One of my favorite ideas of the past year came from an exhibit at the National Building Museum. The premise was that, as the American family and household changes, our neighborhoods and housing must, as well. The policy approach to reconciling these changes was called “Making Room.” And it’s how I’m thinking about this year ahead.
“Making room,” means making room in our neighborhoods and in our community facilities. Our region is growing: In 2015, well before Amazon ever sought a location for an HQ2, the Metro Washington Council of Governments forecasted a million and a half more jobs (and 650,000 more households) coming to our region by 2045. Yet our region isn’t grown our housing supply to match our economy, and we’re all feeling the consequences: An affordability crisis for our middle class; displacement of our working class and low-income residents. Arlington may be only one jurisdiction in our big region, but I know we can be leaders in establishing a better way forward.
So, how do we “make room” in 2019 and for the years to come?
First, by addressing the biggest concerns associated with growth.
My colleagues and I have sought to support the School Board over the past three years in addressing the most acute capacity crunches through more effective site planning processes, and the three new schools opening their doors about nine or so months from now represent real progress. Yet we need to show how Arlington plans not only to address current needs, but to accommodate the growth in students over the coming decades. In 2019, let’s aim to make progress on this type of long-range planning — whether it takes the form of a Schools Element of the Comprehensive Plan (my preference) or another planning tool — and pair it with a more complete look at the non-schools community facilities needed over time.
Similarly, we’ve seen throughout Arlington that congested roads and perceptions of parking scarcity can really tear neighborhoods apart, not to mention motivate opposition to more neighbors. We have to be able to get people to where they’re going, living and working without adding more congestion and more parking demand. Our efforts towards this goal in 2019 include helping restore Metro reliability and ridership and realizing the too-long-awaited milestones for premium bus service on Columbia Pike, like new transit stations this summer.
As we seek to address these quality of life issues, it’s time to revise our zoning ordinance to allow different, diverse and more affordable home types throughout the County. In 2017 and 2018, we made some progress on allowing the forms of housing currently missing in Arlington County (interior accessory dwellings and two-family dwellings), but not nearly enough. Amazon’s arrival has focused our community energy on protecting our middle class from being priced out permanently; we can’t squander the opportunity to tackle this hard and important zoning reform work in the year ahead.
“Making room,” as a planning concept, is also about understanding the changing needs of our families and residents. This year, I’m looking forward to the continuation of our Commission on Aging-led efforts to make Arlington an official Age-Friendly community, and understanding how our public and private environments need to evolve to support seniors. At the other end of the spectrum, after an exciting year for our Childcare Initiative, including the implementation of a number of programmatic strategies, this Board will be poised to act soon on zoning and childcare code amendments to enable quality childcare providers to locate and expand here.
We also need to “make room” for new perspectives at our decision-making table and and a harder look at where inequality persists in our community. The leaders of our human services coalitions, particularly the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness and the Destination 2027 Public Health update, have crystallized this issue for us in 2018, and I’m thrilled that our Chair has made equity a focus in 2019.
Affordability continues to be the most central component of this agenda: Ending disparities is a hollow victory if achieved through the diminishment in the numbers of lower-income or demographically diverse Arlingtonians. But we also need a better system to evaluate whether our decisions (both policy and programmatic) are advancing or stymying equity goals. Consider, for example, Oakland’s practice of scoring neighborhood traffic requests against maps of health and safety outcomes – and sharing the results with constituents as they use them to prioritize such requests. It’s time to use data to put our shared value of equity into practice, and to “make room” for the possibility for changing our standard ways of doing business.
Before I conclude: I think it’s possible to focus on the scale of work and improvements ahead in 2019 while still “making room” to acknowledge how much we accomplished in 2018: An unusually difficult operating budget and Capital Improvement Plan update consumed the first half of the year; each forcing difficult conversations and indeed, dissatisfied stakeholders, yet culminating in financial plans that avoided tax rate increases while protecting key services. We achieved a watershed funding agreement (flawed though the Virginia component proves to be), across two states and the District, for the first time in the history of WMATA. We finalized new community facilities, including a new Head Start home; public spaces investments in Nauck; a long-term solution to the thorny problem of parking our bus fleet; and approval, albeit with much controversy, of an expansion of the County’s only hospital.
And we did this all while expanding the conversation: Our Big Idea Roundtables invited in new voices, in English and Spanish, as well as familiar faces, to talk about the big picture issue of Arlington’s growth – what we worry about, what we hope for and how we can make room for others while maintaining what we love about our hometown.
Which is a big idea, indeed. And a big task for us in the year ahead.
Happy New Year.