Press Club
Slide from Missing Middle Housing Study draft framework (via Arlington County)

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?

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An aerial view of Bellevue Forest and a deed from a property in the neighborhood dated 1938 (image via Arlington Historical Society)

A sociology professor at Marymount University and a former housing lawyer are poring over century-old property records to locate Arlington’s segregated neighborhoods.

It’s a time-consuming process, but the goal is to map Arlington’s “history of exclusion,” says professor Janine DeWitt.

“Our research is to take a look very closely at a granular level — lot by lot, parcel by parcel — and map the racially restrictive covenants that were in Arlington,” she said during a discussion hosted by the Arlington Historical Society last week. “We want to know the Arlington we’re in right now and how much of that was exclusionary.”

And DeWitt says she and her research partner, Kristin Neun, will not stop “until we find every last one of them and not before.”

This research effort is taking shape while the county grapples with its history of racist zoning policies through the Missing Middle Housing Study. Housing advocates who welcome the study, however, say it’s not enough to integrate neighborhoods that are still restricted as a result of the 20th-century practices DeWitt and Neun are researching.

Until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made racially restrictive covenants illegal and unenforceable, these clauses excluded potential buyers based on their race, ethnicity or religion. Such deeds governed Arlington’s housing market and mostly targeted Black Arlingtonians, while others included Middle Eastern immigrants, Jewish people and Armenians.

These covenants, codified by developers in conjunction with county government, applied to all future property transfers unless a property owner removed them. Only a handful did so after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled these covenants were unconstitutional in 1948.

DeWitt says she and Neun would have started their research at the Arlington County courthouse, leafing through physical pre-1951 property records, but due to Covid they conducted research every way they could until the county wrapped up a two-year project to digitize land records documents.

Even with the digital copies, the records still need to be read and searched by hand.

“Property records are tremendously inconsistent,” DeWitt said. “It’s incredibly difficult to parse this. It requires a high-touch approach.”

Once she and Neun find a deed with a restrictive clause, they match it with a current address and plug it into a map.

So far, they have mapped out covenants on properties in the Arlington Forest and Bellevue Forest neighborhoods. They found covenants for the historic subdivisions of Country Club View, Flower Gardens, Jackson Terrace and Woodlawn Village, which are now part of the Donaldson Run, Penrose, Tara-Leeway Heights and Waycroft-Woodlawn neighborhoods, respectively.

Some subdivisions where racially restrictive covenants have been documented (via Arlington Historical Society)

So far, DeWitt and Neun have observed these restrictions date from 1910 — and possibly earlier — all the way until the mid-1950s.

And some deeds were euphemistic, prohibiting occupancy “except for the race for which it is intended,” or prohibiting stables, pig pens, temporary dwellings and high fences.

“It’s amazing how you can vary restricting somebody,” said Neun, a former housing lawyer turned community educator.

Early and late examples of racially restrictive covenants (via Arlington Historical Society)

Racial exclusion in Arlington tracks with regulations at the state and federal level, Neun said.

When Democrats took control of Virginia state politics in the early 1900s, they championed “homogeneity” — the idea that “homogeneous populations do better, live better, are happier and less risky,” Neun said.

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The local NAACP is calling on the Arlington County Board to do more to encourage affordable homeownership opportunities for residents of color.

Although segregation officially ended last century, the Arlington branch of the NAACP says non-white residents are still effectively excluded from some neighborhoods due to county zoning codes, compounded by rising housing costs.

“The widespread single-family zoning scheme that prevents the construction of new housing in affluent, mostly white neighborhoods also worsens racial segregation by confining the construction of new affordable housing units to the Columbia Pike corridor and other parts of Arlington with large non-white populations,” the NAACP wrote in a letter to the county.

“People of color wishing to live in Arlington deserve meaningful opportunities to choose from a wide variety of housing types, in many parts of the county, at a reasonable cost,” the letter continues.

The NAACP says the county needs to adopt a comprehensive strategy to reform the county’s zoning laws and housing policies. It suggests reforms that go beyond those being considered in the Missing Middle Housing Study.

“We support the County’s many studies and other initiatives to promote affordable housing,” it concludes. “The best way to ensure the success of these initiatives is for the County Board and County Manager to show decisive leadership now and commit to supporting comprehensive zoning reform.”

Through Missing Middle, the county is considering whether and what kind of low-density multifamily housing could fit into single-family home neighborhoods. The county says allowing more housing types in these neighborhoods can reverse the lingering impacts of yesteryear’s racist zoning policies.

“The Missing Middle Housing Study has documented the role that Arlington’s land use and zoning policies have played in contributing to racial disparities in housing and access to opportunity,” says Erika Moore, a spokeswoman for the Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development. “Conducting the Missing Middle Housing Study is one of many deliberate choices the County is making to address the mistakes of the past and pave a new path for Arlington’s future.”

While supportive of the study, the NAACP suggests solutions beyond its parameters.

It recommends every redevelopment be assessed for whether it would perpetuate historical exclusion or displace the existing community. If so, developers would have to use a “displacement prevention and mitigation toolkit” to reverse those impacts.

This toolkit could include:

  • property tax deferrals for lower-income homeowners
  • funding for Community Land Trust acquisitions
  • preferences for first-generation homebuyers
  • stabilization funds for residents at risk of displacement

The toolkit would “address the unique needs of and the displacement risk experienced by the community in and around site-plan and by-right developments while also helping to address patterns of historical exclusion experienced by members of protected classes,” the letter says.

These and other tools should also receive county and state funding, like a quick-strike land acquisition account, which would be used to quickly purchase properties for affordable housing development, and targeted homeownership assistance programs, the NAACP says.

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The Garrison residence (courtesy of Les Garrison)

The owner of a two-family home near Crystal City says he may cancel his redevelopment plans because county approval processes have delayed construction and run up costs.

“As of right now, the project is on hold, possibly dead, because the County delayed it so long that the prices of construction (up 40%) not to mention the $150,000 in costs so far to get it approved, have made it unaffordable,” owner Les Garrison tells ARLnow. “The payback time is now unreasonable.”

It’s an outcome that Planning Commission members have said would be avoided if homes like his — duplexes on nonconforming lots — enjoyed the simpler, cheaper reviews that allow owners and developers to replace aging single-family dwellings with larger, luxury homes, sometimes referred to derisively as “McMansions.”

The main difference, they say, comes down to the fact that it’s a multi-family building.

Garrison’s proposal requires community review as well as Planning Commission and County Board approvals because he plans to increase the square footage of his house, which sits on a smaller-than-average lot. But commissioners argue more renovations on nonconforming lots will come forward and the county should preempt them with a faster approval track.

Since these hypothetical projects would update existing low-rise multi-family buildings — which are not permitted in many neighborhoods under current zoning — commissioners suggest considering these changes via the Missing Middle Housing Study. The study’s primary goal is to evaluate whether county codes should allow housing types like as duplexes and townhouses in districts zoned exclusively for single-family homes.

“As much as it’s important to end legacies of exclusionary zoning practices, we also have to be certain there are administrative options for improving and expanding existing multi-unit housing,” Planning Commission Chair Daniel Weir said during a meeting with the County Board and the planning division earlier this month.

Such projects go through Site Plan Review, which major development projects use, but as a potential alternative they could go through the Board of Zoning Appeals, which hears special exception requests from single-family homeowners, James Lantelme, Weir’s predecessor, previously said.

Multi-family homes like Garrison’s and oversized single-family homes are linked in another way: both often result in greater lot coverage, which often means fewer trees and plantings. The relative ease with which “McMansions” are built, compared to similar-sized multi-family units, has led some County Board members to ask the question: if both are permitted, just how big is too big?

Building up to tear down

Opposition to adding density falls into a few buckets, such as impact on existing infrastructure and loss of natural resources.

On environmental degradation, the county says keeping out duplexes won’t preserve neighborhoods from the tree loss and stormwater runoff associated with development, given the teardown-rebuild trend. Adding multi-family homes would, however, open up neighborhoods to people who can’t afford the average sale price for a rebuild in Arlington, which currently stands at $1.7 million.

Over the last decade, 1,245 homes came down and were rebuilt, for an average of 125 homes per year, according to a county report. Typically, the tear-downs are 1,515 square feet and the new construction is 4,750 square feet. This contributed to the drop in tree canopy coverage from 43% in 2008 to 41% in 2016, another county report says.

“This is a rather fast-moving problem,” County Board member Takis Karantonis said during the February meeting.

It’s one member Libby Garvey said “we should dip our toes into” through the Missing Middle study.

That’s the plan, says Anthony Fusarelli, Jr., planning director for the Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development.

“Between now and October, we might have a better handle on some emerging recommendations — but I do expect that will be considered in some way,” he told County Board members.

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Arlington’s planning division is looking to change the definition of a “family” in the county’s zoning code.

Housing planners say this would stop potentially exclusionary housing practices that discriminate against larger groups of unrelated residents who live together in order to afford staying in Arlington, where home prices and property taxes are rising and there’s a shortage of affordable housing options.

Currently, Arlington’s Zoning Ordinance says up to four unrelated people living together — including “servants,” in a peculiar anachronism — can constitute a “family.” The Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development staff intend to review and possibly write an alternative definition that eliminates the four-person cap.

The code also defines “family” as: a single person living in a household; two or more people living together who are related by blood, marriage, adoption or foster care; or up to eight people who are elderly, sick or disabled living with staff or counselors in a state-licensed facility.

Planning Commission Chair David Weir says he welcomes CPHD’s intentions to do away with the “exclusionary, inaccurate terminology of ‘single-family’ and ‘multifamily’ homes.”

“It’s tempting, I think, to see this change as minimal or immaterial but it’s neither of those things,” he said during a joint CPHD-County Board work session last week. “The difference between zoning for families and zoning for households is as fundamental a matter as the right to choose the people with whom we share our lives, and zoning ordinances are lagging behind other fields of law — like, for example, family law — in recognizing this.”

Planning Commission Chair David Weir (via Arlington County)

Weir recalled when the late County Board member Erik Gutshall realized in a zoning meeting that his family of four probably lived in violation of county ordinances when they took in a foreign exchange student.

“A group of people who choose to share their lives in ways that don’t meet the Mayberry formalities must not for that reason alone be unwelcome in the definitions of the laws that shape how their homes are built,” he said.

County planners have recommended this change for a few years now, saying that people are choosing to live together to afford Arlington prices and access its schools and job opportunities.

“There’s been a rise in the number of non-traditional households living together for socio-economic reasons, such as pooling resources to find affordable housing near good schools or job centers,” county housing planner Joel Franklin said at a 2020 Tenant-Landlord Commission meeting. “For that reason, it was recommended to amend the zoning ordinance to be more inclusive of non-traditional families.”

That recommendation was in the 2019 draft Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing, according to CPHD spokeswoman Erika Moore. The analysis concludes that the cap disadvantages residents who have been priced out of single-family homes.

“As the norms of the American family are shifting, it is apparent that single-family housing is less viable, increasingly unaffordable, and not achieving fairness and inclusion,” it says. “Placing restrictions on the number of unrelated persons living together but who function as a single housekeeping unit restricts housing choice for households comprised of persons living together for economic or other reasons.”

Changing or eliminating the four-person cap dates back at least to 2015, when the County Board adopted the Affordable Housing Master Plan, Moore said. The plan says a more flexible definition is one way the county can try to meet its affordable housing needs through 2040.

While making the change is on the agenda for CPHD, a new definition won’t come overnight.

The planning division identified revising the definition as a second-tier priority for 2022, falling behind more pressing zoning study areas — such as allowing permanent outdoor dining options, permitting micro-fulfillment centers to operate in vacant office buildings and adding elder care housing options in the code.

Tiered priorities of the Arlington planning division (via Arlington County)

Updating the definition would require the county to start a zoning study to examine alternative definitions and develop amendments to the Zoning Ordinance, Moore said.

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(Updated at 2:25 p.m.) A D.C.-based dog daycare and boarding facility is making its first foray out of the nation’s capital with a Clarendon outpost.

District Dogs will move into The Crossing Clarendon shopping center (formerly Market Common Clarendon) in February or March, owner Jacob Hensley tells ARLnow. In addition to daycare and boarding, District Dogs provides other services such as grooming and training.

“We’re very excited to come to Arlington,” he said. “Right now, we have the designs finished and construction plans out to bid. We should be getting bids and contractors in the next couple of weeks or so, and we expect to be open late winter or early spring.”

The business will front Wilson Blvd, according to a photo sent by Hensley, in a ground floor space between the Whole Foods and where Iota Club used to be.

There is one hurdle to surmount: zoning rules about how many dogs can be boarded per night. According to a zoning determination this summer, District Dogs can operate in Clarendon as a doggie daycare and grooming facility, with overnight boarding for up to three dogs. Any more overnight occupants, and it’s considered by the county a “kennel,” which is not allowed on the property either by-right or through a special exception permit.

Regency Centers, which owns The Crossing, is appealing the decision on Hensley’s behalf. Either way, District Dogs can move in, Hensley says.

“District Dogs will be able to offer daycare, boarding, grooming and training services in the Clarendon location regardless of the outcome,” he said. “I can’t comment further [about zoning issues] because of how complicated it is and I don’t want to get the details wrong.”

The forthcoming Arlington location will be Hensley’s fifth. He started District Dogs in 2014 as a one-man dog-walking business and opened his first brick-and-mortar facility in 2016 in D.C. Since then, he’s added two more D.C. locations, with a fourth under-construction.

Clarendon was a natural choice, since District Dogs targets markets with a mix of apartments and single-family homes, and many clients come to D.C. from Northern Virginia, he said.

Hensley says Arlington’s urban corridors need more of these kinds of dog-care facilities, as many existing providers are located in warehouse and industrial districts. Many customers will be able to walk to District Dogs, compared to having to drive somewhere a distance away.

“We’re bringing a more urban dog daycare experience that’s more convenient for people and where they live,” he said.

Hensley said District Dogs aims to make dogs and their humans feel comfortable. For pet owners, that means providing web-cameras so they can check in, as well as operating in spaces with lots of windows.

“We’re really just trying to show everything that goes on,” he said. “That’s what’s lacking in a lot of facilities, which can be old and run-down in a warehouse.”

Hensley attributes his ability to expand in part to COVID-19. People adopted more dogs during the pandemic and now need the services he provides, particularly weeknight, overnight boarding.

“Our facilities in D.C. are pretty much at-capacity in a daily basis,” he said. “In addition to new dogs, since people can work remote, people are traveling more… Because people’s work is so much more flexible, not just travel but the length of travel is increasing.”

Once District Dogs settles into Clarendon, locals can expect dog-friendly community activities.

“We have a great online community, and we try to do events at restaurants, bars and parks,” Hensley said. “We’re trying to bring a sense of dog community to the Arlington area — we want to be a part of it and help foster it.”

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In late 2019, Arlington’s rate of vacant office space was at a six-year low, 15.5%, and poised to continue dropping.

But the pandemic reversed that trend, and today, the vacancy rate hovers around 20%.

While companies continue to weigh going in-person, county staff are working to bring down the vacancy rate. That’s a crucial task for Arlington County, as it derives its commercial property taxes from full — not vacant — office buildings.

“We know nonprofits and associations have been hit hard and that’s a big part of our office market, so that’s troubling. When it comes to tech, government contracting and professional services, there’s a lot of differences among tenants you talk to in terms of their culture: if they are back, how they feel about having people back, how many days a week they’re back,” says Marian Marquez, the director of business investment for Arlington Economic Development. “Until we get past the health crisis, it’s going to be hard to see through a lot of that.”

One new variable is 600,000 square feet of space on the sublease market, which is double the pre-pandemic level and accounts for 7% of total vacancies, she says. In addition, some federal tenants long on their way out finally had their offices go to market.

The office vacancy problem is an entrenched one and not unique to Arlington, says Marc McCauley, AED’s director of real estate.

“For the past decade… the question of ‘Do we have too much office space in the U.S.? has been the major issue,” he said. “That’s not just an Arlington issue, or a Washington, D.C. issue. Even before pandemic, tenants were using space differently, space per employee was plummeting, and almost cut in half.”

From 2016 to 2019, AED worked to drop the 21% vacancy rate by convincing high-growth companies that Arlington “wasn’t a government town,” Marquez said. Now, AED staff and county planners are working to update zoning codes and allow for a wider variety of office tenants, while making zoning processes less onerous for owners seeking to renovate their aging offices. In addition, AED is encouraging, where it can, less speculative office construction and more residential development instead.

McCauley says the Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development plans to study approved office space uses and find ways to expanded those to allow new tenants.

“We see tenants that come in and say, ‘I want to do a wet lab or a robotics engineering floor.’ Right now, zoning is an impediment to that — that would be viewed as industrial in an older code,” he said. “We want to open up offices to creative use of space… [We are] excited about letting them fill the space with newer technologies that an older, 1950s ordinance viewed as industrial.”

Marquez said there’s interest in innovation and light research and development spaces, or even using an office building as a micro-fulfillment center.

Salim Furth, a senior fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, who recently wrote that municipalities can tackle their office vacancy rates by allowing residential development, tells ARLnow that Arlington could go a step further and allow an even greater mix of uses.

“It’s very normal to have some floor for office, and ground floor is retail… but mixing and matching uses — where some floors are for a hotel, some are for a school — these are very normal things that cities should do, and we should make it work,” he said.

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For nearly one year, Arlington County has studied whether the zoning code should be rewritten to allow low-to-moderate density housing types like duplexes in more neighborhoods.

The initiative is dubbed the “Missing Middle Housing Study.” It refers to mid-sized housing types, such as duplexes, triplexes, quads and townhomes, which are denser than a single-family home but smaller than an apartment or condo building.

The county says adding homes in the “Missing Middle” could tackle a local housing shortage. Since its launch, the study has been debated in panels and County Board candidate forums and referenced in discussions about changing zoning ordinances that have hurt some duplex owners.

But something simple may be hindering public perception of the study: the name.

“Everybody assumes it has to do with affordability… and they hang their own viewpoints on that,” said Jim Lantelme, who chairs the Planning Commission.

Speaking on behalf of himself as a resident, Lantelme says a name change may help people disassociate “Missing Middle” and affordable housing, which are separate (but related) issues. He presented this idea to during a joint Planning Commission-County Board meeting last week.

“Missing Middle, for whatever reason, people have a negative reaction right off the bat,” he tells ARLnow. “Why go off a name that’s closing off minds, rather than one that encourages dialogue — one that people have an open mind toward? By renaming it, we might have a better dialogue without having to overcome misapprehensions.”

The county is primarily examining whether different forms of housing can blend into existing, single-family home neighborhoods. The goal is a greater variety and supply of housing, including units that are less expensive than single-family homes but not necessarily affordable to those making well below the area median income in the same way as dedicated affordable housing.

Whether “Missing Middle” housing can be purchased by people in different income brackets depends on size, location and market forces, says Elise Cleva, a spokeswoman for the Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development.

To uncouple “Missing Middle” and affordability, Lantelme suggested names that clarify the study’s exploration of form. He pointed to “Low-Rise,” the name Los Angeles gave to its effort to add more low-rise multi-family buildings to the city.

“Why hobble yourself at the front, when you can try to get a term that is more accurate, that doesn’t have the connotations that people seem to be associating Missing Middle with, which is affordability,” he said.

Cleva said CPHD is also picking up on a disconnect. Over the next few months, during targeted engagement with members of harder-to-reach populations, she said CPHD will debut a clarifying tagline.

“In our interactions with them, we’ll be using a new tagline for the study, ‘Expanding Housing Choice’ and also continuing to articulate that the term ‘Missing Middle’ describes the size and type of a home — in the middle of a spectrum of housing options ranging from single detached homes to mid- and high-rise apartments and condos,” Cleva said.

She says CPHD is trying to address some misconceptions that resulted from a lack of engagement with certain populations.

“Basically, while we’ve reached many people, our engagement data thus far shows that there are many we have not reached, especially among renters and populations that have historically had less access to participate in planning processes,” she said. “It follows then that people we have not had a chance to dialogue with about the study may be unclear about its purpose and scope.”

On the question of renaming the study, Cleva said it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

“[We] remain open to the possibility of renaming the study, should we continue to receive feedback about the name causing confusion,” she said.

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Arlington’s planning department is stretched too thin and cannot take on a bigger workload, its director told the County Board this week.

At full strength, the 30-person staff of the Department of Community, Planning and Housing Development shepherds a myriad development projects and permit applications through county processes, from cafés seeking to renew their outdoor dining permits to developers planning large-scale projects. It also helps to produce the lengthy planning documents that guide the future development of neighborhoods.

Right now, with a flurry of activity underway in the wake of the arrival of Amazon’s HQ2, seven major long-range planning studies are in process. The department anticipates overseeing 10 major development applications while working through more than 400 minor development and administrative approvals, CPHD Director Anthony Fusarelli, Jr. told the Planning Commission and the County Board during a joint meeting.

“To have this number of ongoing planning efforts and engagements at one time… truly represents a substantial volume of ongoing work being managed by the division, also requiring time energy and resources by other county staff and the community,” Fusarelli said during his presentation. “Collectively, these ongoing efforts command a significant amount of staff resources, leaving little if any capacity to add new work and initiate additional projects at this time.”

Once major projects are done or big milestones reached, he said staff will be freed up to start new initiatives or address new county priorities.

While deferential to the hard work of CPHD, Planning Commission and County Board members had a few ideas for work CPHD should undertake in the near future, from changing how the county evaluates the environmental impact of developments to not losing sight of deferred projects such as implementing the plan to enliven Four Mile Run Valley.

One potential change could save CPHD time and resources, argued Planning Commission Chair James Lantelme. Currently, renovations to “non-conforming” duplexes, townhouses and low-rise multifamily buildings go through the same lengthy approval process used for major developments, known as Site Plan Review. He suggested instead that these folks, who want relief from zoning regulations, go through the Board of Zoning Appeals, which hears similar requests from those on single-family residential lots.

“I’m assuming we’re going to be seeing more of these small things coming before us, and we think we really need to deal with this,” Lantelme said. “It’s a waste of the Planning Commission’s time, it’s a waste of staff time. We have a huge amount of consequential work, and to have a Site Plan for one duplex…  there’s no value added by doing that. It’s not appropriate, and in fact, it’s contrary to what our comprehensive plan is advocating for, for affordable housing — for housing period — and for equity.”

It’s likely on his mind because the commission oversaw one such project, a request to build out the deck of a townhouse, which recently received County Board approval, and members are now reviewing another, a duplex renovation proposed by the owner. The approvals feature televised, public meetings and detailed presentations created by planning staffers.

The townhome was in a “legacy district” used for a few developments in the 1970s, while duplex sits on a smaller-than-standard lot that had been grandfathered into a zoning district. Both owners proposed increasing the footprint of their home, tipping them into the Site Plan Review path, which requires lawyers, experts, and Planning Commission and County Board approvals.

“If it was a McMansion, it would go through BZA,” Lantelme said. “You have to go through more time, expense and uncertainty in order to have a duplex, which is what we want in these areas… It would really save us time money and staff resources if we could get this addressed.”

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The Garrison residence at 523 24th Street S. (courtesy of Les Garrison)

(Updated at 6:15 p.m.) Seven years ago, Les Garrison bought a two-family home in the Aurora Highlands neighborhood so that his son’s family could live in one half and the other could be rented out.

He had always intended to renovate the home near Crystal City, which consists of two apartments, each with two bedrooms and one bathroom. He also wants to modernize it, making it accessible to people with disabilities and adding solar panels.

Garrison tells ARLnow he wants to provide an affordable housing option to his son, a county employee, and people like his other tenants — two women over 60, a barista and a graduate student.

“My son… he can’t afford to live in this neighborhood, unless we have revenue coming in from the house,” Garrison said. “That’s what this is about: allowing him to stay in Arlington.”

He expected to get approvals in 2017 and start construction in 2018. Instead, his plan to enlarge and modernize the house will require approvals from the Planning Commission and the County Board as part of a more complex county permitting track that even features a county webpage devoted to the project.

The Garrison’s Site Plan Review process, which involves more scrutiny and more revisions to attain the green light to start construction than an administrative approval typical for single-family homes in Arlington, has also put him out nearly $100,000 in permitting fees, and payments to lawyers, architects and arborists.

Although dates have not yet been set for County Board approval, the Garrison residence would be the second duplex project to go before the board this year. Members approved construction at a Ballston duplex at 1201 N. Vernon Street in May. Meanwhile, from January through June, the county has administratively approved construction of 66 single-family detached homes and construction started on 27 similarly-approved townhouses.

This disparity has drawn criticism from some members of the Planning Commission, who are the last to provide input before sending a project to the County Board for a virtual rubber stamp, as well as housing advocates, who say this reflects a “broken” zoning code.

County staff, meanwhile, say that changes Garrison is proposing require community input. But, they said relief for duplex homeowners in similar situations could come in the future, if zoning standards are changed for lower-density multifamily housing types as part of the in-progress Missing Middle Housing Study.

That might put homeowner renovations of duplexes that don’t confirm to current zoning on the same regulatory playing field as the tear-downs that have become commonplace across the county.

“Right now, a builder can put up a 3,000 square foot house and sell it. It’s pretty much that simple — no public meetings, no expensive lawyers, no neighborhoods weighing in on, I don’t know, whether your driveway pavers should be beige or gray,” said Daniel Weir, who is the vice-chair of the Planning Commission. “Split that exact same building in half — same amount of driveway, same amount of parking, same lot lines — try and build literally almost the exact same building, and all of a sudden everyone in the county gets to have a say.”

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Arlington’s lack of affordable townhomes, duplexes and other housing types has a ripple effect across the D.C. region, housing experts say.

How Arlington tackles that deficit, they said, could help stem the tide of urban sprawl and its social, economic and environmental impacts — with more options, lower- and middle-income households are better able to stay in their communities, be near their jobs and access established transit areas.

“Leadership [in Arlington] is still needed,” said Michael Spotts, President of Neighborhood Fundamentals, during a recent Arlington Committee of 100 webinar on Missing Middle Housing. “This is an important issue and Arlington can’t solve it on its own, but it’s something that we should do because it’s good for the county and the region.”

With the multi-year “Missing Middle Housing Study,” Arlington County is examining whether the county should allow housing types that have been typically prohibited from many neighborhoods to reverse housing shortages. If approved, rewritten ordinances would not be implemented until 2022 or 2023.

The county recently published the results of six months of community engagement. Priorities include a greater supply and wider array of housing options, at lower costs, while concerns include the impact that would have on property values, school capacity and the environment.

Now, the county is asking people what kinds of housing options should be explored. Through June 8, respondents can choose from 10 options, including multiplexes, cottage clusters, townhouses and small-lot homes currently excluded from some neighborhoods.

Providing those options locally will help address a regionwide problem that panelists say is currently driving urban sprawl, which is harming the environment.

“We’ve seen more development in outlying counties, and significant losses in impervious surface,” Spotts said. “We are downstream from some of these locations and that has an impact on Arlington’s environment. By limiting development [here], we may be able to save trees but at the expense of much larger acreage of forest loss in other jurisdictions.”

It also contributes to higher greenhouse gas emissions in those outlying counties, since many drive to work in Arlington and D.C., he said.

With the average costs of homes in Arlington ranging from $500,000-$1.5 million, depending on type, that prices out many professions like teachers, mechanics, security guards and so on.

Instead, they go where the average price is lower than in Arlington, said Jon Huntley, a senior economist at the Penn Wharton Budget Model who also runs the website Arlington Analytics.

High land costs set a minimum price for any new Missing Middle construction, however, and more stock may not solve the affordability problem anytime soon given Arlington’s housing shortage, according to Huntley.

“The prices of new Missing Middle properties will have to reflect that alternative [to build very expensive single-family detached homes],” he said.

Since 2017, Huntley said Arlington has built 58 brand-new townhomes with an average selling price of $1 million. There were only eight duplexes built — for an average price of $1 million — and 35 stacked condos that went for up to $840,000.

“Townhomes and other missing middle properties will definitely become more affordable, but unless something dramatic happens this effect will happen in a timeframe measured in decades,” he said.

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