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Gold’s Gym in Ballston (staff photo by James Jarvis)

Looser parking requirements could encourage more gyms and shops to fill Arlington’s commercial real estate vacancies, the county believes.

The Arlington County Board on Saturday unanimously voted to have staff research possible changes to the Arlington County Zoning Ordinance and advertise requests to amend it. In addition to slashing parking minimums for gyms, the county is considering whether to allow parking lots to designate more spaces for compact cars.

Public hearings about these requirements are scheduled to take place in April. The county argues some of the regulations — set decades ago — may be outdated and an aggravating factor for Arlington’s rising commercial vacancy rate.

For instance, Arlington fitness centers must offer five times more parking spaces per square foot of floor area than other retail or service businesses. This is more restrictive than requirements in Alexandria and Fairfax County and, according to a report, a holdover of transportation patterns from the 1960s.

“The minimum parking ratio for athletic and health clubs is a standard set decades ago and does not reflect current land use and development patterns, public transportation access or regulations in Arlington,” the report says.

County staff noted that many potential office tenants look for nearby fitness facilities when selecting a location. Fitness centers also tend to attract establishments such as spas and physical therapy centers.

“Minimum parking ratios… can derail an athletic or health club from filling high demand, ideally located vacant space,” the report says.

The document also argues that the county should reconsider a 2002 regulation that disallows compact car spaces in areas “that were assumed to have a high turnover.” This includes retail stores, grocery stores and medical and health care facilities, as well as anywhere “where there is likely to be a large number of elderly [people].”

“Staff believes this prohibition is worth reexamining,” the report says.

Finally, another county report argues that loosening off-street parking requirements could help some shopping centers and small commercial sites attract new tenants. It notes that current parking regulations, as well as insufficient shared parking within commercial and mixed-use districts, can create barriers for businesses.

“This is especially true when multiple businesses are required to use the available parking on-site with limited capacity,” the document says. “Expanded shared parking regulations can be an effective measure to help address similar on-site parking deficiencies.”

All of these initiatives are part of a larger effort to combat Arlington’s high commercial vacancy rate. In another bid to boost Arlington’s commercial resiliency, the Board authorized public hearings for April about whether to loosen restrictions on large media screens in outdoor areas.

Later this year, the Board is expected to discuss guidance on office-to-apartment conversions as well as potentially simplifying the major and minor site plan amendment process, which landowners must navigate when repurposing or renovating large development projects.

Within the next several months, Board members are also expected to consider plans to facilitate changes of use within existing buildings and adopt a more flexible ordinance around signage.

Other possible ordinance changes concern storage uses at office buildings as well as the process for repurposing underutilized parking spaces.

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A year into new stormwater requirements for single-family home projects, homebuilders and remodelers say even the improved process is laborious and expensive, costing homeowners extra money.

On the other hand, Arlington County says that permit review times have shortened and that the program will be evaluated for possible improvements.

Before September 2021, builders had to demonstrate that a given property had ways to reduce pollution in stormwater runoff to comply with state regulations aimed at cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

Last year, the county began requiring projects that disturb at least 2,500 square feet of land to demonstrate the redeveloped property can retain at least 3 inches of stormwater during flash flooding events through features such as tanks, planters and permeable paver driveways. Builders must also refurbish the soil with soils that increase water retention.

Arlington Dept. of Environmental Services spokesman Peter Golkin says improvements like these “are vital as we continue the work toward a flood resilient Arlington,” especially as “the pace of single family home construction in Arlington remains strong.”

But the regulations are fairly new and could change, Golkin said.

“The first projects in LDA 2.0 are now coming to construction, and the County is entering the phase of evaluation to identify potential adjustments and improvements,” he said. ”The County expects to have more information about any LDA 2.0 updates by mid-2023.”

The updates were intended to address increasing infill development and rainfall intensity, and the downstream effects of runoff and impacts to the county’s aging storm drains and local streams.

Builders and remodelers say the changes have caused new headaches and resulted in projects shrinking in size.

“It only gets more complicated, costs more, and takes longer,” says architect Trip DeFalco.

Andrew Moore, president of Arlington Designer Homes, said he’s avoided this process in many projects after telling the clients about the potential costs and permitting time.

“People are motivated to think, do I need that bump-out to be 14 feet? I can live with 12 feet,” he said. “It saves you $50,000 and 3 months.”

Despite the hassle, permit applications are still coming in at a clip of, on average, 20 per month.

Responding to redevelopment

In the wake of the destructive July 2019 flash flood, residents has discussed and voted on ways to address stormwater mitigation in Arlington, while the county has put more funding toward stormwater improvement projects.

The issue of runoff has figured into debates about how to protect streams and the impacts of allowing the construction of two- to eight-unit “Missing Middle” houses in Arlington, though such projects could only occupy the footprint currently allowed for single-family homes on a given property.

In the wake of the flash flooding, the county introduced new regulations for what it says is one of the biggest runoff contributors: new single-family homes.

“Ensuring more robust control of runoff from new single family homes, which create the majority of new impervious area from regulated development activity, remains a top County priority as part of the comprehensive Flood Resilient Arlington initiative,” Golkin said.

An average of 167 single-family homes have been built and an average of 155 torn down annually over the last 11 years, according to Arlington’s development tracker tool. Demolitions peaked in 2015 and completed projects in 2016.

Single-family detached demolitions and completed projects (via Arlington County)

A past of pollution

DeFalco, who spent a few years as a builder, too, says the “county’s hands are a little bit tied” on this issue because they have to meet state requirements aimed at curbing pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

Runoff brought fertilizer into the bay, causing algae and plants to grow quickly and then die, sink to the bottom, where they decayed and used up oxygen, says civil engineer Roger Bohr.

“The state is pushing on the county and the federal government is pushing on the state,” DeFalco said. “But the implementation on the homeowner level is pretty onerous… I don’t think the residents have any idea what’s going in their side yards.”

Golkin compared the transition period right now to when new state stormwater management requirements took effect in 2014.

“Staff and the building and engineering community ultimately came up to speed,” he said.

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(Updated 4:05 p.m.) Arlington restaurants can now apply to increase the number of diners they are permitted to serve indoors and outdoors, according to Arlington Economic Development.

The county is allowing restaurants to temporarily up their maximum capacity so that the eateries can keep using — and possibly expand — their pandemic-era temporary outdoor seating areas (TOSAs), even as indoor capacity restrictions have lifted, the AED newsletter to local businesses said.

Kate Bates, President and CEO of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, praised the decision.

“The Chamber of Commerce applauds the county for moving forward to extend TOSAs in way that works for restaurants and the community,”  Bates said. “We shared this with our member restaurants, and they are very pleased. Some made big investment in TOSA areas and they’re able to use that to draw in more customers.”

When restaurants prepared to reopen last summer, they needed outdoor dining to make up for the space they lost inside to social distancing requirements. Additionally, the format had a lower risk of transmission than indoor dining.

So in May 2o2o, the Arlington County Board approved a process through which restaurants could obtain a permit to set up these seating areas, provided that they met fire and safety codes. In December, the board granted restaurant and bar owners the ability to set up in common areas, such as plazas.

One year later, capacity restrictions governing Virginia restaurants have lifted. In Arlington, that means restaurants still using their TOSAs could technically exceed their permitted occupancy maximums. So the county is allowing restaurants to request a temporary certificate of occupancy (TCO) for their TOSAs, which will allow them to operate these seating areas while also operating at full capacity indoors.

The TCOs will expire with the TOSAs, which will remain in operation at least through 2021. The seating areas are permitted by the county’s Continuity of Government Ordinance, which will run for six months beyond the declared end of the pandemic.

“We really can’t emphasize enough that, even though TOSAs were helpful, restaurants still faced incredible losses and decimation,” Bates said. “In 2021, restaurants still need support from the losses over the last 16 months.”

But restaurant owners can’t run out and set up more outdoor seating just yet. Inspections, permits and amendments will be required to make these changes, according to AED.

Those interested in getting a temporary occupancy permit should schedule a free code consultation with the county, the economic development agency said.

“To ensure the safety of all restaurant staff and patrons, the Virginia Building and Fire Prevention Code regulates capacity limitations,” said AED. “For this reason, the ability to obtain a TCO for a TOSA will depend on a restaurant’s individual circumstances and existing indoor and/or outdoor capacity.”

Those interested in expanding their TOSAs must also submit an amendment to the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority, which regulates liquor sales in these seating areas, the newsletter said. TOSAs approved for liquor sales will be able to serve drinks at least for through the end of 2021.

But the processes put in place last year did not work for all restaurants. The owner of Summers Restaurant said delays in TOSA permitting are one reason why the establishment closed last year.

And Medium Rare owner Mark Bucher said application troubles and fire codes made it impossible to seat his Arlington guests outside and keep them warm — without breaking the law.

Going forward, Bates said the Chamber wants to see the county “make it work” for restaurants facing extra hurdles, rather than coming up reasons for barring them from participating. The process needs to be a streamlined “not just on paper but in practice,” she said.

Eventually, the Chamber would like to see these outdoor seating areas become permanent parts of local codes, she said.

“This is community-building,” Bates said. “Outdoor dining makes Arlington vibrant and promotes other community interactions.”

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Responding to increasing storms, flooding and ongoing development, Arlington County will be changing its stormwater management regulations for single-family home construction projects.

The new requirements — and how they came about — have developers worried.

Arlington’s Department of Environmental Services will require developers to use tools such as water storage tanks to ensure new homes can retain at least 3 inches of rain, which will affect applications submitted after Sept. 13, 2021.

Currently, developers are only on the hook to improve the quality of water runoff, using rain gardens, planters, permeable driveways and tree cover.

DES staff tell ARLnow the new system will manage more water, protect downhill properties, reduce plan approval times, and give homeowners stormwater facilities that are feasible to maintain.

In a statement, staff said the change “reflects future-focused and balanced responsiveness to a diverse customer base that includes downhill neighbors, property owners, and builders.”

But some developers who work in Arlington County says the changes blindsided them and they want more input. They predict significant potential cost increases to homeowners and argue that this shifts the burden onto individuals, rather than placing responsibility with neighborhoods or the county itself.

“There is broad concern with the roll-out of this,” said Yuri Sagatov of Sagatov Homes. “There are just a lot of questions and there aren’t a lot of answers. We’re all waiting to get more information from the county to see how the changes might impact properties.”

Staff said these changes were precipitated by the increase in heavy rainfall, the growing intensity of storms, and a sense among residents that the county is not doing enough to protect properties — particularly those that are downhill from development, from the runoff caused by new homes.

A county study last summer found that the soil under new homes is 10 times less permeable than the soil under existing homes, staff said.

With the tanks, which appear to be above ground in photos, the goal is to retain rainwater during flash flooding events like that of July 8, 2019.

“Gravity detention tanks… promote a ‘slow it down and soak it in’ strategy to capture and release runoff slowly as a more robust and reliable way to handle intense rainfall,” says a DES memo.

It seems like a feasible alternative to more expensive underground systems, but the challenge will be blending them in aesthetically.

“They are talking about massive above ground cisterns,” the owner of one remodeling firm told ARLnow. “I would think neighbors would hate this. They’re going to be hideous.”

As for engaging developers during the process, county staff said enhancements to an existing program only require the county to consult with stakeholders. The county surveyed neighbors, home builders and engineers in 2019 and met with engineers early this year.

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Arlington was almost poised to get rid of a “redundant” regulation for contractors this past weekend.

The Arlington County Board was slated to consider revising a chapter of county code related to home improvement regulations during its meeting this past Saturday, November 16. Specifically, members were scheduled to vote on nixing a requirement for home improvement contractors to match county regulations with state regulations.

In Virginia, contractors paid more than $1,000 for a project must seek either a class A, B, or C license based on the scale of their projects. If a contractor is seeking project that pays under $10,000 they can apply for a class C license, while projects up to $120,000 require a Class B license, and more expensive projects require a Class A license. Officials said because Virginia didn’t previously require contractors to sit for an Class C exam, Arlington decided to administer its own to verify their qualifications.

“However, as of December 1, 2012, all contractors seeking a license from the state Board of Contractors are required to take an examination in their specialty, for all classes (A, B & C),” said county spokeswoman Erika Moore. “Because the Board of Contractors is already administering a test to ensure these individuals are qualified, having the County administer another test is redundant and not cost efficient.”

In an email to ARLnow on Friday, Moore added that the county has only administered one test since 2012, which cost the county “the time it takes staff to process the required paperwork to administer and review that test and then to issue the license.”

However, the proposal to nix the exam — which was originally a part of the Board’s consent agenda — was later removed from the meeting agenda later last week.

Moore told ARLnow that staff removed the item from the agenda because “the report [to the Board] was not completed in time for posting of the consent agenda 72 hours prior to the County Board meeting.”

When asked, she did not answer when the item is expected to return to the dais.

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At least one County Board member could be pushing to change setback regulations in a bid to provide more of a buffer between homes.

Arlington County Board member Libby Garvey recently visited an infill residential development on N. River Street, near McLean, with several neighbors she said were upset that a developer clear-cut trees on the lot and is planning to build several homes that could be located close to the neighbors.

Garvey tweeted about the issue last weekend, posting photos of the project in Arlington’s tony Chain Bridge Forest neighborhood, which in September prompted a petition from neighbors concerned about mass tree removal, a loss of privacy and decreased home values.

“This destruction has caused substantial harm to surrounding neighbors who previously had a natural green oasis abutting their backyards,” the petition says.

“I actually went to our top lawyer and said ‘This is really terrible is there something we can do?'” Garvey told ARLnow. “And he said ‘Well, maybe setbacks.'”

Garvey said state laws prevent Board members from intervening on most matters related to tree removal on private property, but the Board could weigh in on the distance required between houses — as members did earlier this year when considering accessory dwelling units.

The idea is that requiring a larger distance between buildings could help preserve existing mature trees instead of incentivizing property owners to cut them down.

Garvey said she believes this type of development — clear cutting trees and building multiple homes or very large homes — is becoming more common as housing prices spike.

“You got a lot of turnover of the baby boomers starting to move on, downsize, leave their home,” she said. “Some of those homes tend to be those smaller homes with a whole lot of yard and not a whole lot of house — and that makes for an opportunity there.” 

However, trees can also help absorb storm runoff — a topic of discussion that gained new urgency after this summer’s flash flood, which sparked conversations about the need for urgent stormwater management solutions.

When asked whether those discussions led her to request the regulatory review, Garvey said she has always been an advocate for preserving Arlington’s tree canopy.

“Looking at a big tree-covered lot turn into a big mud pie is just upsetting to everyone,” she said. “But the community as whole is more aware of [the importance of trees.]”

Garvey said she expects the review of setback regulations to take “a few months” and result in a set of recommendations to the Board.

The Board has been long-criticized by environmental activists before for its failure to preserve trees on private properties, as well as public parks.

Board members have frequently cited state laws that prevent them from interceding on private property, with former member John Vihstadt (I) once describing Virginia as a “‘mother-may-I’ state.”

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Arlington may soon be making electric scooters a more or less permanent fixture of the county’s streets and sidewalks.

The County Board will vote on an ordinance change during its meeting this Saturday, November 16 to allow e-scooter companies to operate in Arlington — provided companies fulfill the requirements of a new permitting system starting next year.

The code change would make the pilot program for “micro-mobility devices” a permanent part of Arlington’s transit system after officials originally approved a nine-month pilot program in September 2018 — and extended it ever since.

If Board members approve the proposed code changes on Saturday, it would allow scooter companies in Arlington to continue operating as long as they fulfill the requirements of the new permit application and pay the still-to-be-determined application fees by January 1, 2020. Much like the pilot program, the County Manager’s office would also be allow to cap the number of devices permitted per company, demand equitable deployment, and levy penalties.

The program will also specify some “community and information sharing requirement” according to a staff report to the Board — a similar requirement to the one in Los Angeles that Uber refused to fulfill, and which led city officials to rescind the company’s permits over Uber’s objections.

But moving forward on the scooter program in Arlington isn’t a surprise considering a recent Mobility Lab report encouraging county leaders to make the scooter program permanent.

The recent report drew support from bicycle and pedestrian advocates, and also recommended that the county roll out some changes next year, including:

  • Adding more safe infrastructure like protected bike lanes for scooters and cyclists, as outlined in the county’s recently updated Master Transportation Plan.
  • Addressing parking complaints by creating a map of approved parking spots as well as “no-go” areas.
  • Eliminating barriers to lower-income users by waiving company’s requirements that users need credit cards

Users traveled just over 400,000 miles on scooters in Arlington between Oct. 2018 and June 2019, per a staff report, but some crashes and blocked sidewalks have prompted discussions about age restrictions and designated parking spaces as well as allowing scooters on some trails.

“Staff proposes that it be permissible to use County sidewalks (with limitations), trails, and on-street bicycle facilities for micro-mobility travel, unless specifically signed/marked otherwise,” wrote county staff in a report to the Board for Saturday’s meeting. “One of the first steps in implementation of the new ordinance would be to sign/mark as prohibited for riding those key sidewalk conflict areas identified during the Pilot program.”

The question of whether scooter riders should be allowed on sidewalks has been a topic of debate among some local groups. Staff is recommending allowing sidewalk use in areas of the county where bike lanes are not a viable option.

“Key stakeholder groups including the Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Bicycle Advisory Committee, and Commission on Aging expressed concern that irresponsible sidewalk-riding could be a danger to pedestrians of any age, however they also expressed support for allowing responsible sidewalk-riding where it was not inconsistent with volumes of pedestrians using the facility, and where safe in-road options are not present,” the staff report says.

The Commission on Aging also expressed concerns that “scooter parking would create an obstruction to safe pedestrian circulation, especially near public transit stops and stations.” County staff seeks to address those concerns with restrictions that specify that scooters should be parked upright and off to the side on sidewalks, if not in a designated scooter dock.

Earlier this year, lawmakers in Richmond passed legislation requiring localities to create their own regulations for where users could ride, and park, the devices.

The new ordinance would not, however, preclude future changes to the scooter program.

“Staff commits to a review of the program and consideration of potential refinements to the ordinance at or about one year after ordinance changes go into effect,” a county staff report states.

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Food trucks lovers in Arlington may now have more opportunities to buy their meals on wheels thanks to newly loosened regulations.

The Arlington County Board approved a series of code changes during its meeting this weekend that open up more parking areas for food trucks and also allow the trucks to operate later into the night. Members voted unanimously in support of the changes as part of their consent agenda for the Saturday, September 21 meeting.

Under the updated regulations, food trucks will be now be able park in places with sidewalks at least 6 wide, down from 10 feet. The amended code also clarified that trucks are can in certain cases operate past the standard business hours of 7 a.m.-8 p.m.

In a report to the Board, county staff noted that the changes will provide “greater flexibility in establishing on-street vending zones.”

The 10-foot sidewalk requirement previously barred trucks from otherwise desirable areas. One example was 15th Street N. in Courthouse, which officials said could accommodate five food trucks were it not for the 7.5 foot-wide sidewalk not meeting the 10-foot requirement.

Food truck owners have, in the past, butted heads with the county and police over parking time limits and parking locations.

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The Arlington County Board is scheduled to vote Saturday (May 18) on a series of changes that would loosen restrictions on Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs).

ADUs are residential dwellings built on existing properties that are separate from the primary residence, like a basement apartment or a standalone structure — sometimes called a “granny flat.”

The County Board first approved standards for accessory dwellings in 2008. The Affordable Housing Master Plan in 2015 urged the creation of more ADUs as a low-cost way to boost housing options in Arlington. Regulations were loosened in 2017, but those changes only impacted apartments created within single-family homes, like in a garage or attic.

Staff at the May 6 Planning Commission meeting said there have been 10 new ADUs approved in Arlington since Jan. 1, 2018, demonstrating that there is some local interest in these types of residential units.

At that time, staff had recommended ADUs with a 1-foot side and rear setback from the property line, but the Board rejected it. Now staff is recommending a 5-foot setback, which they say is enough to mitigate the impact on a neighbor’s property but gives the homeowner enough flexibility within their own property.

Staff estimated between 37 percent and 44 percent of lots in Arlington could accommodate a detached accessory dwelling.

“The proposed zoning ordinance amendments would enable the construction of new detached accessory dwellings and reduce barriers to the conversion of existing accessory buildings into accessory dwellings,” staff said in a report. “The proposed amendment balances design flexibility, privacy and separation concerns, and the county’s housing goals.”

The project has attracted some concerns from both sides of the discussion. At the Planning Commission meeting, a local resident, whose accessory dwelling permit was denied last year, said he was excited for the new ordinance, but was frustrated that ADUs were subject to regulations like annual inspections.

Meanwhile, earlier discussions about ADUs exposed concerns from some residents that the new buildings could increase density and crowding in residential neighborhoods and have negative impacts on trees, stormwater management, noise, privacy, traffic and parking. Concerns were also expressed about ADUs being used as short-term rental units offered through services like Airbnb.

Photo via Arlington County

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Morning Notes

Woman Injured When Scooter’s Brakes Fail — “An Arlington, Virginia, woman says she had to jump off of an electric scooter moving 15 mph to avoid oncoming traffic because the rented scooter’s brakes weren’t working.” [NBC 4]

Could Goody’s Challenge Sign Rules? — Goody’s restaurant in Clarendon painted over its outdoor mural after running afoul of Arlington’s sign ordinance, but one attorney says a 2015 Supreme Court ruling may point to an avenue to challenge the county’s regulations. [Reason]

Refugees Get Car from Arlington Diocese — “A Catholic family fleeing religious persecution in their native Pakistan [received] a car Monday in Arlington.” [WUSA 9]

Tornado Drill Today in Va. — Updated at 8:55 a.m. — Virginia is conducting its annual statewide tornado drill today at 9:45 a.m. [Virginia DEM, Twitter]

Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf

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Long-time Arlington food truck Bada Bing is calling it quits.

The truck, one of the first of its kind in Arlington, starting serving cheesesteaks and spiedies to customers in 2010. It helped to kick off a wave of mobile dining options that captured considerable public attention and eventually prompted changes to county regulations.

In a lengthy Facebook post, Bada Bing owner Nicholas Terzella blamed unscrupulous fellow food truck owners, parking problems, and issues with county regulations and communications for his decision. He said he will be moving to the Binghamton, New York area and opening a bricks-and-mortar restaurant.

“The restaurants and restaurant lobby has a huge stranglehold on the govt and are making it very difficult for trucks to operate,” he wrote. “That among other issues is why we REFUSE to continue to do business in Arlington and collect tax for them anymore.”

“Please come visit us if you are ever in the Binghamton area,” he added. “We love you all so much and appreciate you more than you may ever know.”

Hat tip to Christina R.

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