Former Arlington editor Jim Silver contributed to this report.
Newcomers to Arlington find there is much to absorb about the community. Issues like the rising cost of housing, the county's development plans and the coming November election, dominate local discussions. Beyond the debates, becoming familiar with the county's diverse neighborhoods can pose a challenge to anyone.
Before World War II, Arlington still looked like an outer suburb — there were still some rural areas in the county, and plenty of open space. After World War II, the county’s development began in earnest. In the last 20 years, there has not been open space to build many new projects. Still, development continues in Arlington.
Now, most of that development takes place on lots already occupied by older buildings, with apartment complexes or condominiums rising on the former site of single family houses and multi-story office blocks replacing small businesses.
In some Arlington neighborhoods — Clarendon, Courthouse, along Columbia Pike — the county government has tried to get ahead of that process, looking at what new businesses people want, what old businesses they hope will stay and how big the buildings should be.
Development in Arlington is not limited to the county's new high-rise apartment blocks. Arlingtonians are now seeing the final stages of a renewal project begun in the 1960s to revamp its commercial center in Clarendon. The plan is designed to turn the area into an "urban village", according to Sona Virdi of the Clarendon Alliance, a non-profit group coordinating the development with the county and local business leaders. The plan will expand Clarendon's commercial sector, create more parking and public spaces in the area and make the area more accessible to pedestrians. Virdi said the plan has created some conflicts among small business owners, concerned about the influx of chain stores and the rising cost of doing business in the area.
"Clarendon is a very unique, funky town," Virdi said. "We want to make sure that it keeps its flavor and doesn't just become a Virginia version of Bethesda."
The alliance meets regularly with business owners to address their concerns over the plan. Virdi said some conflicts are inevitable.
"The interests contending on this project aren't just between old and new businesses but also between chains and locally owned stores. The important thing is to find a balance."
The cost of homes has risen dramatically around the region over the last five years. That rise has been even more dramatic in Arlington.
Just across the river from Washington, homes in the county mean a short drive or a Metro ride for workers in the District. At the same time, the county’s school system has performed well as standardized testing methods have been put in place — most county schools have met state performance levels on the Standards of Learning exams.
In addition, construction has added many apartments but few homes in Arlington. Local real estate prices mean that negotiations for single family homes take place in a seller’s market.
Rising costs have driven up real estate assessments. Under the county system, houses are reassessed yearly, and rising assessments can affect even long-time residents. That makes houses more valuable, and bigger assets.
But it also means that local property taxes, which fund most county government, have risen dramatically as well. County Board members have responded by cutting tax rates by five cents over the last three years, but payments have still risen.
There have been increasing calls for tax relief. County Board members found new powers to levy cigarette taxes this year, and promised to apply additional funds to lowering real estate taxes. Rather than wait, some Arlington residents have simply moved away.
Roads in the county are a mix of local streets, state roads and federal highways. I-66 plays a central role in getting around and through Arlington, effectively bisecting the county. Since the highway was built, there have been discussions about widening it, a move opposed by most county residents.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, those discussions have increasingly focused on the role I-66 plays in evacuating the Washington area. Opponents say that focus is misplaced: the federal government needs to find effective ways to get workers out of the District in case of an emergency that are more effective than crowding the highway.
But changes to I-66 also play a role in the traffic and development debates going on for the last decade. Widening I-66 will displace Arlington residents, but it will also add drivers to a highway system that has proven incapable of accommodating its users. Opponents of sprawl have said that transportation around the region would be better served by investing in public transportation.
The Metro rail and bus systems could use the investment. Over the last two years, Metro board members have increased the base fare on the system by 25 cents. County Board member Chris Zimmerman (D), the county’s representative on the Metro Board, has asked the board to develop a regular, possibly biennial plan for fare increases — coming back to riders with an increase every year won’t fly, he said. But more importantly, the system needs a stable source of funding, a need that no major local governments are willing to address.
In the meantime, county officials have tried to address some transportation needs on their own.
The percentage of Arlington residents who use the Metro is second only to that of Washington, D.C., in the region.
Several projects are now underway to expand public transport in the county to alleviate Arlington's traffic woes, said Dennis Leach, director of the county's transportation division.
"What we're really trying to do is maximize people's transit choices," Leach said. "We're expanding bus services and raising the frequency of buses, meaning more buses more often."
The county has even expanded short-term rental car services near Metro stops through companies like Zipcar and Flexcar. Leach said there are roughly three cars to rent within walking distance of each station.
Public transportation along Columbia Pike could be expanded in the coming years, according to Robin McElhenny, project manager for Metro's Pike Transit initiative. McElhenny said a study is now underway to find innovative ways to make public transport easier along the pike.
"It could end up being an enhanced bus route or a light rail system like a streetcar," she explained.
In November, voters will also find two bond issues on the ballot proposing more than $50 million in funding to further improve Arlington's transit system.
Crime rates in Arlington have dropped significantly over the summer, according to the county's Chief of Police, Douglas Scott, but newcomers would be wise to take some precautions. Auto thefts have dropped throughout the county but Scott said vehicle larcenies, break-ins perpetrated on parked vehicles, are on the rise.
"We have seen a decrease in most of the crime categories we rate," Scott said.
Gang violence in Arlington was expected to flare up during the summer months, which caused Scott to increase the size of the county's gang task force but, he said, the situation was defused before anything could happen.
"We have certainly done everything we can to send a message to those who would carry out gang activity," Scott said. "For a while, we were getting intelligence that some of the local gangs were planning to cause trouble. We really didn't experience that and now the summer is coming to an end."
Scott added the police department works closely with neighborhoods and businesses on crime prevention.
"We are always willing to set up neighborhood watch programs with people who are interested in doing that and any time we have a homeowner or a business owner who wants us to come out and make security suggestions, they just need to call us and ask," he said.
Arlington's total number of index crimes, crimes measured by the police, declined by nearly one-third from 2002 to 2003.
Defendants in Arlington courts who could not afford to pay a private attorney have had to rely on court-appointed attorneys from private firms because the county has no public defender's office. During the 2004 legislative session in Richmond, the General Assembly approved funding to establish a public defender's office, set to open by the end of the year. Richard Goeman, executive director of the Public Defender Commission in Richmond, said the office will include 11 attorneys along with support staff. A roster of court-appointed attorney's will still be maintained by the courts in the event the office is overbooked by heavy caseloads.
Environmental concerns in Arlington have most recently centered around pollution in local watersheds. Residents in January expressed concerns over high levels of lead in drinking water. The Dalecarlia Water Treatment Plant in Washington, D.C., which supplies much of the drinking water fed to Arlington County, announced Aug. 23 that it has begun pumping orthophosphate, a corrosion inhibitor, into drinking water to prevent the degradation of lead pipes. The county's Department of Environmental Services reports the chemical is harmless and will bring drinking water standards back to acceptable levels under EPA regulations.
Air pollution has also become a major concern in Arlington, not only from automobile emissions but from a nearby power plant along the Alexandria waterfront. Operated by the Southern Corporation, "the worst polluter in America," according to Rep. Moran, this coal-fueled plant is releasing high levels of pollutants through its smokestacks.
"It is the single worst stationary source of air pollution in the Washington area but it is unregulated," Moran said. The plant emits heavy metals, including lead and mercury, and other pollutants, but doesn't generate any power for Northern Virginia.
This summer, the U.S. Air Force Memorial Foundation saw final approval for an Air Force Memorial that will rise across from Arlington Cemetery. That memorial will join other efforts to attract visitors to Arlington, and to create an identity for the county separate and distinct from the District.
Last year, the county opened a new Visitors’ Center in Pentagon Row. Discussions about the Clarendon area have included the neighborhood’s role as a draw for regional visitors.
For the last two years, county officials have considered adding a convention center to Arlington as a way to draw new visitors, a source of new revenue under the county’s hotel occupancy tax.
In the last six months, the idea has moved closer to becoming a reality as a developer has proposed a convention center incorporated in a large-scale, hotel/apartment complex planned for the Pentagon City area.
That could mesh with the new Air Force Memorial, set to open in 2006. The memorial will become a part of the county’s skyline, County Board Chair Barbara Favola said, and will help make that skyline separate from the profile of the monuments across the river.
Three years ago, Arlington was on the front lines in a new war. While the Pentagon has been repaired since Sept. 11, 2001, the effort to prepare for emergencies has not slowed. In the last two years, those efforts paid off when the region was blanketed by a blizzard, and buffeted by Hurricane Isabel.
Around the Pentagon, preparedness has meant the installation of missile launchers and diverted traffic. Arlington’s fire and police departments have worked with the Pentagon and federal officials to carry out role-playing exercises for the last three years, simulating a local response to attacks on the Pentagon with chemical, nuclear or biological agents.
Elsewhere in Arlington, preparedness has had a less martial face. This spring, the group Arlington Prepares conducted a door-to-door exercise, working with neighborhood organizations to leave emergency preparedness material on the front door of over 19,000 Arlington households.
The county government offered support for that project. But the county has also worked to get emergency information to more people, planning for a radio station that could be activated in natural or man-made disasters.
In addition, County Manager Ron Carlee has pushed for more subscribers to Arlington Alert, available online at arlingtonalert.com, an emergency alert system that sends e-mails and text messages to subscribers. Early this year, Carlee said he hopes to add thousands of subscribers this year.
County Board members have considered preparedness in the local government as well. This year, long-time Fire Chief Ed Plaugher retired from the county, after a career that included being one of the coordinators of the Sept. 11 response. Last year, Police Chief Ed Flynn, another Sept. 11 veteran, also retired from his post.
After Sept. 11, both Flynn and Plaugher were credited with getting their departments prepared for such an emergency before the attacks. County officials have charged new Fire Chief James Schwarz and Police Chief Douglas Scott with carrying on in the same vein.