The calendar may have flipped from one year to the next, but the largest challenge facing Arlington leaders remains: too many needs for facilities that require space, not enough land to put them all on.
“We’re trying to be both opportunistic and strategic,” said County Board Vice Chairman Katie Cristol at the board’s annual meeting with the Arlington County Civic Federation, a meeting in which board members were pressed – in sometimes testy exchanges – to explain how they would prioritize what goes where within the cozy confines of Arlington, and what might not fit.
The community “needs to have a more adult conversation about not being able to fit everything in our 26 square miles,” board member Christian Dorsey said, clearly looking back over his shoulder at battles of recent years that have pitted advocates of schools, open space and other priorities against one another.
“We just have to kind of pull together for the common good,” added County Board member John Vihstadt.
But platitudes were not placating the Civic Federation delegates, who suggested the county government has allowed itself to be overwhelmed.
“Our [government] planning processes are not keeping up with our density and growth,” said Edie Wilson, a delegate from the Shirlington Civic Association, who complained that while county officials use plans and studies as reference points, “many of them are 10, 15 years old.”
The latest battlegrounds include a parcel across North Quincy Street for the Arlington Education Center, currently owned by developer William Buck but with the county government holding an option to buy, and a large parcel on South Carlin Springs Road now owned by Virginia Hospital Center but in the mix as part of a proposed land swap with the county government.
Dave Gelman, a Civic Federation delegate from Yorktown, said county leaders would be foolish to take cash from the hospital, when they could acquire the Carlin Springs parcel instead.
“Take the land,” he said. “Don’t let that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity pass us by.”
To help prioritize and focus, County Board members and their School Board colleagues have appointed a 20-member panel they have named the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission. Chaired by Greg Greeley and Ginger Brown and set to hold its first meeting Jan. 19, the body is designed to serve as a bridge between the extensive Community Facilities Study, which wrapped up work last year, and real-world decision-making on capital projects.
The advisory group also could be used as an arbiter – albeit one without ultimate authority – in trying to prioritize needs for facilities.
“What does 2040, what does 2050 look like? My hope is we’ll be able to create a long list of ‘here’s what we need,’” said Greeley, a veteran of school-system planning efforts.
Greeley said he hopes the public buys into the joint planning effort, that “they’d like to feel as we grow, that we will grow successfully,” he said.
The panel is designed to take its place among, but not take the place of, other county-government advisory bodies. It will be required to submit a report to County Board members at least once a year, but is likely to be far more active.
The community faces “many competing needs,” Cristol said, and the planning body will help.
“There will be a community process – we don’t have any specifics to give you yet,” Cristol said during the Civic Federation confab, a view that was shared by Greeley.
The most pressing issue is finding seats for students as enrollment continues to rise, but school officials say the planning effort has to be spread wider.
“We have school needs, but the county also has needs,” School Board Vice Chairman Barbara Kanninen said at a recent meeting.
A spirit of collaboration between School Board and County Board at times has been missing in the past, but appears to be genuine.
“I love seeing the boards work together,” Greeley said. “I’m really impressed when we can be deliberate.”
With high office-vacancy rates, some Civic Federation delegates pressed leaders to buy or lease available space now.
“Some of the commercial space could be reused,” said Duke Banks, a Civic Federation delegate.
The school system recently did just that, signing a long-term lease on additional space near Washington Boulevard that will be used for staff offices, enabling the potential renovation or razing of the Arlington Education Center and use of the space for other uses.
But those opportunities are rare, County Board member Libby Garvey said, despite the best efforts of county and school-system staff.
“Anybody have a building in mind, let us know,” she said. “So far, they haven’t panned out.”
Going forward, Arlington residents may need to accept half a loaf and show a willingness to compromise when it comes to future facilities, County Board Chairman Jay Fisette said.
“Not every issue is as black or white as we’d like,” he told Civic Federation delegates.