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2006 Year In Review: Part I

The Top 10 Stories in Arlington Last Year

At the beginning of a new year, the Connection takes a look back at the top 10 stories in Arlington in 2006. Next week the Connection will highlight 10 issues facing the county and residents in 2007.

BUCKINGHAM DIVERSITY THREATENED

Buckingham Village has always served as a haven for recent immigrants to Arlington, and its garden-apartment complexes house many of the county's low-income families.

But the apartments, built during the height of the Great Depression, were becoming increasingly expensive for Paradigm Development Company to maintain, as they succumb to decades of wear and tear.

In February, Paradigm announced it would begin a lengthy redevelopment process that would ultimately bring 200 luxury townhouses and 530 new apartment units to the neighborhood — with more than 200 of the apartments to be rented at below market rates. The company began mailing notices that some residents would have to vacate their apartments by the summer.

Community activists and county officials were outraged by the plan, fearing it would result in the displacement of hundreds of residents and push many of them to neighboring counties in search of cheaper housing.

"You’re pushing poor people out to Woodbridge," Steven Belling told Paradigm representatives during a meeting this spring. "Something has to be done."

Then the county’s Historic Affairs and Landmark Review Board took action, voting to expand the existing Buckingham historic district to include Buckingham Villages I to III. If the County Board proclaimed the villages as a historic landmark, Paradigm would have to halt their demolition plans for at least a year and would be required to put the property up for sale at a fair market value.

Paradigm responded by releasing a letter from former County Manager Anton Gardner stating that the county would not try to slap a historic label on the three apartment complexes. There were whispers about a potential lawsuit against the county.

After weeks of tense negotiations, the two sides fashioned a preliminary compromise. The County Board announced it would not pursue a historic designation, while Paradigm officials agreed to increase the number of affordable units in the redevelopment plan from 212 to 292 and promised to maintain some of the historic structures.

We’re trying to provide quality affordable housing for the residents to come back to," Paradigm President Stan Sloter said. "Our commitment is sincere."

County and Paradigm officials are haggling over the final details of the plan, and there is no assurance that they will find common ground. If an agreement is not forged by March 1, the county can proceed with historic landmark hearings for the three villages.

"We're in the real intense stage of negotiations right now, but I'm very optimistic we will reach a final compromise," former County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman said during a year-end press conference.

COUNTY LOSES HUMAN SERVICES FUNDING

It came out of nowhere, like an unexpected sucker punch to the gut.

In August, Arlington officials learned the county would lose $15 million for human services and mental health programs due to an agreement between the federal and state governments.

The county learned it faced a $5.5 million cut in its social services budget, a loss of 30 county jobs and a forfeiture of $10.4 million in federal reimbursements that would go toward job-training programs and assistance for the elderly.

To make up for the abrupt loss of funding, the county decided to implement a hiring freeze, temporarily end a new program for adults with mental disabilities at the Walter Reed Community Center and shelve plans to build an assistant living center for low-income seniors.

"The loss of [human services] revenue has necessitated tough decisions and resulted in painful service reductions," County Manager Ron Carlee said.

Mental health advocates said were shocked by the scope of the cuts and their sudden nature. "This is the biggest challenge we have ever faced," said Patrick Hope, chair of the Arlington Community Services Board. "People who are getting served today won’t get served tomorrow."

Having fewer counselors will likely increase the waiting periods for those who need help and may affect the overall degree of assistance, officials said

The greatest hit will be to the county's supportive housing program, which officials hoped would substantially decrease Arlington's homeless population. County officials admit now there will be no way to reach their stated goal of developing 400 housing units over the next five years for people with serious mental illness, mental retardation or physical disabilities.

The County Board did decide to use $680,000 in leftover funds from last year's budget to pay for substance abuse therapists, youth employment counselors and other outreach specialists for the remainder of the fiscal year— positions that were supposed to be cut.

But Carlee's decision to cover the funding gap by just reducing human services, rather than spreading the cuts among a number of county agencies, has been controversial.

An audit earlier this year of foster care programs found that the commonwealth of Virginia had given localities permission to use federal funds for human services initiatives that went beyond the more rigid federal guidelines. The federal government and Virginia then agreed to suspend reimbursements for preventive mental health programs to Arlington and Fairfax counties.

County officials contended that the state had an obligation to reimburse Arlington because the county had spent the federal money properly.

"We followed the rules as they were set before us," County Board member Zimmerman said. "These people and agencies should not be hurt by what is essentially a dispute between the federal government and state over interpretation" of foster care programs.

Despite an aggressive lobbying campaign by County Board members and Arlington legislators, it is unclear how much help the county will get from the state.

Gov. Tim Kaine has included in his budget amendments a request for $1.7 million in funding to construct a 52-unit facility at Oak Springs for seniors with mental disabilities. If the proposal is approved by the General Assembly it will allow Arlington to utilize a $4.8 million federal grant to build the center.

Members of the Arlington legislative delegation, including Del. Bob Brink, are planning to introduce budget amendments of their own to secure the remaining reimbursement funding.

The County Board will decide next spring the future of the human services as it crafts the 2008 fiscal budget. Board members have implied they would seek to restore funding for what they view as the most crucial human services programs.

THE BATTLE OF YORKTOWN

To include funding for Yorktown in the November school bond or to hold off until 2008? That was the question that vexed the School Board for much of the spring and summer.

In the end the board, by a three to two vote, decided to include $24.8 million for Yorktown High School construction in the bond, with construction slated to begin in January 2008.

The bond package, which was $45 million lower than the one originally recommended by the Superintendent Robert Smith, also included $6.9 million in design funding for Wakefield High School and Thomas Jefferson Middle School, and $2 million for work on a new Career Center.

Most of the funding in the bond is devoted to the second phase of construction on Yorktown High School. Originally an elementary school, Yorktown added a three-story wing in 2004 to alleviate overcrowding.

The facility still has inadequate space for students and the "physical infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life," said John Vihstadt, the Yorktown PTA president.

The majority of board members — Dave Foster, Libby Garvey and Frank Wilson — decided it was imperative to finish construction as soon as possible since a commitment had already been made to the community. More than $2 million has already been spent on design work for the school.

"The renovation of Yorktown is underway," Foster said. The School Board possesses a "well-deserved reputation for finishing what we start, and that is what we need to do here."

Postponing the start of construction by one year would have added an additional $6.7 million to the school’s price tag, which currently stands just under $100 million, said Sarah Woodhead, the school system’s director of construction and design. The building process is expected to take four years.

But the other two board members — Ed Fendley and Mary Hynes — were proponents of delaying Yorktown bonding. Due to the slowing housing market and the accompanying flattening of school revenue, both said the board needs to endorse a more austere building program and spend more time finishing design work before moving ahead with construction.

They called for postponing further funding for Yorktown until 2008 to have a more complete design scheme. This would have delayed the start of construction until January 2009.

"A slight delay for me is a price worth paying to try to take a pause and assess how to make better use of what we have," Fendley said.

Some school activists were hoping the board would find a middle ground: settling upon a more detailed design plan next year and then bring forward a Yorktown bond in November 2007. But, for now at least, bonds are only introduced in even-numbered years.

The School Bond passed last November with 76.5 percent of the vote.

A DEMOCRATIC SWEEP

Contuining their hegemony over county politics, Arlington Democrats swept to victory in the November elections.

Arlington voters flocked to the polls in record number, spurred by a competitive senate race and the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Turnout was 56.16 percent — with 73,465 Arlingtonians voting — the highest total number of voters in the county in a non-presidential election. Democrat Jim Webb captured nearly 73 percent of the vote in Arlington, approximately the same percentage of voters who cast ballots against the constitutional amendment.

County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman coasted to re-election, easily defeating his two challengers. Zimmerman finished with 65.7 percent of the vote, besting his performance in 2002 when he captured 61.3 percent. Republican candidate Mike McMenamin garnered 29.3 percent of the votes, and Green Party contender Josh Ruebner netted just over 5 percent.

Zimmerman said that the large margin of victory was an affirmation of his governing philosophy and record of accomplishment during his 10 years on the board.

"I am very grateful to get this vote of confidence," Zimmerman said in an interview on election night "Arlington voters support the kind of progressive approach to government that we are taking."

The results were a major setback for the county's Republican Party, which believed they were headed for their best performance in years. Republican leaders had hoped that a combination of higher taxes and a burgeoning discontent with county spending would lead residents to rebel against Zimmerman, ending the Democrats' monopoly of the board.

Instead, Zimmerman nabbed the highest vote total of his four runs for office.

During the campaign Zimmerman highlighted his role in expanding the county's transportation network, fighting to retain affordable housing and making Arlington a safer community.

McMenamin, president of the Maywood Civic Association, focused his campaign on bringing greater fiscal responsibility to the board, lowering taxes and listening to the concerns of neighborhoods.

Ruebner, a political novice, campaigned on the need to increase Arlington's stock of affordable housing.

Democratic-endorsed candidate Sally Baird captured 61 percent of the vote for School Board, while Independent Cecelia Espenoza, who ran last year, received 39 percent. Baird made history by becoming the first open lesbian elected to office in the commonwealth of Virginia.

Baird will replace School Board Chair Mary Hynes, who is retiring after 11 years of service.

Baird made the need to increase early childhood educational opportunities the centerpiece of her campaign. She also called for greater accountability in how the School Board crafts its construction plan.

Throughout the campaign Baird used her professional experience as the vice president of a tax-publishing firm to cast herself as a "manager." Voters reacted well to her desire to "bring people together to form a community vision," Baird said.

If Espenoza had won she would have been the first Hispanic to sit on the Arlington School Board.

TURNING POINT FOR COLUMBIA PIKE

After years of false starts and stagnation, Columbia Pike is finally starting to undergo its much-desired makeover.

Residents have complained about the slow pace of development along the south Arlington corridor, wondering if property owners would ever be willing to invest in new residential and commercial projects.

This fall the doubts were finally laid to rest. In November, the County Board approved two projects that will reconfigure Adams Square and the adjacent Safeway property, bringing more than 500 apartments, retail space and a revamped 61,500 square-foot Giant — the largest in the county.

Several other projects are already underway a little further west. Twenty-two luxury townhouses abutting the Pike next to Quincy Street have all been pre-sold. And construction has just begun on a 269-unit condominium on the corner of Walter Reed and Columbia Pike.

Officials are optimistic that these four projects will help rejuvenate the neighborhood and serve as a catalyst for the transformation of Columbia Pike. Once developers in the region see the first concrete being poured, they will begin to view the corridor in a new light and look for investment opportunities nearby, officials contend.

"It's quite possible we may look back on this and say this was a turning point for Columbia Pike; a time when things we have been dreaming about actually started to emerge," Chris Zimmerman, County Board chair last year, said

The county envisions building a five-mile streetcar line from Pentagon City to the Skyline area of Fairfax County, at a cost in excess of $110 million.

The streetcar service would provide Columbia Pike residents with access to Metro via the Pentagon City stop, and encourage people to patron the plethora of restaurants and shops on the corridor. Having a fixed rail line in the streets also sends a message to the development community that the county is serious about revitalizing the corridor, officials said.

"It will immediately attract investment to a different degree than the bus system will," County Board member Fisette added. "It will create a sense of community."

Yet many residents fear that redevelopment may wipe out the local mom and pop stores that give the Pike its charm.

The neighborhoods in the corridor are the most economically diverse in all of Arlington, but redevelopment may jeopardize that. Rents are already rising rapidly, and the completion of luxury towers and new shopping centers will put pressure on landowners to hike rents further or convert buildings to condos.

"The reality is in the future there will be less affordable housing on Columbia Pike," said Douglas Peterson, executive director of the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing.