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Arlington Seeks to Preserve History

County Board has approved a new historic preservation master plan to increase education and implement appropriate land use policies.

To the dismay of Arlington officials and history buffs, the county's historical legacy has often been over-shadowed in the minds of the public by the renowned sites of neighboring Georgetown and Alexandria.

While most residents have visited Arlington House and the Arlington National Cemetery, many are unfamiliar with county's heritage as one of the first "street-car suburbs." Few are aware Arlington served as a prototype for New Deal housing and was a place where many black soldiers and freed slaves settled after the Civil War.

To increase the public's awareness of Arlington's rich history and ensure the protection of old buildings, corridors and commercial centers, the County Board has approved a new Historic Preservation Master Plan. The plan calls for county officials to bolster educational programs, implement land-use policies that will preserve older neighborhoods and create incentives for residents to retain historic homes.

"Arlington has a substantial amount more character and history than people perceive," said Mary Means, a consultant who helped the county craft its historic plan. "This will help raise the profile of Arlington's heritage a tremendous amount as the population churns and new people arrive."

Due to the scarcity of land in Arlington and its premium location, many neighborhoods are facing increasing development pressures. Tear downs, condo conversions and the proliferation of McMansions is rapidly altering the face of many of the county's older communities.

The plan provides a framework for how the county can maintain its stock of older buildings, starting with greater incentives for property owners. Officials acknowledge that typical inducements, like write-downs of mortgage interest, are no longer enough, and other financial programs like local tax abatement and low-cost loans should be implemented.

"We need to look at a broad range of ways we can incentivize the preservation of our most critical historic assets," said County Manager Ron Carlee.

The plan suggests the county do more to encourage neighborhoods to apply to be registered as historic districts, guaranteeing them more say over new types of development in their midst. Changes to the county's zoning ordinance could help promote the renovation of older homes rather than their destruction, or could prod people to redevelop in a way that fits the character of the neighborhood.

"We have to jealously guard things here, because we have less and less left to work with," County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman said.

Arlington officials have recently undertaken a massive survey of every historical asset in the county. The county is now looking to hire an outside firm to help them rank the buildings in order of their importance to the community.

Once officials determine which buildings and neighborhoods should be their top priority to preserve, they can use that information to help them craft future land-use policies and sector plans.

"In an environment that is changing very rapidly, we can concentrate on preserving that which is most crucial to Arlington," Carlee said.

County officials emphasized that they plan to establish a place to store historic records and pay for an archivist. While the Virginia Room in the Arlington Central Library has served as a home for many of the county's records, it suffers from a shortage of storage space and was never intended to be a full-fledged repository.

Some of the county's historical documents are stored in Richmond, while many others have been lost over time, officials said.

"When tomorrow's grad students and curious citizens come and want to know how we accomplished our award winning policies, we them to be able to find out," quipped Cary Johnson a historian and former Planning Commissioner.

The other main component of the new plan is to foster great awareness among residents of Arlington's history.

Officials are seeking to hold exhibits in hotels, buildings, shopping centers and the Ballston Mall, and would like to sponsor frequent workshops where residents can learn more about the history of their own neighborhoods.

Teachers will be encouraged to integrate Arlington history into the curriculum and take their classes on field trips across the county. Officials would also like to publish more guides about the older communities in Arlington, to better connect residents.

"It's important for all of us that this should be known, understood and celebrated," said Mike Leavanthal, the county's historic preservation corridor. "We should never lose site of our heritage."