Arlington, VA

County staff want to amend zoning ordinances to let some restaurants more easily establish outdoor cafés near the Ballston, Virginia Square and Courthouse Metro stations.

Arlington County has allowed outdoor cafés in most commercial and mixed-use districts since 1978, with the exception of a few zoned districts. The County Board is slated to review an amendment allowing cafés in one such zoning district — the “R-C” district — this weekend.

“Outdoor cafes are compatible with the district’s purpose and intent and would further bolster the economic vitality of restaurants located with the district,” the staff report said. “Outdoor cafes enliven the streetscape, provide passive surveillance of the street, and enable people’s participation in street life.”

The outdoor cafés in question could be either on private property, as a by-right use, or on the sidewalk, with an approved permit. It would apply to restaurants within R-C — “Multiple-family Dwelling and Commercial District” — zoning.

An informal survey conducted by the County found a majority of residents who responded support this change. Of the 69 respondents, 85% supported the amendment because cafés would have a positive effect on on activating street life.

“Other common themes included helping out restaurants during a challenging economic period, enabling restaurants to respond more effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic, and seeking out opportunities to reclaim street parking for outdoor cafes in areas with narrow sidewalks,” staff said.

Concerns expressed by survey respondents ranged from noise, keeping pedestrian pathways clear and charging rent for the use of public space.

This amendment does not involve the program for temporary outdoor seating areas, or TOSAs, staff said.

“In response to the need for increased public health measures to combat the coronavirus, Arlington County permits restaurants, bars and cafes to establish temporary outdoor seating areas (TOSAs) which resemble outdoor cafes but are regulated and permitted under different laws,” staff said.

Rather, this amendment has been a work plan item for the Planning Division for a while now — “well before on the onset of COVID-19,” Arlington County spokeswoman Jennifer Smith said in an email.

“One benefit of TOSAs is that some of the restaurants who have been advocating for this amendment were able to have temporary outdoor dining since June through the TOSA process,” Smith said. “With the approval of this amendment, they can pursue a permanent outdoor café.”

Although the change comes as struggling restaurants lean on outdoor dining, even in the winter months, outdoor cafés have been part of Arlington County’s plan to enliven retail corridors for the last five years.

In the 2015 Retail Action Plan, outdoor cafés are encouraged because they improve the pedestrian experience in and increase the number of “third places” for the community to gather.

“‘Third places’ — locations outside of home or work where people meet, socialize and learn from each other — are highlighted as community elements that, when present, can add activity and excitement to street life as centers of gathering,” the County’s web page says.

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(Updated at 4 p.m.) When walking from a Metro station, pedestrians often pass large apartment buildings that transition quickly to detached, single-family homes on sizable lots.

That contrast reveals two problems in Arlington County’s housing supply, says Emily Hamilton, a housing expert and advocate, and the Director of the Urbanity Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Arlington needs to allow for more expansive urban villages around Metro stations, as well as additional housing options in between apartment buildings and detached, single-family homes, she said.

Her remarks come one month after Arlington County kicked off its “Missing Middle Housing Study,” which is examining whether the county should introduce housing types that have been typically prohibited from many neighborhoods.

Hamilton commended Arlington as a national model for transit-oriented development, since it allows dense, multi-family apartment buildings within one-quarter mile of the Metro stations on the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. But the County never changed the zoning ordinances to fully bring the plan to fruition, and she said it needs to.

“Ahead of Metro’s arrival in Arlington, county policymakers adopted the well-known ‘bulls eye approach’ to planning, which calls for dense development surrounding the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor Metro stations,” she wrote on the website Market Urbanism earlier this month. “Unfortunately, this plan has never been realized in the zoning ordinance.”

“The County maintains single-family or townhouse zoning within one-quarter mile of four stations on this corridor and a relatively low-density multifamily zone within one-quarter mile of the Rosslyn station,” she continued. “The County needs more townhouses and low-rise multifamily housing, but it also needs more high-rise multifamily housing as the bulls eye plan recognized. Given the high and rising land values and house prices along this corridor, it’s past time to realize this decades-old planning objective.”

“People are willing to walk a quarter-mile to a half-mile for transit generally, and farther for heavy-rail stations like the Metro,” Hamilton told ARLnow in a subsequent interview. At least an extra block or two could be converted into denser housing around the stations in Ballston, Virginia Square, Clarendon, Courthouse and Rosslyn, she said.

One such opportunity is in the Lyon Village neighborhood near Clarendon.

“North of the Clarendon Metro station is the largest chunk of that quarter-mile circle where there is low-density housing, and of course, that is where the single family homes are extraordinarily expensive,” said Hamilton. “It’s certainly a spot where denser development would make economic sense.”

Another example of low-density development around Metro is at East Falls Church, where there are single-family homes across the street from the station. A development plan for the area approved in 2011 but fizzled out, after facing strong opposition from local residents.

“There is a big opportunity” to build multi-family housing in the East Falls Church area, Hamilton said. New development would encourage more people to take Metro to work, and would have a positive overall environmental impact by cutting down on driving, she said.

While transit-oriented development has many positives, the relative lack of a middle ground between big apartment and condo buildings and single-family homes is “extremely stark,” Hamilton said.

“There is a missing price point in Arlington both because of the county’s high-income and the region’s unwillingness — compared to other coastal regions — to permit multi-family housing,” she said.

Recent calls to rezone some neighborhoods to allow smaller-scale multi-family homes would not outlaw single-family homes, Hamilton said. Rather, owners would be allowed to replace or convert houses into duplexes and townhouses, if they so choose. Still, the prospect of rezoning has already prompted opposition, making any changes an uphill battle politically.

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As Election Day nears, Audrey Clement, the Independent candidate for Arlington County Board, took shots at her opponent, County Board Chair Libby Garvey, on the county’s Missing Middle Housing study.

Facing a shortage of moderately-priced housing options in the “missing middle” between apartment buildings and single-family homes, the County is kicking off a study to figure out whether it should open up some areas zoned only for single-family homes to denser housing types.

But Clement, a perennial candidate for the last decade, said Garvey has given outsized importance to the racial-justice component of this plan to gloss over economic problems. One problem is the possibility that these new housing options may still be out-of-reach for Black residents, according to Clement.

“The County has been very successful in persuading people it is a social-justice and racial issue, but the people that they are addressing are not aware of the dynamics of the real-estate market,” Clement said.

In the mid-20th century, Arlington began zoning most of the county for single-family homes and forbade the construction of more compact dwellings, which were more commonly inhabited by the county’s Black population because fewer could afford detached homes. There were also deed covenants that explicitly prevented non-whites from buying homes, even if they could afford them.

Today, 75% of the county is zoned for single-family homes. Given the median income earned by Black Arlingtonians, homes in all but a few neighborhoods are out of reach for most.

“What we’ve got now is the result of very intentional systemic racism,” Garvey said of local housing patterns. “Whether this study is going to fix it or not is hard to say. I don’t think we’re saying that.”

Clement agreed that the effects of Arlington’s exclusionary housing policies in the 20th century remain. She said what is disingenuous is framing duplexes, townhouses or other small-scale, multi-family housing as a way to correct Arlington’s racist past, when some data suggest these new options could be unaffordable due to the county’s inflated land values.

“Due to ever increasing land values no one earning less than area median income will afford the housing built on densified lots,” Clement wrote. “In addition many moderate income residents, including people of color, will be forced to sell when real estate assessments escalate in their up-zoned neighborhoods.”

Garvey did not refute the possibility that the study could find that these alternatives would not necessarily be more affordable, but said it is “way too early” to draw conclusions from a study in its infancy.

“The only thing we’ve said is that we have a real issue with sufficient diversity of housing to meet a lot of needs,” she said.

Clement argues that the current unaffordable housing landscape in Arlington is because the county allowed affordable homes to be torn down and replaced with more expensive housing. Renovating existing structures would be a better solution, she said.

This spring, the County Board voted to eliminate a tax credit to landlords who renovate their buildings. Senior Housing Planner Russell Danao-Schroeder said the program had outlived its usefulness: Only large developers were availing themselves of the credit to keep their buildings at the top of the market.

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In 1900, Black people comprised more than a third of Arlington’s population and lived in 12 neighborhoods in the county.

Over the last 100 years, however, the population and the variety of places Black people can afford to live has dwindled, according to a new video from the Alliance for Housing Solutions, a local advocacy organization.

People who identify as Black currently account for 8% of the population, according to Arlington County, and the Alliance video said those who make the median income for Black residents can afford rent in only three census tracts.

The video chronicles the decisions at the local and federal level —  combined with gentrification, rising housing prices and a lack of options — that have forced out much of Arlington’s Black residents.

It ends with a message supportive of Arlington’s Missing Middle Housing Study, which is exploring options for allowing more types of small-scale multifamily housing, in more parts of the county, via zoning changes.

“It’s time to ask ourselves if we are ready to dismantle the walls of indifference once and for all and build an Arlington where people of all walks of life are welcome and can afford to live,” the video says.

The video comes a few weeks before the virtual kick-off event for the “Missing Middle” study on Wednesday, Oct. 28.

The housing patterns seen in Arlington today were set in the first half of the 20th century, the video says. Construction rates for suburban single-family homes and garden apartments boomed, but many deeds in Arlington restricted ownership to white people. In 1938, Arlington banned row houses — the primary type of housing for Black residents, and a common feature in Alexandria and Washington, D.C. — which were deemed distasteful.

Some barriers were legal, while others were physical.

In the 1930s, residents of whites-only communities around the Black neighborhood of Hall’s Hill built a 7-foot cinder block wall to separate their communities. In the 1940s, the federal government evicted Black neighborhoods to build the Pentagon and nearby roadways.

Although the Civil Rights Era ushered in school desegregation as well as open and fair housing laws, both federal and local, the video says many parts of Arlington look no different than when they were building during Jim Crow and legal segregation. Historically Black neighborhoods are characterized by aging homes that do not comply with zoning regulations that were put in place after the homes were built.

“In many ways zoning rules that govern Arlington’s low-density residential areas have become more restrictive over time, while only a small part of the county’s land was made available to meet the growing housing needs of the area,” according to the video.

Today, single-family detached homes account for nearly 75% of zoned property in Arlington, according to the Missing Middle Housing Study. The study partially links the shortage of townhomes, duplex, triplex and quadruplex options — called middle in reference to their size, not their price point — to policies with racist origins.

A reversal of some of Arlington’s restrictive zoning policies is a deliberate choice “the County could make to correct the mistakes of the past and pave a new path for Arlington’s future,” the study’s authors wrote. If Arlington chooses to do nothing, “the structural barriers and institutional racism embedded in the County’s land use policy would remain.”

Screen shots via Alliance for Housing Solutions/YouTube

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Some Arlington property owners who hoped to make changes or additions to their property earlier this year have been left in the lurch, but there could be relief in sight as the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) prepares to add more meetings to address the backlog.

“The last BZA hearing was held in February and all cases were heard,” said Jessica Margarit, a spokesperson for the Department of Community Planning, Housing & Development. “Due to pandemic, the County suspended in-person public meetings in March. This did cause a delay in hearing BZA cases.”

Since then, Margarit said a virtual hearing process has been developed that will allow board members, applicants, and the general public to join in a video conference. The County Board has been holding similar, virtual meetings for months, but it took time to figure out how the BZA could conduct its business responsibly.

“Contactless public notices will be distributed to affected properties via mail, which the BZA feels is a necessary step prior to moving forward with a public hearing,” Margarit said.

The delay in BZA meetings has caused problems for some homeowners and builders.

“They are so behind,” one frustrated local told ARLnow. “Their inability to figure this out is hurting Arlington home building businesses. Our family personally has a project… but we are in an interminable wait due to BZA not meeting in anything close to a timely manner. We know our builder is trying to keep his employees busy (many of whom are local residents), so this delay hurts many people in the community.”

The first virtual BZA meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, July 29. There are eight items on the docket, primarily residential adjustments like requests related to new accessory dwelling units or to install a new deck. Some of these items are carried over from the February meeting.

“To speed up reviews for those who have been waiting during the pandemic, we anticipate holding two additional meetings in early-to-mid-August to reduce the backlog of applications,” Margarit said. “Agendas for the August meeting dates have not yet been set. If additional meetings are needed to eliminate the backlog, the Board will evaluate the remaining number of cases and determine whether to schedule additional hearings at more frequent intervals.”

File photo

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Morning Notes

Trash Collection CancelledUpdated at 8:55 a.m. — Trash and recycling collection is cancelled today, according to Arlington’s Dept. of Environmental Services. Christmas tree and brush collection will be completed as normal, however. [Twitter]

Rep. Beyer Calls for Peace — Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) tweeted the following after Iran’s airstrike on U.S. military bases in Iraq — a response to the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general: “De-escalate. Exercise diplomacy. Talk. Listen. Give peace a chance.” [Twitter]

Civ Fed Worries About Upzoning — “‘None of us are interested in destroying all our single-family neighborhoods,’ new County Board Chairman Libby Garvey said during the board’s Jan. 2 meeting with the Arlington County Civic Federation… At the forum, Garvey promised that the Civic Federation would play an integral role in any civic-engagement process that transpires in coming months. She reiterated the board’s position that zoning changes are not a done deal.” [InsideNova]

Board Defends Amazon’s Housing Contribution — “Arlington County Board members are defending their decision to trade additional office-building density for affordable-housing funding, but the decision provoked tension with some delegates to the Arlington County Civic Federation. Meeting with board members on Jan. 2, several federation members asked why the county government had decided to allocate all the $20 million contribution from Amazon to affordable-housing efforts.” [InsideNova]

Marijuana Possession Cases Dismissed — In court Tuesday, Arlington’s new top prosecutor successfully sought for judges to dismiss charges against those charged with simple marijuana possession. [Twitter]

Police Investigate Pike Robbery — A portion of westbound Columbia Pike was shut down near S. Glebe Road early Tuesday morning while police investigated a robbery. An ACPD spokeswoman told ARLnow that a victim was robbed and suffered minor injuries; no weapon was involved in the robbery. [Twitter]

New Coworking Space Coming to Crystal City — “Hana is coming to Greater Washington, and it’s going to be neighbors with HQ2. CBRE Group has picked a Crystal City office building to serve as the first East Coast location of its flexible space concept, named after the Hawaiian word for work.” [Washington Business Journal]

Local Pawn Shop Helps Return Lost Ring — “Mary Nosrati, a certified gemologist who works at a pawnshop in Arlington, Va., likes to say that every diamond has a story. This is the story of Marsha Wilkins’s diamond, of how it was lost and how it was found.” [Washington Post]

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County Board members enthusiastically and unanimously passed six amendments to the Arlington County Zoning Ordinance intended to open up more elder care housing in Arlington.

Developers can now build elder care facilities across 18 zoning districts, after being limited to a handful of possible location for such facilities before.

The Board also voted to update parking standards and to update definitions for terms such as nursing homes, assisted living facilities, independent living facilities, and continuing care retirement in county code, allowing more types of elder care facilities to be built.

Parking regulations for assisted living spaces and independent living facilities are now set to 0.5 spaces per bedroom, while the minimum parking requirement for nursing homes is now 0.5 spaces per bed.

“It really is good, it’s a need — there are more and more of us in this demographic every day and we need to be thinking about it,” said County Board Vice Chair Libby Garvey.

There are more than 35,000 Arlington residents above the age of 60, according to a county staff report.

“This represents 14% of the County’s population, and this percentage is expected to grow in the coming decades,” the report notes. “Across the nation, one in five Americans will be age 65 or older by 2030.”

The zoning changes were bolstered by the results of year-long study by the Arlington County Zoning Committee. Hundreds of Arlington residents answered surveys and participated in public forums and meetings. During an October community forum, participants were asked to place stickers on a map indicating where they would like to see future elder care housing.

“The study provided a community-wide forum for discussing a host of issues about housing for our older residents,” said principal planner Nick Rodgers. “It’s something that touches all of us — everyone has, or will have, an older loved one who will likely need this kind of extra help at one time or another.”

The zoning changes notably allow a proposed six-story senior living center along the 4300 block of Lee Highway to move forward.  McLean-based developer Artis Senior Living filed plans with the county in March to build a 175-unit property, but per zoning laws, was not permitted to construct in the area.

“I think this is an excellent body of work,” said board chair Katie Cristol. “And it will serve one definitive plan, and I hope with many more to come.”

There are currently 12 elderly residential care facilities in Arlington, all built before 2013 — when the county tightened zoning regulations, effectively limiting elder care facilities to a handful of smaller spaces meant for hospitals. The most recent facility is Mary Marshall Assisted Living, which opened in the Penrose neighborhood in 2011 and is funded by the county.

Photo (1) via sunriseseniorliving.com

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The Arlington County Board has unanimously approved several zoning changes that could incentivize developers to build more affordable housing units.

The changes, approved at the Saturday (November 16) County Board meeting, modify “bonus density maximums” for site plan projects and alter how the county defines low or moderate income to “provide greater flexibility in facilitating affordable housing.”

Density bonuses are an incentive land use tool regulated in the Arlington County Zoning Ordinance. Currently, density bonus maximums are capped at 25 percent above what is allowed in the zoning district. This means if a developer promises to build affordable housing units, community facilities, open spaces, or environmental amenities with their project, they’ll get up to 25 percent more space to work with.

After much debate — “my head hurts,” commented board member Erik Gutshall — the County Board voted to give itself the flexibility, within the heights specified for each zoning district, to consider added density above the 25 percent maximum on a case-by-case basis.

“Bonus density has allowed us to build hundreds of units of affordable housing across Arlington, and particularly in the transit-rich Metro corridors, without relying on County funding,” said County Board chair Christian Dorsey in a press release. “We believe this new flexibility will encourage developers to add more affordable homes in their projects.”

The revisions have received mixed feedback from developers and civic groups. Jack Spilsbury, the co-chair of the Ashton Heights Civic Association, said the elimination of density caps could “create more boxy buildings, and raise concerns about the preservation of neighborhood characteristics.”

In addition, the Board voted to allow higher income levels for affordable housing when considering new site plans. The County Board currently defines low-or-moderate income for renters as at or below 60 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI) — or about $51,000 per year — and at or below 80 percent AMI — or $68,000 per year — for home ownership.

In 2015, the county officials pledged to create 15,800 affordable housing units before 2040, but have since fallen short of the yearly creation benchmarks. By giving itself the option of considering higher income levels for affordable housing, the County Board hopes to allow the creation of more affordable housing, particularly for those at moderate income levels.

“There is no question that affordable housing is something we are going to work diligently to solve,” said Gutshall during Saturday’s meeting. “But I believe in the long run here, we are going to get to those solutions easier and better by demonstrating to the community that we rely on the planning that it takes.”

The last review of affordable housing bonus provisions occurred in 2001. Earlier this year, the County Board introduced “Housing Arlington,” an initiative for the county’s existing affordable housing program.

The full press release about the bonus density changes is below, after the jump.

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Following years of zoning tweaks, the Arlington County Board says childcare centers may finally be reaping some benefit from local policy changes.

The Arlington County Board approved requests from eight childcare providers this past weekend to expand the number of children they can care for — requests Board members took as a sign of success for their many programs intended to ease the regulatory burden on such businesses and expand childcare options in Arlington.

“The use permits that the Board approved for a number of family daycare homes are evidence that the child care initiative is producing real results for families and small businesses,” said County Board Chair Christian Dorsey during the meeting.

“These established home and child care providers chose to increase their capacity because of changes that we recently enacted to our Zoning Ordinance and County Code, recommended by the child care initiative ably spearheaded by Ms. Cristol,” he added of fellow Board member Katie Cristol.

On Saturday, eight existing daycare operations requested increases in the number of children they are allowed to care for — from nine to 12. The Board unanimously approved all requests through its consent agenda. The facilities include:

  • EliBunny Family Child Care at 5916 5th Road S
  • Singh Family Day Care Home at 5738 N. Carlin Springs Road
  • Yolita’s Daycare at 1509 S. Quincy Street
  • Kumar Family Day Care Home at 6610 19th Road N.
  • Small Angels Child Daycare at 1523 N. Randolph Street
  • Fablis Daycare at 923 N. Edgewood Street
  • Modern Tots at 3110 19th Street S.
  • Andy’s Room Childcare at 2015 S. Monroe St

The requests come after the Board previously changed several zoning ordinances to allow daycares to care for up to nine children by right, and up to 12 children if they obtain a use permit through the county. The changes also reduced parking requirements and standardized child caps across different zoning districts.

The changes were part of the county’s long-discussed overhaul on childcare regulations.

The overhaul required a dedicated staff member and aimed to loosen what some worried were overly restrictive regulations, contributing to Arlington’s sky-high costs of childcare by limiting the number of slots for children in daycares and making it harder to open up new childcare centers.

Parents in Arlington pay the highest average costs in the region — $42,705 per year — for an infant and a 4-year old to attend daycare, leading Board members to consider a subsidy last year to help families afford it. The average cost per child ($21,000) is also among the highest in the region, per the Economic Policy Institute.

Last January, the county reported that there were only 6,984 licensed daycare spaces available for more than double that number of children under the age of five in Arlington.

On Saturday the Board also renewed permits for several larger childcare facilities, including the STEM Preschool on S. Abingdon Street  in Fairlington (which cares for 106 children), and the Feya Preschool (40 children) on S. Walter Reed Drive, south of Columbia Pike.

“This is truly a success story, and we look forward to more of these coming forward,” said Dorsey.

Kalina Newman contributed to this report.

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The Arlington County Zoning Committee (ZOCO) is recommending the county open up more areas for potential use as elder care facilities.

During a meeting last night (Tuesday), ZOCO urged the county permit elder care facilities across 18 zoning districts, citing a growing elderly population and prohibitive restrictions on where such facilities can currently be built. The loosened regulations would let developers build nursing homes, assisted living facilities, independent living facilities, and continuing care retirement communities.

“This limitation on potential sites and development standards has become a barrier to licensed residential care facilities seeking to locate in Arlington,” said Nick Rogers, zoning amendment coordinator with the Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development.

Last night, Rogers presented interim results of the county’s study of ways to build more senior housing, particularly in places like Rosslyn, Crystal City, and along Columbia Pike.

“Elder care facilities are an appropriate use for zoning districts which already permit multifamily development,” he said.

There are more than 35,000 Arlington residents above the age of 60, according to a county staff report.

“This represents 14% of the County’s population, and this percentage is expected to grow in the coming decades,” the report notes. “Across the nation, one in five Americans will be age 65 or older by 2030.”

That growing older population will need places to live that support their needs.

“Arlington is really behind in housing for older people and more assisted living facilities are definitely needed,” said Joan McDermott, a former member of the Arlington Commission on Aging, during an October 7 community forum.

There are currently 12 elderly residential care facilities in Arlington, all built before 2013 — when the county tightened zoning regulations, effectively limiting elder care facilities to a handful of smaller spaces meant for hospitals. The most recent facility is Mary Marshall Assisted Living, which opened in the Penrose neighborhood in 2011 and is funded by the county.

Developer Artis Senior Living submitted a site plan earlier this year to build a six-story, senior living facility along the 4300 block of Lee Highway. The plans stalled after the site turned out to be outside the county’s few areas designated in 2013 for elder care facilities, leading the developer request an exemption to move forward with the project.

A representative from the McLean-based company was present during the October community meeting on the issue but declined to comment.

During the community forum, residents were asked to place stickers on a map indicating where they would like to see future elder care housing. The blue dots were dispersed across the the county, with the biggest clusters of dots stuck to the Courthouse and Bluemont areas.

The zoning expansion is scheduled for review with the county’s Planning Commission in December, before reaching the dais of the Arlington County Board later that month.

Photo (1) via sunriseseniorliving.com

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