Missing Middle has produced the most contentious battle between residents and government that Arlington has experienced in over a decade. But why fight, when a good compromise is so readily at hand?
Arlington’s government could simply follow other jurisdictions’ better way to achieve the benefits cited in the Missing Middle plan without its most objectionable part: the wholesale upzoning of half the county’s land for more intense development.
Yes, “wholesale.” No more looking at parcels one by one or even neighborhood by neighborhood. No evaluation of the suitability of the location. No examination of the consequences on environment, water/sewer services, traffic, parking, schools, or neighbor’s quality of life. Just – bang-boom! – your neighbor’s house replaced by a duplex, quadplex or hexplex multi-unit development, built “by-right” under new zoning regulations with no input from the neighbors or the government.
The Missing Middle plan makes no estimate of what it will cost the county government (and taxpayers) to service the added density. It makes no mention of how drastic increases of land assessments will cause property taxes to skyrocket, forcing existing lower-income home owners and seniors living on fixed incomes out of their homes.
Is all this chaos really necessary?
If the county government wants more middle housing that is okay. There is a way to do this that won’t simultaneously reduce the number of single-family homes. Better yet, this alternative is less likely to cause many of the negative consequences of the current plan.
The better way is to adopt Office-To-Residential (O2R) conversions instead of targeting residential neighborhoods.
O2R is a smart approach to expanding housing opportunities that Alexandria, Fairfax County, the District of Columbia and ultra-progressive California are adopting. The benefits are many:
• O2R addresses Arlington’s ridiculously high office-vacancy rate, now hovering around 24 percent, with no sign that it will abate. Empty office space is a financial problem for building owners, reduces the county’s tax revenue and harms nearby businesses that serve the public.
• O2R would preserve the currently cooler parts of Arlington instead of creating heat islands that worsen air pollution, increase nervous stress, increase the numbers of harmful insects and plant diseases, and lead to dramatic changes in precipitation and severe storms.
• O2R can be accomplished with less drastic regulation than upzoning. O2R would avoid the risk of establishing a zoning right that could not be rescinded without court battles.
• O2R embodies a reuse-and-recycle philosophy. Gutting an office building to bare concrete and refitting it for residential use may produce less waste, often takes less time and is less costly than building new.
• O2R may lead to more affordable units, because refitting a building usually costs less than starting anew.
• O2R enables conversion of the hardscape that often surrounds commercial property into green space.
• O2R would locate housing nearer to transit than the residential land that Missing Middle seeks to upzone.
• O2R would use existing electric, water, sewer, data, etc., infrastructure, eliminating the need for costly upgrades.
• O2R would use the plentiful parking usually found in office and commercial buildings, and probably reduce the need for some of it.
• O2R avoids congestion, noise and diminished quality of life by locating in areas with wider streets and near arterials.
• O2R would enable larger projects, enabling the county government to work with fewer developers on a larger scale, producing more units with less regulatory work.
• O2R is more politically palatable. It avoids harming residents living in quiet neighborhoods. It does not look like a sellout to developers. It is a sensible and effective solution to developing more housing.
• O2R offers the County Board the opportunity to be heroes by adopting a compromise that embodies the values of Missing Middle while retargeting its most objectionable part. It can undo much of the animus the current plan has engendered.
Thomas Piwowar, PhD., has been an Arlington homeowner since 1986. He received a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in regional economics and conflict resolution and worked for over a decade as a policy analyst and forecaster for various federal and state agencies. He then established a consulting practice specializing in electronic publishing. He is now happily retired.
[https://sungazette.news provides content to, but otherwise is unaffiliated with, InsideNoVa or Rappahannock Media LLC.]