were also used by NASA at the Space Station for a farming experiment in 2014. The students learn the different characteristic shapes of the lettuce leaves and why the darker the color, the more nutritious it is. This is a revelation for those only familiar with iceberg.

We have witnessed the educational power of student involvement and experiential learning among young children of diverse academic levels. But that is only part of the LAWNS 2 LETTUCE 4 LUNCH story. The simultaneous participation of adults, both parents and non-parents alike, helps to reinforce the community value of growing and eating healthy food.

To enlist adult participation, we go door-to-door in the three neighborhoods surrounding Ashlawn, inviting neighbors to grow organic greens in their yards or gardens to promote healthy eating. Typically, more than a hundred sign up and, like the students, they select a seed variety of their choice. When they bring in their crop sealed in Ziploc bags several days before the Fiesta Salad celebration, they are often as excited as the students.

Yes, LAWNS 2 LETTUCE 4 LUNCH is unique, but it should be commonplace throughout Arlington and beyond. The message is simple yet powerful: involve the kids when they’re young and give them a voice in the decision-making, reach out to neighbors and make it fun and you’ll have community-supported healthy eating on a scale that can really make a difference.

Joan Horwitt is a longtime Arlingtonian and one of the founders and president of the Reevesland Learning Center, which runs the LAWNS 2 LETTUCE 4 LUNCH program in collaboration with Arlington Public Schools.


Progressive Voice: Bipartisan Cooperation on Trade Policy Would Be for the Greater Good

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Kevin Wolf

A core progressive value is getting things done for the greater good, which often requires bipartisan collaboration. Regardless of what happens in the November elections, trade policy is an important area for bipartisan cooperation because it affects us all.

I am a traditional Democrat but see remarkably few differences of opinion with my mainstream Republican friends on current trade developments. Basically, we don’t disagree with the administration’s general goals in concept, but fundamentally disagree with its zero sum approach (for us to win others must lose) to achieving those goals. Also, the tariffs based on national security justifications often appear to be more like protectionist industrial policies.

The United States has overwhelmingly benefitted from free trade, which has been supported by presidents of both parties. President Obama, for example, recognized that because 95 percent of the world’s consumers and 80 percent of gross domestic product are outside the United States, it was vital to open up growing markets in Asia with the Trans-Pacific Partnership. There is no doubt that trade has negative costs, and we have a responsibility to aggressively enforce our laws and help those workers disrupted by trade agreements. But, overall, America overwhelmingly benefits and our peace and economic prosperity since World War II has resulted from a global trading system that we built.

As seen in the daily news, this administration has taken a fundamentally different approach to trade policy that largely revolves around imposing tariffs. Tariffs are, however, a tax on consumers and provoke retaliation, leading to more harm than help for U.S. companies and consumers.

To put the issue in local terms, think about schools in the construction pipeline, and what a higher cost of steel for those buildings would mean. Think about higher prices on consumer goods. Think about your business and ask how it could survive if, overnight, your costs increased 25 percent.

The issue often gets boiled down to a “fair trade” versus “free trade” debate, but it is really about drawing the right lines to achieve policies that:

  • Allow for economies to benefit from their advantages (things that they do better than other countries),
  • Respect the rules of international trade, reduce barriers and foster good relations with allies,
  • Support domestic innovation policies and protect other parts of the economy harmed from unfair practices or that get left behind,
  • Reflect our values, such as protecting the environment and rights for labor, and, fundamentally,
  • Do more good than harm.

Proposing bipartisan cooperation may seem strange in the current highly partisan climate, but the issue affects too many people to leave current actions unchecked.

There is, however, recent precedent for how a bipartisan approach and an open legislative process can lead to success. Legislation became law this week that enhances U.S. government authorities to address emerging national security issues associated with foreign investment in the U.S. and the export of critical technologies. The legislation improved over time because Congress used a nonpartisan, bicameral, civil (mostly), principled process that included robust hearings, thoughtful debate and engagement with stakeholders, former officials from Democratic and Republican administrations, other subject matter experts and Trump administration officials. The debate identified the real national security and trade issues and addressed them in a way that all these interests could largely agree on.

My modest proposal here is for those on all parts of the left and all parts of the right to take a breath, collect the facts and work through the current trade issues together for the greater good.

Kevin Wolf is a long-time Arlington resident and was the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration from 2010-2017.


Progressive Voice: Better Incentives Needed for Housing Conservation Districts to Succeed

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.

By Ralph Johnson

This past December, the Arlington County Board voted to establish 12 Housing Conservation Districts (HCDs), from areas in Westover and Penrose to portions along and near Lee Highway. The expressed intent was to “preserve and enhance” market-rate* rental housing in Arlington. Apartments in these districts are no longer allowed to be replaced “by right” with townhouses.

The County Board promised to develop “incentives” to the owners of these apartments for removing the “by right” option, such as the relaxation of some zoning requirements to allow an increase in the size of existing units or additional density to the site for in-fill and bump-outs. If the owner uses one of the options, the owner would be required to commit a number of his market-rate affordable units to become “committed affordable” units, with direct county oversight and guaranteed lower rents.

These apartments are market-rate affordable because they are old (many 75 years old), functionally obsolete buildings, with small units and few, if any, amenities. The infrastructure of the apartments is rapidly deteriorating and market rents are not keeping up with the expense of maintaining them. It is highly unlikely that a private owner will invest money to build new units that will be attached to his old structure. And, his reward for doing this is to give up some of his market units to become committed affordable units. This is not going to happen.

With this plan, the county is punishing the very owners that are now providing low-income housing. The “incentives” being discussed so far do not provide an adequate trade-off for loss of the “by right” option.

Having your apartment building placed in one of these districts reduces the value of the property. The townhouse “by right” option was the exit strategy for the owner and the lender as well. As the apartments age, the value will fall, continually and inexorably.

The owner can still apply to build townhouses on his site but now he must go through the onerous and costly site plan process, leaving him little if he comes out on the other side of this long process. He could replace his old apartment with a new building but most, if not all, of these old apartments were built prior to current zoning regulations. Under current zoning regulations for a new apartment, the owner would end up with significantly fewer units than he owns now.

So what can be done to preserve market-rate affordable housing while still ensuring property owners in HCDs can operate cost-effectively?

County staff have been working this spring and summer to recommend incentives beyond bump-outs and in-fill, and a citizen group has been advising them. Staff and the citizen group are looking into the idea of awarding TDRs (transfer of development rights) to property owners if they agree to maintain their apartment rents at or below 80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI). TDRs are a tool to help preserve a special condition (such as open space or affordable housing) on a parcel of land by “transferring” its density and other development rights to a different parcel.

Here’s an example of how TDRs could work. Six years ago the County Board approved a plan that would award TDRs to owners of a historic designated apartment building if they would agree to permanently preserve the apartment building. With the sale of the TDRs to a developer, the owners were able to pay off their debt. The preserved apartment building in question faced a huge plumbing replacement job this past year but, because there was no debt payment, the owners’ cash flow was sufficient to meet this challenge.

The buildings were preserved, 84 market-rate affordable units were preserved and the means to maintain the old buildings was set. This is the kind of innovative idea that must be incorporated into the HCD program if it is to be successful.

Without creative and aggressive incentives and options for apartment-building owners in HCDs, the plan will be nothing other than an effort to hold back the tide — a futile effort and a prescription for a slow death of market-rate rental housing in Arlington.

* Market-Rate Affordable Units (MARKs) are owned by the private market, with apartment rents that are affordable (generally at 80 percent of Area Median Income [AMI]) to low- and moderate-income households by virtue of the age, location, condition and/or amenities of the property. Rents in Committed Affordable Units are generally at or below 60 percent of the AMI.

Ralph Johnson is a longtime Arlington resident who has owned and managed apartment buildings in Arlington for 45 years.


Progressive Voice: Zero-Energy Schools are a Net Positive for Arlington

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.

By Laura Saul Edwards

Skyrocketing enrollment is forcing Arlington Public Schools (APS) to build new schools at a time when the international trade situation is driving up steel prices and a persistently high commercial vacancy rate at home is affecting revenue.

It’s the perfect time for innovation to squeeze the most from construction dollars. One way is through zero-energy buildings that produce more electricity than they consume. In the process, the buildings generate savings for the school system while battling climate change and revolutionizing learning.

The first of these certified zero-energy schools in Arlington is Discovery Elementary School. Designed to reduce energy use intensity as low as possible, the materials, siting and massing of the school did much to lower its energy consumption. The 1,710 photovoltaic solar cells atop Discovery further lowered energy consumption to the point that the building produces more electricity than it consumes.

These solar panels arrayed on Discovery’s rooftop play a major role in lowering the school’s annual utility costs by approximately $100,000 in comparison to a typical APS elementary school of similar size, according to John C. Chadwick, Assistant Superintendent for Facilities and Operations.

It cost nearly $1.6 million to install the solar panels and an online energy dashboard that displays the resultant energy data in real time. It is estimated this amount will be paid off in 15 years. The evidence so far shows the return on investment is considerable and worth replicating across the school system.

Discovery’s surplus energy will soon be even more valuable to the school system. Thanks to legislation introduced by Del. Richard “Rip” Sullivan, Jr. (D-48) and signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), Dominion Energy will launch a pilot program next year that allows the school’s surplus energy to offset utility costs at other schools. In effect, the program will reimburse the school system for its energy-efficient school. Discovery’s surplus electricity could earn approximately $9,000 per year for APS.

Two more zero-energy schools will soon follow — Alice West Fleet Elementary School in 2019 and a new elementary school at the Reed site in 2021. These two schools are part of an APS vision in which a network of solar panels and energy dashboards exist at every one of its schools.

What is remarkable is how zero-energy design transforms a school building into a teaching tool.

Discovery’s energy dashboard is a tool for teaching math, science and sustainability. Teachers collect data from the dashboard to formulate homework and test questions, teach graphing and analytics, and use in writing prompts and art projects. Students also collected data from the dashboard to complete an audit that earned the school a Zero Energy Certification award from the International Living Future Institute in April 2018.

In addition, four of the school’s solar panels are on a rooftop learning lab. Through it all, students and staff take control of how their actions impact the world around them and use that information to become responsible stewards of the planet.

Perhaps a recent American Institute of Architects report said it best, noting “Discovery offers a positive example of a solution to the global crisis of climate change — and along the way emboldens students with the expectation that they are creative participants in those solutions.”

The age and condition of some existing Arlington schools mean that reaping the benefits of zero-energy design will require creativity and time. This is why APS is poised to enter a Power Purchase Agreement to lease roof space at schools to vendors who will install solar panels on them. The vendors will sell the power they produce to APS at lower rates that the utility company charges, reducing acquisition and utility costs for the school system while mitigating exposure to long-term increases, said Chadwick in May. Five schools have been selected and the resulting savings will fund zero-energy upgrades at other schools.

Zero-energy schools will also help Arlington generate 100 percent of the power it uses through renewable, sustainable means like solar by 2035, as outlined in the Community Energy Plan.

APS deserves credit for its drive to transform school buildings into zero-energy facilities. The long-term benefits outweigh criticism that might be levied against investing in such far-reaching innovation during a period of tight budgets. These facilities will generate long-term savings and income, fight climate change and make a lasting and positive impact on teaching and learning. That’s a lot of bang for the buck.

Laura Saul Edwards has lived in Arlington since 1994. She serves on the School Board’s Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Projects (FAC) and is an APS 2012 Honored Citizen.


Progressive Voice: Creating Jobs That Pay and Stay — Unleashing Virginia’s Untapped Potential

 Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By Vivek Patil

The Virginia economy has extraordinary untapped potential. Arlington and other municipalities could tap that potential in ways that bring prosperity to regions lagging behind and that allow those already doing well to secure their future.

Unleashing that potential will require a statewide approach that nevertheless remains sensitive to local needs. Such an approach would take advantage of the synergies that result from bringing our urban, small town and rural areas together under a common strategy — a strategy that creates jobs that pay well and stay put in an increasingly globalized world.

But what would such a strategy involve? Part of the answer is expanding clean technology industries, which provide products and services related to renewable energy, energy efficiency, advanced batteries, and state-of-the-art energy monitoring and control devices. Another part is sustainable agriculture, forestry and ecotourism.

These areas represent emerging strengths in the Virginia economy. They could make the commonwealth a clean technology center for the world and a path-breaking player in the management of sustainable natural resources. Developing these strengths would align the Virginia economy and its people with powerful sustainability trends that are now shaping the future across the globe.

Clean technology investments alone are expected to reach $6.4 trillion worldwide between 2014 and 2023, according to the World Bank. Sustainable agriculture and forestry bring premium prices for the food and fiber they produce. Ecotourism helps preserve Virginia’s natural beauty by making it profitable to safeguard.

Let’s explore the possibilities more concretely. Let’s imagine that an Arlington high school graduate develops a novel clean technology invention such as a next-generation battery while attending Virginia Tech. Let’s imagine he or she is supported with the financing and commercialization assistance necessary for a new enterprise. Let’s imagine a partnership with rural communities in southwest Virginia that with state incentives manufacture these next-generation batteries for the world market.

Similarly, let’s imagine a rural entrepreneur who establishes a statewide agricultural supply network that provides sustainable produce and livestock products from southern Virginia to food cooperatives and specialty grocers in northern Virginia’s high-density urban corridors.

Realizing this economic vision will require listening to what communities actually want. Conversations with Virginia’s communities would guide the development of critical economic infrastructure. That infrastructure might include a joint university-community college consortium to educate the needed workforce and a public-private coalition of clean technology investors.

So how would we summarize the untapped potential that will underpin such a strategy? Virginia has exceptional, but underutilized advantages that include:

  • Locales remarkable for their diversity and high quality of life.
  • A low-tax, business-friendly environment.
  • Agricultural and forestry resources ready for expanded sustainable development.
  • Natural beauty that attracts tourists.
  • Universities and colleges ranked among the nation’s best that are the key to a highly educated and trained workforce.
  • Synergies that come from linking businesses with the federal government, the military and leading global nonprofits in northern Virginia and the District of Columbia.
  • Proximity to major federal innovation centers at the Department of Defense including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Department of Energy including the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

By thinking broadly about Virginia’s possibilities, we can pursue a unified strategy that will allow us to develop many more homegrown businesses while persuading out-of-state and foreign enterprises to bring operations here.

If we can succeed in building a clean technology economy, there might come a day when Virginia ships batteries to carmakers throughout North America, Europe and Asia.

If we can succeed in expanding sustainable agriculture, forestry and ecotourism, we can ensure wise stewardship of our natural resources that will then provide long-term jobs to Virginians.

These outcomes exemplify a winning combination worth pursuing for the sake of all Virginia and for the world beyond us. If we Virginians make the right moves, “Made with Love in Virginia” could become an emblem of forward thinking and innovation across the globe.

Vivek Patil, Ph.D., is a biotech entrepreneur and a Director at PerkinElmer Inc. He is a member of Arlington’s Economic Development Commission and co-founder of BuildingBridgesVA and Ascent Virginia, two social impact ventures focused on bridging the social, political and economic divide in Arlington and across Virginia. 


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