When Chris Zimmerman was running for an open seat on the County Board a decade ago, his campaign centered on the necessity of updating Arlington’s transportation system and turning the county into a more pedestrian-friendly community.
At the time, the neighborhood conservation program was in its infancy, there was no local bus service and “traffic calming was not in Arlington’s vocabulary,” Zimmerman said. Not surprisingly, his platform appealed to voters and Zimmerman, a Democrat, coasted to victory.
In his three terms in office, Zimmerman has worked to deliver on those promises. He spearheaded the creation of the ART bus system, which is expected to serve more than a million riders this year; he has helped pump millions of dollars into the neighborhood conservation program, which has completed more than 200 projects since he joined the board; and Arlington is now nationally recognized as a model of a walkable community.
Ten years on, neither the candidate nor the message has changed much.
“I want to see the public transportation network built to the point where even if you don’t have access to a car you can get to anywhere you need to go in Arlington,” said Zimmerman, when asked what his top priority would be were he granted a fourth term in office.
In heavily Democratic Arlington, Zimmerman is the presumptive favorite over Republican Mike McMenamin and Green Party candidate Josh Ruebner. But this fall Zimmerman is facing his most challenging re-election campaign yet.
Opponents from the Republican and Green parties have each relentlessly attacked his tenure in office. And sky-high real estate and car taxes — combined with a series of prominent projects that have run into trouble — have left some in the county disillusioned with the Democrats’ hegemony over the five board seats.
“There’s a lot of frustration out there,” said Geoff Schwartzman, McMenamin’s campaign manager. “There’s a real sense that the concerns of the neighborhoods are being neglected by the current County Board.”
Zimmerman readily acknowledges that the race is a referendum on his decade of service on the board. And he believes that is his greatest asset on the campaign trail
“I’m proud of my record of accomplishment,” Zimmerman said, sitting in his office in the Courthouse, which is adorned with dozens of plaques and awards. “I’ve delivered on what I promised.”
BOTH ZIMMERMAN’S supporters and detractors refer to him as the driving force on many of the board’s most important recent initiatives. He is viewed as a bit of a policy wonk who never shies away from providing detailed and lengthy answers to even the most basic of questions.
“Chris’ greatest asset is that he brings an intellectual coherence to the board’s policies,” said Peter Owen, the Transportation Commission Chair and long-time Democratic activist. “He brings a strong vision to governing Arlington.”
Transportation issues are again at the centerpiece of Zimmerman’s platform this year. He views expanding transit opportunities as a “quality of life issue,” which will help mitigate pollution in the region and help improve public health.
“We have to make it possible for people to live in a more compact community where it is safe to walk and [where people] do not have to be dependent on cars,” he added.
Through his positions on the board of directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, Zimmerman said he was instrumental in adding 8-car trains to the Orange Line.
Much of Zimmerman’s time on the board has been spent trying to solve Arlington’s persistent affordable housing crunch. Since 2000 the county has lost more than half of its stock of affordable units due to rapidly escalating rents, redevelopment and the conversion of apartments into luxury condos.
Yet in that same time period the county has added more than 1,700 committed affordable units, Zimmerman said. “That’s a pretty substantial accomplishment in and of itself,” he added.
The County Board members would like to do more to preserve units for low-income families, but the state has limited Arlington’s options, Zimmerman said.
In 2004, the County Board instituted a requirement that developers devote 10 percent of total gross floor area to affordable units, or contribute to an Affordable Housing Investment Fund. A judge overturned the requirement, saying it breached state law, and the Virginia’s General Assembly threatened to pass a bill that would prohibit any mandated housing obligations.
In response Zimmerman helped orchestrate a deal with developers obliging them to provide a lesser number of units when projects receive a high amount of density.
“In another state we would have more” affordable units, Zimmerman said. “Given the realities of Virginia, we have gotten quite a good deal out of it.”
Zimmerman takes offense with Ruebner’s assertion that the County Board is kowtowing to area developers and that the board’s actions are leading to the “gentrification” of Arlington.
“We continue to embrace diversity in Arlington and are proud of it,” he said. “We want a bigger stock of affordable housing, no question about it.”
MCMENAMIN, THE REPUBLICAN candidate, has accused Zimmerman of ignoring the pleas of homeowners for tax relief and for not displaying greater fiscal restraint.
“Concern over high taxes is something we are hearing come up at every community forum,” Schwartzman. “People are upset and wondering where their money is going.”
Zimmerman contends that his hands are, again, tied by the General Assembly, which does not let localities differ their tax rates for residential and commercial properties. Zimmerman’s own real estate assessment has more than tripled over the past six years, and he hopes that the plateauing of the residential market may mean residents won’t pay as much next year.
The vast growth of the 2007 fiscal budget, which increased by 9.2 percent, was due to a combination of cuts in federal and state funding that the county had to provide for and a pay raise for public safety officers, Zimmerman said.
If re-elected, Zimmerman promises to devote much of his time to transforming Columbia Pike into a more vibrant commercial and residential district. Zimmerman admits that residents and businesses along the Pike have often felt neglected by the county, as resources have been diverted to the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.
In response, he helped orchestrate a “citizen-driven process” for the revitalization of the Pike, which resulted in the creation of the innovative form-based code. This proscribed set of planning guidelines is expected to help spur development.
“We want to make Columbia Pike a place people drive to, not just a place they drive through on the way to Washington,” he said. “We want to make it a walkable main street where residents can buy everything they need, so they don’t have to go out to Fairfax.”
To accomplish this lofty goal, Zimmerman has pressed for a streetcar system that would run along the Pike from the Pentagon to Fairfax County. “The streetcars give people confidence” that the county is committed to enhancing Columbia Pike, Zimmerman added.
Despite a decade of service to Arlington, Zimmerman said he has not fallen into a trap of complacency.
“There’s still so much work to do,” he said. “We have to enhance the public transportation system and continue to take care of those who are less well off.”