Greater Greater Washington

Do Arlington candidates only like smart growth in theory?

Every Democratic candidate running for Arlington County Board claims to support smart growth. But when smart growth runs up against single-family homeowners' interests, are they willing to make tough choices? At a recent forum, statements from most candidates weren't promising.

The board has an open seat since Barbara Favola was elected to the state senate in November. Arlington Democrats will select a party nominee (who's almost certain to then win the official special election) at 2 caucuses on Thursday, January 19th and Saturday, January 21.

Wednesday night, the Arlington County Democratic Committee hosted a forum with the candidates. The forum spotlighted the paradoxical views of Arlington Democratic voters: They want candidates to express concern about things like smart growth, affordable housing, and transportation, but may be reluctant to support the density increases, transit projects or higher taxes to pay for affordable housing programs that may actually deliver it.

In opening and closing statements, transportation was either not mentioned at all or waved at in passing. Potential expansions of I-66 or I-395 and Arlington's efforts to fight them weren't mentioned at all. Candidates didn't talk about Metro funding, overcrowding, or congestion.

A question about the proposed Columbia Pike streetcar revealed only one full-fledged supporter in Melissa Bondi, while Peter Fallon, Libby Garvey, Kim Klingler, Terron Sims seemed to know much about the streetcar's price but little about its value.

None of the four spoke of the value of investing in the Pike, cost savings to residents in a car-free diet, high demand for housing on rail, air quality benefits, or the potential for new tax revenue from development encouraged by a streetcar.

But no issue brings out a refusal to make tough choices quite like affordable housing, and it's certainly not limited to this crop of County Board candidates. Arlington single-family homeowners say they're concerned about a lack of affordable housing, but they also would like to see the value of their own home inflate indefinitely. Some are also so concerned about keeping their neighborhood the same that even strip malls get the historic preservation treatment.

Every candidate at the forum professed support for affordable housing, yet every candidate also expressed at least some skepticism about increasing existing density or adding new density in historically low-density areas.

Given that these candidates face an electorate that skews older and single-family homeowner in a low turnout January caucus and March 27 special election, candidates may be downplaying their commitment to smart growth policies now as a matter of politics. But as dense, transit-oriented development moves into new neighborhoods, from the Pike to East Falls Church to Lee Highway, it's disappointing so many County Board candidates appear to be taking the low road.

Miles Grant grew up in Boston riding the Green Line, and has lived in Northern Virginia riding the Orange Line since 2002. Also blogging at The Green Miles, he believes enhancing smart growth makes the DC area not just more environmentally sustainable, but a healthier and more vibrant place to live, work and play. 

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Probably,

You can see this in the development along wilson corridor. high-rises abutting single family homes. Any sort of low rise apartment is usually former military housing and its hard to subdivide a standing SFH into a multi-family dwelling. It would be nice to a zoning change that would allow the creation of accessory dwelling units that people could build that could be rented out. It's a great way to build density without relying on 30 story buildings.

Also it'd be neat to see some budding urban planners/architects integrate new buildings/density into some of the ubiquitous huge garden style complexes.

by Canaan on Jan 9, 2012 2:58 pm • linkreport

Figures you would be bothered by someone actually questioning the cost of the project. A vote for Bondi is a vote for Zimmerman.

by TGEoA on Jan 9, 2012 3:00 pm • linkreport

Congratulations to Melissa Bondi on taking a brave stand on the streetcar. As you can see, doing anything favored by Zimmerman gets you trashed in certain blogs.

But I'm confused about Miles lumping everyone into the same pot on growth. Does Miles think it is not "smart growth" until people start losing their homes? I thought Arlington won its awards for being able to concentrate its development in a way that protected existing neighborhoods.

by Some guy on Jan 9, 2012 3:19 pm • linkreport

Yep, way too broad a brush here.

Serious concerns abou the Pike streetcar -- both in terms of escalating cost -- and how you're going to continue to keep transit going on the busiest bus corridor in Virginia. I don't the streetcar answers that second question well at all.

Is smartgrowth just an excuse to allow some condo developers to get rich? I hope not.

by charlie on Jan 9, 2012 3:45 pm • linkreport

Sustainability is built on three pilars: that it preserve resources, be affordable, and not destroy cultural identity. Those have been the principals for 40 years of thought on the topic. Funny how developers always forget the latter and choose to destroy the village in order to save it. Argue about what is culturally and historically important, but to reject it as worthwhile premise, as this blog post does, is to reject sustainability itself.

by crin on Jan 9, 2012 4:32 pm • linkreport

Canaaan, I'd need to verify, but I'm pretty sure Arlington has an ADU ordinance. Passed a couple years ago.

by spookiness on Jan 9, 2012 4:54 pm • linkreport

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] Smart growth does not require the streetcar. As a car-free Pike-area resident, I suggest that more than a streetcar, we need bigger buses at rush hour, more direct-to-DC buses, real on-street bike lanes, and better ART service, especially on weekends. Similarly, recognizing that the Pike is today home to much market-rate affordable housing, and that development will make these units more scarce, isn't NIMBYism. It's basic economics. The self-appointed smart growth echo chamber of the current board ([Deleted for violating the comment policy.]) cries out for a fresh voice who understands that smart growth means making the smart choices with limited transportation and development dollars, and not committing to white elephants.

by PikeSpotter on Jan 9, 2012 7:15 pm • linkreport

By reserving affordable units in new buildings as density increases, Arlington can assure affordable housing even as low rises are torn down. Certainly limiting the supply of new multi family housing will only keep multifamily housing in the region expensive.

but what some guy said - concentrating new development in TOD zones, can be compatible with keeping SFH's elsewhere.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jan 9, 2012 8:52 pm • linkreport

PikeSpotter is spot on. The Pike Streetcar project would spend roughly $250,000,000 (not counting another $70+ million to rebuild Columbia Pike for the streetcars) to replace about 10 existing $400,000 Metrobuses with the same number of equally slow trolley cars. Thus, this project would cost more than 50 times the 10 replaced Metrobuses.

Even if one ignores the many adverse impacts of the streetcar project and concedes that the streetcars might be superior overall to the current Pike Ride Metrobuses, the trolleys would clearly not be more than fifty times better.

The Pike Streetcar project is nothing more than a wasteful rail fetish. Wasting taxpayer funds is never "smart", and
Arlington does not need more "smart growth" group think on its County Board.

by Allen Muchnick on Jan 9, 2012 11:41 pm • linkreport

It's a fallacy to believe that streetcars will make a different. Time and time again people all across the US think that they will make a positive improvement whereas they don't! One only needs to go to Europe to figure that out: Brussels and Amsterdam, cities with long established streetcars, have been trying as much as they can for years now to establish right of ways for their streetcars for example. We transportation consultants now that travel time is important. Little or no travel time improvements compared to the existing situation will not bring the benefits talked about in this post. As such these politians are right, although probably not for the right reasons!

by Vincent on Jan 9, 2012 11:47 pm • linkreport

While the streetcar may have high upfront costs, it will save money in the long term and ultimately be a bargain for Northern Virginia. If it isn't built, and changes to the zoning code to allow for density aren't implemented, how much money do you think will be spent on widening and repairing roads, constructing utilities, and buying gas to support sprawl? A lot more than $261 million, that's for sure.
The streetcar system is as much a tool to shape development patterns as it is a method of transportation. One only need to look to Portland (where, in the Pearl District, a neighborhood was built out of land once occupied by a rail yard) to see this. Dense development such as this has lower costs of maintenance and construction than sprawl. The fact that a recession is going on means that money should be spent in the most efficient manner possible. A streetcar, which is the natural progression from a bus in the all-four system of transit design, is the embodiment of this and auto-centric sprawl is not.

by Bryan on Jan 10, 2012 12:57 am • linkreport

@Bryan, Arlington is not Portland. Arlington has a never ending siphon of money flowing from the federal government across the river to the contracting industry here that accounts for nearly 40% of our economy. We take the money from Portland and run our contracting industry here.

Columbia Pike will redevelop on its own, that is inevitable. The question facing Arlington is whether to exercise patience in a time when credit and capital are scarce, or rush too quickly into leveraging our future needs in County-wide infrastructure and classroom capacity at the expense of a robust stock of existing affordable housing. The long term impacts of a short sighted streetcar project are just not being discussed enough. We are working to get a representative on the board via the special election who will stop the streetcar until all of the impacts can be openly discussed.

by Fenster on Jan 10, 2012 8:51 am • linkreport

Lol @ rail fetish.

by TGEOA on Jan 10, 2012 9:18 am • linkreport

"The question facing Arlington is whether to exercise patience in a time when credit and capital are scarce, or rush too quickly into leveraging our future needs in County-wide infrastructure and classroom capacity at the expense of a robust stock of existing affordable housing. "

Im confused. If capital market constraints prevent speeding of development due to the streetcar, how does that impact the existing affordable housing? It sounds like you are saying that the street car will NOT advance development, because that will either A. Happen anyway because of Arlingtons location or B will not happen anyway, not soon, because of the capital market, AND that, at the same time, new development due to the street car will remove the stock of affordable housing.

by AWa;lerInTheCity on Jan 10, 2012 9:30 am • linkreport

Bring on the streetcar ASAP as the increased population is coming anyway. The Columbia Pike corridor already has existing density to have high usage rates for a quality transportation option. The current buses are maxed out -there is simply no way to add more buses without making them all slower. High frequency streetcar service coupled with limited stop express bus service is the answer.
The increased tax base of incoming residents who want high quality transit service along with increased tax base on redevelopment of underutilized lots -(Uhaul lot, columbia pike plaze etc) will pay for the system.

by Chris R on Jan 10, 2012 9:55 am • linkreport

@Fenster, If the zoning is done correctly, then the affordable housing will take care of itself. Simply include a mandate in the code saying that X percent of new housing must be affordable, and there you go. If I recall correctly, this is what is being done in DC in anticipation of the streetcar there.
As for the long term impact of the streetcar, yes it will cost more to build in the short run than buying more buses, but it will also focus economic development on the pike in a way that more buses will not. I gave Portland as an example of this taking place, not implying that it should be used as a model for the pike. Another good example of transit focusing development is the Rosslyn-Balston Metrorail corridor.
More development will take place along the corridor, but this development will also generate revenue for local government which can be used to increase quality and quantity of services to everyone else. This is because dense development costs less to maintain and provide for, and what's left over can be used to hire teachers or patch roads in other areas of the county.
While this development may be inevitable as you suggest, the streetcar will insure that it occurs in an efficient and responsible manner that does not waste land or funds in the future.

by Bryan on Jan 10, 2012 4:02 pm • linkreport

Arlington has both an accessory dwelling unit ordinance and an affordable housing ordinance. The former hasnt yielded a lot of units because some of the building code requirements (such as a separate ventilation system) are expensive unless you are building an addition. The affordable housing ordinance was adopted in 2005 with the support of both advocates and developers. Basically they must replace units lost to redevelopment in the Metro Corridors, with more housing required if it is further from Metro. Developers can also pay cash and the finds are used by the County to fund affordable projects. Office developers also must pay into the fund.

Regarding Miles Grant's comments on the session with County Board candidates, if they understand smart growth at all they should be embracing it and encouraging single family homeowners to do likewise . Both candidates Fallon and Bondi are well versed in the benefits from their time on the Planning and Housing Commissions, respectively. Ms Garvey's comment about "runaway development" on a recent flier is troubling, however. Where does she referring to?

The fact is that Metro Corridor development represents about 50% of the real estate tax base year in and year out. But it's only about 11% of the land in the County. It's what pays the bills, gives us great schools and many other benefits.

Expanding development potential outside the Corridors should only proceed after extensive community deliberation and debate. That's how planning efforts for the Pike proceeded and the same is true in EFC and Shirlington. It isn't always easy but democracy is messy. There are few other places in the County where development patterns have changed much in 40 years. And any viable candidate should know that.

by Long time resident on Jan 10, 2012 6:37 pm • linkreport

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