An Arlington neighborhood civic association, worried about the future of its aging and overused community center, took the opportunity of a County Board election race to press candidates for a commitment Monday night to keep affordable housing out of a beloved park and prevent the combination of affordable housing on top of or adjacent to a rebuilt community center.
All four candidates told the Arlington Forest neighbors what they wanted to hear. For more than a year, Arlington’s residents and elected officials have struggled to agree on what will be the highest civic priorities in an increasingly dense suburb where the cost of housing, the demand for green space, the need for more schools and an impatience with high-cost public amenities threaten to shred years of general concensus.
Last year, independent John Vihstadt rode that citizen dissatisfaction to a seat on the five -member County Board. Then the Columbia Pike-Crystal City streetcar project was cancelled and two sitting board members decided not to run for re-election this year. In just five weeks, voters will elect their replacements.
“We shouldn’t be building on park land at all,” said Mike McMenamin, who like Vihstadt, is a Republican running as an independent. “No, and that’s for any park land across the county.”
“I agree with Mike,” said Audrey Clement, a former Green Party candidate now also running as an independent. “No housing or schools on this park or on any school site throughout the county.... Half of any new county land should be devoted to [creating new] parkland.”
“I understand the desire in the county for litmus tests .. but we have to get out of thinking there’s a one-size-fits-all answer,” said Christian Dorsey, one of two Democrats seeking office. After the moderator repeated and sharpened the question, Dorsey said affordable housing should not be added “at this site. But we have growing needs in this county and I don’t want to pander to you.”
Fellow Democrat Katie Cristol, following his lead, agreed. “No to affordable housing on this site,” she said. “But we need county leaders who can balance competing needs and we need leaders who are not beholden to a single faction.”
Candidates running for local office rarely get to choose the questions they must answer, or the audiences they must face or the supporters they attract in a months-long scramble for elective office. About 50 residents of this central Arlington neighborhood settled in folding chairs for almost two hours and after the moderator ran out of questions, they had a few of their own to raise. Taxes, lack of parking, mysterious public-private partnerships and the county’s over-populated schools were on their minds.
All four agreed that this is not the time to raise property taxes, especially given Arlington’s record-high commercial vacancy rate. The county strives to keep an equal split between tax revenue from businesses and from residents, a goal that is getting more difficult in light of large number of vacant offices around the county. McMenamin and Clement called for tax incentives or tax breaks for businesses until the vacant office space fills up again. Cristol and Dorsey urged more creativity and effort to lure more businesses to Arlington.
Dorsey and Cristol have both raised around $60,000 in this predominantly Democratic community, but that’s because they survived a hotly contested primary in June. In themost recent reporting period, which ended Aug. 31, Cristol has just over $10,000 left in her coffers, while Dorsey has $8,853 remaining. McMenamin has $13,700 and Clement has $1,657.
Earlier Monday, Vihstadt startled the political class by issuing an endorsement of Dorsey, as well as his expected endorsement of McMenamin. Cristol quickly pulled together the endorsements of every other elected official in Arlington — the entire School Board, legislative delegation, constitutional officers and four-fifths of the County Board — who endorse her. All are Democrats.
Dorsey didn’t reject Vihstadt’s support, but he issued a statement noting that he wants Cristol elected with him. Dorsey told a reporter Monday night that he and McMenamin are “dramatically different in terms of world view and perspective.”
That was evident Monday night, as McMenamin called this “a watershed year” for Arlington.
“Do we remain neighborhood-centric or do we become an urbanized community?” he asked. “We don’t need water parks, we need to pave our streets. We need to build schools. We should maintain the parks.” The County Board should reconsider its practice of devoting nearly half of its budget to schools and letting the School Board determine how the money is spent. Affordable housing, he said, should not be expanded until other needs, such as sidewalks, street lighting and curbs are addressed.
Clement challenged the county’s affordable housing master plan for failing to cite costs in its 150 pages, and argued that it’s simply unworkable.
“We need to think in a more complicated and robust way about our future,” she said. Housing costs are tied to child care costs and to the need for new rules to allow existing homeowners to modify their homes, she said.
“This is not about either-or politics or polemics,” agreed Dorsey. “We’re not going to get where we need to go if we pit each against the other.”