When Mary Margaret Whipple scored an upset victory over Arlington County Board Chairman Stephen H. Detwiler a few weeks ago, it signaled a return to a Democratic-controlled County Board for the first time in four years.
As part of The Washington Post's continuing coverage of Arlington, Whipple and the other two Democratic-supported board members, John G. Milliken and Ellen M. Bozman, were invited to discuss their plans for Arlington's future with Post editors and reporters Friday.
The following is an edited transcript of the luncheon. Questioners included Metropolitan Editor Larry Kramer, assistant Virginia editor Walt Harrington, and reporters Patricia E. Bauer, Paul Hodge, Leah Latimer and Nancy Scannell.
Question: Arlington has had a reputation of being an easy mark for developers, waiving height and other restrictions in return for agreements by developers to provide amenities like walkways and roads. The result, critics have said, has been development out of control, and a concrete-and-glass Rosslyn area that looks like a ghost town after dark. Will the county continue to encourage such trade-offs with developers?
Whipple: It was a legitimate strategy in the beginning, certainly, but my feeling is that it has been used too much. Now it's time to be more careful about giving bonuses to developers in return for their public improvements and amenities. I think our majority is going to be looking more closely at the whole issue of development than in the past because we've got some very crucial development coming up now.
Rosslyn was one thing--it's an isolated area, and wasn't next to residential neighborhoods. What we're talking about now is the Metro corridor out to the Ballston area, where some development will be taking place that's very close to single family residential neighborhoods. And it's more critical to be careful in shaping that development and determining what kind of impact it will have on the county.
Milliken: I think everybody acknowledges that development is coming. That decision was made when the Metro line was located and the stops were picked and the decision was made to concentrate some development along there. And so you're talking about a question of degree and how compatible it would be with the neighborhood. I think the basic development plans for Virginia Square and the George Mason University area and for Clarendon are pretty good. And the challenge now is to stick with them.
Bozman: Let me backtrack for a minute to Rosslyn because I think we bear some blame there. We kind of eased up on the Arland Towers building now known as the USA Today building and I can't really say to you today what happened. I was the only one here on the board at that time, and I voted for it. There was no citizen opposition to it at all.
We were eager to finish up Rosslyn. They had this outstanding, award-winning designer who's done all these gorgeous things . . . and we fell for it. . . . Somehow, we lost the critical edge that we should have had. We should have approved the building but said, "Wait a minute. You really don't need 27 or 29 stories. You ought to be building some of those things into the community without that."
Q: But don't you always face the temptation to encourage development so that you can keep the tax rate down--particularly nowadays, when you face potential revenue shortfalls and declining federal and state support? After all, the real estate taxes collected in Rosslyn and Crystal City pay the bill for most of the citizens in the community.
Bozman: Rosslyn and Crystal City are great, great assets to our tax base.
Whipple: It's a matter of degree. We're not talking about development versus no development. The difference in the assessment between something that's smaller and something that's a little more dense and a little higher is probably not great enough to make a huge difference.
Bozman: What we've been doing is having the developers provide a lot of the infrastructure sewers, walkways, etc. , with or without any bonus density. If you don't have them provide that, you're going to increase your bonded indebtedness because either they provide it or you float bonds for those improvements. If we change that policy, if we say that we won't ask developers to provide any of those things, that would have a larger effect on the taxes than the incremental difference between a larger office building and a smaller one.
Q: I'm sure you all saw the report this past week that showed that Arlington was facing a shortfall of $10 million by 1987, or almost 4 percent of that year's budget. Do you think that that's a fair assessment? And what can the county do to offset it?
Milliken: We've been saying all along that the next several years are going to be the toughest fiscal years Arlington has faced in a decade. I don't know whether our real estate assessments will go down, but they're sure going to be flat. And sales tax revenues are obviously the same. So we're facing a tough several years. Relative to the other communities in the region, according to the McNamara report prepared by the Greater Washington Research Center , we appear to be in better shape, but you know that doesn't lessen the problem.
Q: Let's look at it as a global economic question, for a moment, and you can answer in the abstract if you want. What kinds of local government services will people perhaps learn to live without? Will they have to give up things that have been staples in the past?
Milliken: Well, my guess is that Arlington is probably going to be very different than anybody else because we're relatively much better off and I doubt we're going to have to face that kind of choice. I don't think we're going to have to change services that a broad spectrum of citizens consider basic.
Whipple: I don't think you're going to see that in Arlington.
Bozman: I think it's not in the philosophy of the people who live in Arlington.
Milliken: I'm just speaking for myself here, but I think that if it were ever to come down to that kind of choice, people would be willing to pay additional taxes to receive basic fundamental community services. But I don't think we'll have to face that kind of choice.
Whipple: I think what we're talking about are things at the margin. You know, during the campaign I was careful to say that I did not rule out the possibility of a tax rate increase.
Bozman: And Steve Detwiler was very careful not to.
Milliken: There are also things coming out of the 1980 census that can tell us what community services may be increasingly important over the next few years. We'll be needing more services for the elderly. The increasing percentage of two-earner families and single parents underlines the need for child-care services. We've got lots of runners and tennis players and upwardly mobile young professionals, so recreation is clearly a priority.
Q: Let me ask you how you foresee the impact of I-66 on the county. As I understand it, a lot of the entrance ramps from Arlington may be closed if the highway is already crowded with cars from the outer counties. It seems as though Arlington residents, who felt that they were being raped by the road in the first place, will be the last to be served by it when it opens.
Milliken: About the only positive thing you can say about I-66 is that it's a better highway than it would have been if Arlington residents hadn't opposed it in the first place . It is about as insulated and protected a highway as one could have, once the basic decision to build the highway was made. But I don't think we're going to get much use out of it during rush hour.
Bozman: I really do think we're going to have problems with the backups with people trying to get over the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, both from the Parkway, from I-66 and Rte. 50. I can't help but think that's going to have an adverse impact on us. I hope I'm wrong.
Q: Let me ask you an offbeat question: Who do you think is the most powerful person in Arlington and why?
Whipple: Actually, right now it's a person we've never heard of. It's the person who's determining the schedule for leaf pickup.
Q: For example, there's a guy in San Francisco who can really close the city down. He's the head of the Teamsters.
Milliken: You really don't have people like that here. You not only don't have a single person like that, you probably don't have a dozen people like that who collectively could do it.
Bozman: Nor do people think of them that way. It's not that kind of a community.
Q: Mary Margaret, you talked a lot in your campaign about how Arlington was losing families. What can the county do to bring them back?
Whipple: Well, I think there are several things we can do to attract families to Arlington, and I think some economic factors are already helping us do that. In earlier times, when young couples had children they tended to move out to a larger house with a larger lot. Nowadays, with higher energy and transportation costs, people are making the choice to stay in Arlington, even if the house might be a little smaller.
And so my proposal is that we look at the factors that attract families to stay or come to a community, see what services we're already offering, see what gaps there might be and have a task force make recommendations to the county board on possibilities for filling in gaps in the service. One of them is the reductions in the child-care office that were made last year that I think were a mistake and that we ought to restore. And then I'd like to get out a brochure for real estate agents to show Arlington as a desirable place for families to settle.
Milliken: There are a lot of things that the county can do that don't cost money. The primary one and the hardest one is obviously to lean as much as you can in the direction of encouraging development of larger housing units or, let's say, discouraging development of units of only 450 square feet each.
Most of the decisions you can make in this area are zoning decisions. They're things like: are you willing to allow someone to set up a day-care center in their home?