(Updated at 8:20 p.m.) The Arlington County Board has taken the next step toward potentially allowing Missing Middle housing.
This evening (Wednesday), during its third meeting on a request to advertise public hearings regarding the proposed zoning changes, the Board voted unanimously to kick off two months of public discussion on a proposed set of options and alternatives.
The Board will reconvene to consider adopting a final proposal in March.
Opponents and some proponents of Missing Middle housing expressed disappointment with the proposal, which does not include 7- or 8-unit buildings.
The advertised change would allow small-scale multifamily buildings, from duplexes to townhouses to 6-plexes, in areas that are currently only zoned for single-family detached homes. The Board’s vote took off the option to prohibit additional housing types on sites larger than one acre.
The Board must consider some type of parking minimum going forward, as the only option not to have any minimums was struck from the proposal.
Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey said he is “deeply disappointed in the advertised ordinance.”
“I’m disappointed that the limited nature of what will be offered today doesn’t give us the ability over the next two months to do the best policy,” he said. “That’s a profound disappointment for me but not certainly not enough to vote against it.
“The most affordable units that could be made available are taken off the table for the biggest lots in Arlington that could accommodate them, limiting the opportunity to further provide attainability for people being able to achieve economies of scale and subsidize on a per-unit basis in a very cost efficient way,” Dorsey added.
Board member Matt de Ferranti was more supportive.
“My policy goals are the same as they were in December 2019 and in the scope that we wrote in September 2020: affordable homeownership, 3-unit type family dwellings and flexibility in housing types and residential uses in single-family neighborhoods,” he said. “The RTA moves us forward to that goal.”
“I think we need to move forward with what we’ve done,” de Ferranti continued. “We must move forward because my grandparents benefitted from single-family zoning in New Canaan, Connecticut and Pittsfield, Massachusetts and the grandparents and parents of many Arlingtonians of color did not. Move forward because there is never a wrong time to do the right thing. Move forward because if you can build a large home on a lot it is reasonable to build smaller dwellings in the same sized building unless there are outside costs or unreasonable burdens to doing so.”
Immediately following the vote, Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future, an organization opposed to the plan, denounced what the Board approved.
“If County Board members vote to finally adopt this Missing Middle mess, it will permanently stain their legacies,” said ASF leader Peter Rousselot, in a statement. “The County Board has disregarded the testimony and findings of prominent realtors, architects, economists, land use attorneys, engineers, and other experts who all have explained why the Board’s Missing Middle plan won’t work in Arlington.”
In its statement likewise criticizing the decision, Arlingtonians for Upzoning Transparency said the process so far has not been transparent and the result won’t be more modest-sized homes attainable to moderate-income residents. .
“The [Missing Middle housing] will incentivize developers to tear down modest, single-family homes and build $1.5 million townhouses and duplexes or small one-and-two-bedroom rental units,” said Julie Lee, a founding member of AfUT. “The County should not promote the false promise that the free market will produce lower cost housing. Developers will build the most profitable — and most expensive — [Missing Middle housing] possible, using every bit of allowable lot coverage to do it.”
Leaders of YIMBYs of Northern Virginia, which supported a more robust version than what is now on the table, told ARLnow they commend the Board for unanimously approving the hearings but are disappointed with the limitations.
“All five members of the County Board very clearly stated that they wanted to create a new legacy for Arlington, so now, they have a responsibility to make good on that promise,” the group said. “Most Arlingtonians rent. Most Arlingtonians live in multi-family buildings and most of them say ‘Yes’ to new housing and new neighbors. Making sure that the majority’s voice and interests are represented in the final package is extremely important.”
“The big issue we can’t lose sight of is Arlington’s affordability crisis and housing shortage,” the group continued. “The ultimate litmus test will be, ‘Will Missing Middle actually produce new housing?’ There is a risk — if the final proposal narrows down the [request to advertise] even further, that it won’t.”
Mike Hemminger, NAACP Arlington branch president, said the decision to remove the densest buildings from the proposal amounts to “de facto segregation.”
3 board members chopped 8 from MMH, which has the same impact of excluding Black people from owning in modern time. How dare board members say this action begins to right the wrongs of the past. This is de facto segregation and our leaders missed the mark on a such historic vote.
— Mike Hemminger (he/him) (@mike_hemmi) January 25, 2023
Urban farms and breweries could be coming to a vacant office near you.
Over the weekend, the Arlington County Board approved a series of zoning changes aimed at tackling the stubborn office vacancy rate. They would allow the following tenants to move into offices by right:
- animal boarding facilities, provided animals are under 24-hour supervision
- urban farms
- urban colleges and universities
- breweries, distilleries and facilities making other craft beverages, such as kombucha and seltzer
- artisan workshops for small-scale makers working in media such as wood or metal, laser cutters, 3D printers, electronics and sewing machines
Colleges and universities or urban farms previously needed to seek out a site plan amendment, which requires Arlington County Board approval, to operate in spaces previously approved for office or retail use.
The code requires all animal boarding, farming and artisan product-making activities to occur inside the building.
A county report describes this existing process as “overly cumbersome” for entrepreneurs trying to prove their business concept as well as for landlords, “who may be averse to take a risk on a new type of use that may require significant building improvements.”
The changes require farms, craft beverage facilities and artisan workshops to maintain a storefront where they can sell goods made on-site to walk-in customers, which the report says could reinvigorate dead commercial zones.
“Artisan beverage uses can bring new life to vacant buildings, boost leasing demand and, when located in a walkable neighborhood, can attract both existing and potential residents, while creating active third places for the community to gather,” the report said. “By fostering space for small-scale makers, artisans, and the like, a creative economy can grow, and people who may not have the space for such activities in their urban apartments may see this as an attractive neighborhood amenity.”
Some of these uses were allowed along Columbia Pike in the fall of 2021 to encourage greater economic revitalization. At the same time, D.C.-based animal boarding company District Dogs was appealing zoning ordinances curtailing the number of dogs it could board overnight in Clarendon, prompting discussions about expanding the uses approved for the Pike throughout the county.
The next spring, County Manager Mark Schwartz developed a “commercial market resilience strategy” aimed at bringing down the county’s high office vacancy rate, fueled by persistent remote work trends catalyzed by the pandemic. The tool, which includes an expedited public review process, was first used last fall to allow micro-fulfillment centers to operate by-right in vacant office spaces.
In a letter to the County Board, Arlington Chamber of Commerce CEO Kate Bates said the rapid approval of these commercial activities is critical for attracting new and emerging businesses.
“The Chamber believes that the Zoning Ordinance needs reform, and that unnecessary restrictions on commercial use should be removed to help the economy of the County grow,” Bates wrote. “In the wake of record high commercial vacancy, timely change is needed. It is imperative that the County focuses on long-term solutions for new business models, both through increased adaptability for new uses and expedited timeframes for approval of these new uses.” Read More
Proposed Missing Middle zoning code changes are set to go before the Arlington County Board for a first look on Saturday.
The Board is slated to review a request to advertise public hearings on a proposal to allow the by-right construction of duplexes, three-unit townhouses and multi-family buildings with up to six or eight dwellings on lots of up to one acre in Arlington’s lowest-density zoning districts.
The proposal includes several options for regulating the number of so-called “expanded housing option uses” (EHOs) built per year, their density and size, and parking and tree canopy coverage.
If Board members approve this request to advertise (RTA), the Arlington County Planning Commission and the County Board will have two months to pick a slate of regulatory mechanisms before holding hearings and, potentially, adopting the proposal in March.
Ahead of the request to advertise, Arlington County warned that speaking times may be shortened on account of the intense public interest in the wide-ranging changes.
“If 75 or more speakers sign up to speak on one item, speaking times will be reduced to 2 minutes for all individuals and 3 minutes for all organizations,” the announcement said. “Speakers will be notified if speaking times change.”
In addition to possibly shortening speaking times, the county will prioritize hearing from different speakers this month and in March.
“When people sign up to speak at the March public hearing, the Clerk’s staff will identify those that did not speak in January and place them first in the speaking order, followed by anyone that spoke did speak at the January hearing,” county spokesman Ryan Hudson said. “Anyone that signs up to speak will have the opportunity to do so.”
Ahead of the meeting, Missing Middle proponent group YIMBYs of Northern Virginia said this RTA has been years in the making. It says development under this plan will be as “distributed [and] gradual,” but that the county has to start somewhere.
“To further improve affordability, Arlington policymakers can revisit regulations such as height limits in the future, but they must start by legalizing up to 8 units per lot with minimal regulatory burdens, which requires maximum flexibility in the RTA,” the group said in a statement to ARLnow.
(YIMBY stands for “Yes In My Backyard,” the pro-building counterpart to the build-elsewhere-if-at-all NIMBYs, who generally reject that label.)
YIMBYs of NoVA highlighted other organizations supporting the proposal, including the Arlington branch of the NAACP, the Sierra Club and Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE).
“Arlington faces a fundamental choice between growth and inclusion or stagnation and spiraling inequality,” the group said. “Continuing the status quo would be an unsustainable future for Arlingtonians, forcing more essential workers into long commutes and driving more young families to relocate, often to exurban sprawl.”
Arlingtonians for Upzoning Transparency (AFUT), which opposes the proposal, claims that the plan as written will:
- Make Arlington less diverse;
- Ignore the thoughtful views of experts and its own advisory groups;
- Are not needed to meet the Metropolitan Washington Area Council of Governments’ (COG) goals for housing in Arlington and lack the necessary analysis and planning to begin an iterative process;
- Leave behind low, moderate, and middle-income households — with a one bedroom unit in an 8-plex requiring a household income at 117% of AMI; and
- Are not integrated with our interconnected priorities for transportation, the environment, and job growth.
The county is looking at allowing urban farms, artisan workshops, and craft beverage-making and dog boarding facilities to operate by-right in commercial, mixed-use districts throughout Arlington County. Some of these uses are already allowed along Columbia Pike.
Now above 21%, the office vacancy rate in Arlington spells lower tax revenue and belt-tightening for the under-development county budget. It ticked up during the pandemic and remained high even as buildings reopened, mask mandates were lifted and people returned to the office.
As the trend persisted, Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz and his staff launched a “commercial market resilience strategy” to get new types of tenants moved in quickly. The strategy focuses on zoning changes with a limited impact on neighbors that can be approved with through a new, less involved public engagement process. The strategy was first used last fall to approve micro-fulfillment centers.
Last night (Wednesday), a majority of the Arlington County Planning Commission approved a request to authorize public hearings on this proposal.
“We do need to be thinking creatively,” said Planning Commission Vice-Chair Sara Steinberger. “I’m appreciative that the county came forward with a streamlined approach so we can start fast-tracking some things. The community feedback and involvement is essential and is a cornerstone of the Arlington Way and how we comport ourselves within this community. That said, it’s never fun to be bogged down in bureaucracy either, so when there is an opportunity to move more quickly on certain things in a limited field, I think it’s appropriate to do so.”
The proposal also would let colleges and universities, which can currently operate in offices only after obtaining a more burdensome site plan amendment, move in by right.
“They tend to be our strongest source of demand in office buildings at a time when we aren’t seeing much demand,” Marc McCauley, the director of real estate for Arlington Economic Development, told the Planning Commission.
Commissioners Stephen Hughes and James Schroll abstained from the final vote, reprising concerns they raised last year about the impact of these new uses on neighbors. While voting for the proposal, Commissioner Tenley Peterson questioned county staff about potential noise, smell and parking nuisances.
“I can see the good reasons for doing this,” Schroll said. “My reticicene is not necessarily what you’re doing on the zoning side, it’s more the outreach. There are some things that I feel like aren’t fully thought through… We’re pursuing these without fully understanding what use standards we need to put in place.”
Citing “incessant barking” from nearby dog-boarding facilities that can be heard from Jennie Dean Park, Hughes said he wants the community to understand that these changes would leave nuisance mitigation up to the condition of the building and county noise ordinances.
“There is no place in the entire county where your actions do not impact another person,” Hughes said, pushing staff to instead draft a document listing “externalities we can all agree to as a community that we will not do.”
Last night (Monday), some 90 people registered to speak on the county’s proposal to allow by-right development of buildings with two to six — or even up to eight — units in districts that are now zoned exclusively for single-family homes.
“This is a divisive issue and there’s a lot of intensity around this,” Harner said of the proposal to allow what is dubbed “Missing Middle” housing.
The meeting marked a step forward for the proposal but a final vote on whether to adopt any zoning changes is still at least three months away. Monday’s meeting was devoted to public speakers and the Planning Commission will reconvene Thursday to decide whether to approve the county’s request to advertise public hearings on the draft plan as it is currently written.
“The Commission is hearing this item tonight for the specific purpose of giving feedback to the County Board about what is and what is not within realm of consideration at hearings that would be conducted in the spring,” Planning Commission Chair Daniel Weir said. “We aren’t here tonight to solve the problem — that is the County Board’s job. We are here tonight to give the board advice and guidance on how to tee up the issues and their conversation.”
The challenge for Arlington County is to draft a policy that encourages by-right development of homes that households making less than $200,000 annually can afford and helps to undo the lasting impacts of racially restrictive zoning policies, all while managing community concerns such as parking, school and infrastructure capacity, loss of neighborhood character and tree canopy.
County planner Matt Ladd says compared to the status quo, the proposed policies may spur the construction of homes affordable to more households earning upwards of $100,000, which would “benefit greater percentages of all racial groups.” That differs from Arlington County’s current affordable housing efforts, which are targeted at those earning 60-80% or less of the area median income.
Single-family homes are currently, on average, only attainable for households earning $200,000 or more, he said. On racial equity, the county determined the Missing Middle proposal would allow more households of color to buy in or remain in four census tracts — areas that already have percentages of people of color higher than the county average of 39%.
This draft puts some decisions to the Arlington County Board, including whether to establish a cap of no more than 42 Missing Middle-type developments per year, whether to allow up to six or eight units in a building and whether the number of units should be dictated by lot size.
“We are at a crisis and we must take bold action to build a county that is affordable, sustainable and welcoming to all,” said resident Noah Higgins, advocating for no development caps or density restrictions.
Some real estate agents in attendance disputed the notion Arlington has a housing crisis.
Retired agent Diane Dunston said on Monday, 290 homes were for sale, of which 45 had three bedrooms or more and were less than $1 million.
“Are there buyers who say they can’t find a home in Arlington? Of course there are, but what they’re really saying is, ‘I can’t find a home I like,” she said.
Arlington County is asking locals if they like Covid-era outdoor dining and want it to stay post-pandemic.
One central question in a recently-posted survey is where permanent outdoor dining areas would go. Top contenders appear to be streets, parking spaces and parking lots, according to the survey, which asks respondents if they’re comfortable ceding some parking to outdoor dining experiences.
This feedback form, available online through Friday, Oct. 28, is part of Arlington’s Future of Outdoor Dining Study — appropriately dubbed the “FOOD Study.” The study, first discussed last fall, is the latest step forward for the open-air eating movement, which gained traction during the pandemic.
“The FOOD Study will look at lessons learned from [temporary outdoor restaurant seating areas] and identify recommended amendments to the Zoning Ordinance and Outdoor Café Guidelines to strike an appropriate balance between commercial resiliency and public and community interest,” the webpage said.
In 2020, the Arlington County Board approved a temporary way for restaurants to circumvent the normally lengthy bureaucratic process for getting an outdoor dining permit. Many restaurants debuted these Temporary Outdoor Seating Areas (TOSAs) to make up for lost revenue due to social distancing requirements and diners skittish of indoor spaces, giving guests an arguably safer dining experience in the process.
Since then, the County Board has expanded and molded the ordinance to changing circumstances.
In December, the Board granted restaurant and bar owners the ability to set up TOSAs in common areas, such as plazas. When capacity restrictions were lifted in the spring of 2021, the County Board gave restaurants a way to request temporary certificates of occupancy for their TOSAs so they could operate the seating areas while operating at full capacity indoors.
Now, the county is examining whether it should allow local restaurants to expand their outdoor dining areas on both private and public property permanently, according to the county website.
For instance, the study will look at how much private parking space and public right-of-way cafés should take up, and whether those on private property could continue operating with administrative approval, while those operating in public spaces would need County Board approval.
“Given the public interest, outdoor cafés in public rights-of-way generally face stricter requirements,” the website says. “This approach helps ensure sidewalks continue to serve mobility needs of the public or recreation needs of those enjoying public spaces and aims to protect other community interests and avoid adverse impacts.”
Permanent outdoor dining areas may end up in competition with another in-demand amenity: private parking provided by the restaurant. Currently, county zoning ordinances require one parking space for every six seats in restaurants that are more than 1,000 feet from a Metro station.
A dent in parking might not impact the majority of TOSAs, many of which are concentrated in Metro-accessible areas, such as the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor and in Crystal City and Pentagon City, per a map of existing TOSA locations.
But parking spaces have enough potential that the survey asks respondents what safety features would encourage them to eat in street parking zones or in a parking lot, such as traffic barriers, planters, reflective features and tents.
In a crowded Bozman Government Center on Saturday morning, one person urged the Arlington County Board to move forward with Missing Middle housing while another critiqued the push for county-wide zoning changes.
But Board members had only to read the room — and the signs people brought — to see a sea of residents who were as divided into pro- and anti-Missing Middle camps that day as they were during a raucous meeting this June.
“We owe it to our larger community to let more people live here through smaller multiplexes, yes, but especially through denser affordable apartment housing. Doing otherwise is environmentally unsustainable — and it’s exclusionary,” said Susan English. “I’ve lived in a pleasant tear-down in a nice neighborhood for 40 years, but I hope when I leave my house will be replaced with at least a duplex.”
Independent County Board candidate Audrey Clement, the only candidate opposed to the Missing Middle upzoning proposal, told those attending and watching the meeting that she would “debunk some myths about it.”
Reciting excerpts of a speech she has presented during the Arlington County Civic Federation and Chamber of Commerce candidate fora, Clement argued that Missing Middle will not add to the county’s stock of 3-bedroom, and will reduce Arlington’s tree canopy, and will not increase home-buying opportunities for people of color — though the latter is an assertion with which the local NAACP disagrees.
Clement suggested alternatives such as office-to-residential conversions.
Board Chair Katie Cristol broke through the whooping and hollering that followed Clement’s comments, saying, “Alright, thank you ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to continue hearing from neighbors.”
But she later thanked attendees for respecting the rules for addressing the Board, which include restrictions on how many people can speak on a given matter not otherwise on the Board’s agenda.
“I also just want to give a sincere thanks to all who’ve come who respected our one-speaker-per-topic rule, helping us hear from more neighbors,” she said.
During the June meeting, some attendees shouted at Cristol when she cut off another speaker for violating the rule. The Board allows one speaker per topic, with opposing views on the same topic considered two separate topics.
Booing, which followed a speech this summer by a member of pro-density group YIMBYs of Northern Virginia, was also absent this time around. But there was plenty of applause — for every speaker, despite the range of topics, from the taxes nonprofits pay to climate change.
Resident Dima Hakura, who has spoken at length in meetings and with the Board about the Courthouse West General Land Use Plan, took the podium to urge the County Board to listen to its constituents, not “patronize us.” The room erupted in cheers after she finished her speech.
We need a leadership that builds consensus among us and unites us. A leadership that not only respects our opinions and values them, but also taps into them. One that considers our thoughts and makes constructive use of them to evolve the solutions possible… Interestingly, Arlington was always known for that, but somehow, somewhere we lost our way and we need to find it again.
… When I told people I was coming to speak before you today, the reaction was: “Why bother?” or, “It’s not going to make an iota of difference,” or, “Their mind is already made up. They have an agenda they want to push.” Regardless, I am hoping differently.
(Updated at noon) A new report supports Arlington County’s consideration of residential zoning changes as a way to counteract past discriminatory practices. But critics of the changes could harm, not help, the local Black community.
The NAACP Arlington Branch hosted an online discussion last Wednesday (July 20) about the McGuireWoods report in light of local debate around the Missing Middle Housing Study proposal, which would allow small-scale multifamily housing in areas currently zoned only for single-family homes.
The County Board expects to vote on the zoning changes in December.
The report, which looked at local and state policy changes to address housing segregation in Virginia, pointed out that although Arlington did not adopt an explicit racial zoning ordinance, redlining and restrictive covenants resulted in most of the majority white areas permitting single-family detached housing only, thus raising the relative cost of homes in those areas.
The report recommended adding missing middle housing types to zones that currently only allow single family housing, as the study recommends. Since Arlington is considering allowing housing with up to eight units in those areas — depending on lot size — the report considered the county “well ahead of the curve compared to most places in the state,” Matthew Weinstein, an attorney with the legal and public affair firm, said during the presentation.
Organizations opposing missing middle housing content, however, that “missing middle” would not be affordable to lower-income groups. Officials expect households with an income between $108,000 and over $200,000 to be able to afford the new proposed housing types, according to a county report in April.
The median household income of Black Arlington residents is around $67,000, according to a county website.
“So we’re off target for African Americans currently living in Arlington,” said Anne Bodine, of Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future, an advocacy group against increased housing density.
“Homeownership per se, for [the] current African American population in Arlington, we don’t see that this is an option for the majority of that population,” she said.
Although Weinstein did not believe missing middle housing could solve all issues, it was important to “increase housing availability and housing stocks so more people could live here affordably,” he said.
During the NAACP presentation, Weinstein also said that discriminatory housing policies in the past made it harder for Black residents to own homes, preventing many from accumulating wealth through generations.
However, since the County Board is not expected to restrict new missing middle housing to for-sale housing only, it would be more likely for those newly-created units to become rentals, Bodine said.
“Just the way [a] condo has to be set up in Virginia, it’s much more complicated legally and much more expensive,” Bodine said. “Those costs make it more likely that the units will end up becoming rentals.”
Other policies the report recommended include providing financial support to formerly redlined neighborhoods as part of Arlington’s comprehensive plan, a guide the county uses to set priorities. The report also suggested updating zoning ordinances to encourage mixed-use buildings with higher density in commercial areas, using density bonuses and other affordable housing incentives, and focusing on home ownership like community land trusts.
Bodine believed there are other ways to achieve more diverse and equitable housing, such as cash rental vouchers for people earning lower incomes, scholarships for children coming from low-income families, and keeping current income thresholds to qualify for affordable housing on Columbia Pike, among other things.
(Updated at 4:35 p.m.) The Arlington County Board is eyeing December for a vote on residential zoning changes suggested by the county’s Missing Middle Housing Study.
But changes to the study’s draft framework — for allowing multi-family homes with up to 8 units on properties currently zoned only for single family homes — seem likely.
The Board discussed the often-contentious community feedback to the proposal and possible modifications at a work session Tuesday afternoon. As they talked with county staff and amongst themselves, residents — many with signs supporting or opposing the proposal — packed the Board room and watched with interest.
The feedback, county staff said in a presentation, has been mixed but more negative than positive. Of note is the split between feedback from residents of single-family detached homes and those who live in apartments, condos and townhouses.
Asked whether any housing types, from townhouses to 8-plexes, should be removed from the proposal, 78% of single-family detached home residents who provided feedback said yes, indicating opposition to the current proposal, while 70% of those who live in other housing types said no, indicating support.
Arlington has about 29,000 single-family detached homes and 79,000 townhouses, apartments, condos and other housing types, the staff presentation said.
Though critics of the missing middle proposal have been calling for more public outreach and feedback, county staff argued that they conducted extensive outreach, including 150,000 postcards, nine pop-up events, six walking tours and an online feedback form.
The online feedback form received 2.5 times as many negative comments as positive comments, the staff presentation said, though feedback at the pop-up events and through emails and letters was more positive, with roughly 2.5 times more positive comments as negative via email.
County staff noted that the vast majority of those responding to the feedback form said they own a single-family detached home and reported “white” or “prefer not to respond” under “race and ethnicity.”
Given the overrepresentation of white homeowners in providing online feedback, staff said they used the county’s “equity lens” and decided to hold pop-up events in areas with renters and minority residents, so as to gather more feedback from those groups.
All told, staff told the Board that it has received “strong” interest and extensive input from the community about the proposal.
“The feedback was fast and furious and ongoing,” said Dept. of Community Planning, Housing and Development Communications Manager Erika Moore.
Following the staff presentation, the Board discussed aspects of the proposal and posed questions to staff.
Board members Libby Garvey and Matt de Ferranti — who is up for reelection in November — both expressed concern about putting eight housing units in the footprint of a single-family home in an otherwise single-family home neighborhood.
“The eight units makes me kind of uncomfortable,” Garvey said
“I share the concern with the 8-units for this specific reason, I think it will result in more small half bedroom units,” de Ferranti agreed, joining other Board members in expressing support for “missing middle” homes with more bedrooms, which could house a family.
There was also discussion of whether missing middle zoning should be limited to transit corridors, which received pushback from some members.
Take a drive through Fairlington and you will see sprawling acres of modest Colonial Revival-style condominiums with manicured lawns.
Once, they were garden apartments and townhouses, built between 1942 and 1944 to house the masses of defense workers who flocked to Arlington during World War II.
The complex is one marquee example of Arlington’s World War II-era garden apartments. Other examples include Arlington’s first complex, Colonial Village, and its second, Buckingham Village.
While denser than exclusively single-family-zoned neighborhoods, they are roomier, greener and lower to the ground than mid- to high-rise developments along Arlington’s Metro corridors. That is, they fit the definition of “Missing Middle” housing stock that Arlington County is looking to increase.
Today, Arlington is once again facing a housing crunch, one that is expected to tighten as Amazon hires more workers and companies spring up in its orbit. Garden apartments were once a solution to Arlington’s housing problems 80 years ago. But as Arlington County considers a plan for allowing “Missing Middle” housing in all residential area of the county, the “Missing Middle” of 80 years ago — these low-rise, gentle density developments — are worth a look.
Arlington’s housing history
Garden apartments first came online in the 1920s and were billed as a more spacious and light-filled alternative to denser, taller tenement housing, says George Mason University Mercatus Center fellow Emily Hamilton, who studies housing and development.
“Their setting, in park-like areas, was also shaped by the ‘garden city‘ movement, which started in the UK and was influential in the U.S. and based on the belief that urban housing should be surrounded by greenery, even in the city,” Hamilton said said. (Reston is nearby example of a planned “garden city.”)
But that trend didn’t pick up in Arlington until 1935, when 245 Colonial Revival-style buildings were built on 55 acres and named Colonial Village, writes Gail Baker, a former member of the Arlington County Historic Affairs and Landmark Review Board. Construction began on Arlington’s second complex, the 100-acre Buckingham Village, in 1937, and was completed in the 1950s.
Hamilton says demand shifted toward single-family homes in the mid-century, as living standards and federal financing made buying a house more feasible.
As a result, garden apartments became a “starter option” for families, according to historian Charlie Clark.
“A lot of Arlingtonians who are middle-aged homeowners got their start in the garden apartments in the 40s and 50s,” he said. “Then, they ambitiously rose the economic scale, and wanted a single-family home with a yard, and ended up in other neighborhoods.”
By the 1970s, as the regional population grew and Metro was built these garden apartments faced development pressure. Colonial Village was broken up: some units were conserved, others were converted in condos, and still others were razed and turned into office buildings.
The county preserved Buckingham through an affordable housing deal and the units at Fairlington Villages were converted into condominiums and sold. One selling point was that their Colonial Revival façades were maintained, Baker writes.
Fifty years later, garden apartments are some of the last affordable dwellings to rent in the county in part because the buildings are dated, Hamilton says. And development pressure is mounting, as these buildings are reaching the end of their useful lives.
“It’s interesting,” Clark said. “They were probably considered middle-class when they were built, but they probably have declined a little bit in terms of economics.”
A collection of them near Rosslyn, on N. Ode Street, will be redeveloped as a high-rise affordable housing complex. Meanwhile, the owners of a similar complex along Columbia Pike will be redeveloping its property with townhouses.
Arlington County pre-empted speculative redevelopment of a third garden apartment complex, the Barcroft Apartments, by brokering a deal with Amazon and developer Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners, which agreed to preserve 1,334 units on the site as committed affordable units for 99 years.
A few weeks is not enough time for Arlington residents to provide informed commentary on a major local issue, according to the Arlington County Civic Federation.
The group is calling for the county to extend the public comment window for the Missing Middle Housing Study’s draft framework until Sept. 30, from the current deadline of Friday, May 27.
The framework calls for properties only zoned for single-family homes to also allow small-scale multifamily housing — from townhomes to 8-plexes, depending on lot size — provided the building is no larger than zoning currently allows for single-family homes.
That could allow more housing types and price points in Arlington, which will otherwise continue to see small homes torn down in favor of large single-family homes, the framework suggests. The study only expects a modest amount of new “missing middle” housing through the change — about 20 properties per year.
The Civic Federation, however, says that this is a major change no matter how many new duplexes, triplexes, etc. are expected to be built in what are now exclusively single-family home neighborhoods.
The federation passed the following resolution on Tuesday by a vote of 90% to 10%.
WHEREAS Arlington County has an established General Land Use Plan (GLUP) that allows for existing single-family residences and high-density, mixed-use development along the high-density, mixed-use corridors;
WHEREAS Arlington County’s Planning web page states, “Planning decisions are informed by extensive research, professional expertise and community input” and “relies on extensive community input. Individual residents can have a say on the decisions that affect their neighborhoods and the County as a whole”;
WHEREAS on April 28, Arlington County released its proposed Phase 2 Missing Middle Housing Framework document, which is the guiding framework that will facilitate the upzoning of these residential zoning districts — R-5, R-6, R-8, R-10, and R-20 — thus authorizing greater housing density in what are currently referred to as “single-family” neighborhoods countywide;
WHEREAS the impact of the Missing Middle Housing framework and its subsequent upzoning will impact not only housing density but also parking, public school enrollment, stormwater management and tree canopy preservation in residential neighborhoods countywide;
WHEREAS the deadline for public comment and feedback for the Missing Middle Housing framework is May 27, 2022, four (4) weeks from the framework’s release to the public;
WHEREAS this is a complex initiative, civic associations and other county organizations will require additional time to notify their own members, study the likely consequences of the upzoning, and develop a membership response in order to provide meaningful feedback to the county; and
WHEREAS four (4) civic associations — Arlington Forest, Boulevard Manor, Bluemont, and Glencarlyn, which represent more than 4,000 households in central Arlington — have already shared their concerns about the inadequacy of the four-week public feedback period for the proposed Phase 2 Missing Middle Housing Framework document;
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, the Arlington County Civic Federation (ACCF) asks the Arlington County Board to immediately request that the County Manager extend the public review period for the Missing Middle Phase 2 concept plan to September 30, 2022 — to make it possible for civic associations and other community organizations to have sufficient time to assist in disseminating Missing Middle Housing Framework materials to their own members, to meet with and pose questions to staff, to analyze and understand the potential impacts on their neighborhoods, and to provide meaningful feedback before the framework is finalized.
The four civic associations referenced in the resolution noted in an April 25 letter to county officials that “our community associations, like so many others, are inactive during June, July and August,” thus making it difficult to study the issue and engage residents before September.
On the other hand, Arlington has something of a reputation for dragging out its public input and analysis processes, leading 55% of respondents to a 2018 ARLnow poll to say that “elected officials should make quicker decisions based on a streamlined community input process.”
Do you agree with the Civic Federation that residents should be given a few more months to provide their feedback on the draft plan, prior to it being compiled and analyzed by county officials ahead of potential zoning ordinance amendments?
Or should the county just get on with it?