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2006 Year in Review: Part II

REAL ESTATE TAXES CHALLENGE RESIDENTS

Residents all over Arlington can sympathize with Alexander Lee's plight. Three years ago Lee and his wife exhausted every penny of their savings to purchase a home in the Williamsburg neighborhood.

Since they moved into the house their real estate assessment has escalated by 57 percent. With three children below the age of six, the couple struggles to afford both day care expenses and their rapidly rising real estate tax bill.

"We're just barely making it," Lee said. "It's definitely a challenge."

Lee was one of more than three dozen Arlington residents who lobbied the five County Board members this past spring to lower the real estate tax rate and provide a measure of relief to homeowners, many of whom have seen their bills increase by more than 100 percent over the past six years.

"The County Board has to be reasonable and understand people like myself," Lee said. "For young families to be able to stay in Arlington something has to be done."

The average single-family dwelling in Arlington increased in value by 18.25 percent last year, to $541,800. The average home was worth $224,000 in 2001, and the real estate tax payment has risen by at least 17 percent over the past five years. This year the average condominiums jumped by 19 percent, to $367,000.

The County Board cut the real estate tax rate by 6 cents to 81.8 cents per hundred dollars of assessed value. But residents still saw their real estate tax bills increase by an average of 10 percent, or $409, to a total of more than $4,400.

"You are pricing people out of their homes and are systematically eliminating the middle class in our community," John Depauw told the board in a hearing this spring. "You are telling people on fixed incomes that you are no longer welcomed in our neighborhood."

Yet any reduction further in the tax rate would have meant the reduction of some of the services the county provides, such as funding for affordable housing, mental health initiatives and pay raises for public safety officers.

These are "critical areas we need to deal with and we are addressing those needs," said Chris Zimmerman, last year’s County Board chairman. "The alternative is to cut back the level of services people enjoy here, and I don’t think that’s what people want."

Overall the 2007 fiscal budget increased 9.2 percent over the previous budget — the largest year-to-year growth since 1990. Much of the additional funding was directed to human services programs, infrastructure improvements and large-scale raises for public safety officials.

To help offset the higher expenditures, the county expanded the personal property tax for the first time in 30 years. It will now be $5 per hundred dollars of assessed value, up from $4.40.

"There’s only so much that the average taxpayer can bear," said Timothy Wise, president of the Arlington Taxpayer’s Association. "At some point the additional taxes imposed by Arlington will break the back of the taxpayer."

CRAFTING A NEW CLARENDON

The County Board took a giant leap forward in guiding the future development of Clarendon this past year.

The board approved a new plan for the neighborhood, which seeks to balance preserving the unique, historic character of Clarendon with the county’s desire to attract more mixed-use development.

The plan calls for clustering medium-density mixed-use development around the Clarendon Metro station to provide a blend of residential, shopping and office buildings. It allows for lower-density buildings closer to neighborhoods and provides incentives to retain historic buildings and shop frontages.

"We recognize that every neighborhood is unique and requires a different scale," County Board member Jay Fisette said. "The new Clarendon will be of modest height, ensure a mix of housing and jobs and will keep its historic character,"

Due to the close proximity of single-family homes to the Clarendon Metro station, residents have pushed for strict limits on building heights. The last thing they want to see is for Clarendon to begin to resemble Ballston or Rosslyn, with rows of gleaming glass towers.

The County Board established a maximum height for each block in Clarendon. Some buildings abutting Washington and Clarendon Boulevards are permitted to be up to seven stories and 110-feet high. Those further from the Metro station can have between three and six stories, be between 55 and 76 feet tall.

The Board can grant developers increased density beyond these initial limits, if it feels the county will receive a compelling package of community benefits in return. Such benefits could include additional affordable units or public open space.

Part of the county’s goal in Clarendon is to ensure there is a vibrant business district in the community, and to create a vibrant environment during both the day and evening.

To achieve this, the plan designates 10 areas in Clarendon as "Prime Office sites," where 60 percent of the buildings will have to be used for commercial purposes.

In order to retain the charm of Clarendon, the board has agreed to provide developers with an incentive to preserve the area’s historic buildings, and building facades. They will get a 500 percent increase in density for the first 10,000 square feet of a building area that is preserved.

"Clarendon was a downtown for quite sometime before modern Arlington came along, so there’s a collective memory in the buildings that are still there," said County Board member Chris Zimmerman said. "The feel of the place reflects a different age."

The plan also strives to create more open space in Clarendon. The Central Park region by the Metro station will be redesigned for larger public gatherings, and a park and enclosed market pavilion may be built on the west end of the Washington-Wilson-Clarendon interchange.

To make Clarendon more pedestrian friendly, that intersection will be revamped, and several other streets, including Washington Boulevard, 13th Street and 10th Street, will undergo changes.

LATINO COMMUNITY SPURRED TO ACTION

The debate over immigration that roiled the country and dominated the discourse in Washington this year galvanized the populous Arlington Latino community and spurred many to political activism for the first time.

Up to 1,600 students from Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church and Fairfax skipped school on March 30 and marched across the county in a protest against restrictive immigration legislation winding its way through Congress.

A week of student demonstrations culminated in a massive show of solidarity with Arlington’s immigrant community, as the teenagers walked from Ballston to Courthouse waving flags from Central and South American countries and chanting "we are not criminals," and "equal rights."

Hundreds of students from Yorktown, Washington-Lee and Wakefield met at their respective schools, left before classes began and walked to Wellburn Square in the heart of Ballston. The demonstrators then made a slow and boisterous march down Fairfax Drive and Clarendon Boulevard to Courthouse, where they held a rally in front of the county government’s offices.

"We are here to let everybody know that immigrants are working their butts off and doing the dirty work for the rest of Americans," said Rose Villanueva, a Yorktown senior whose parents are from Peru and El Salvador. "They are working hard for a better life."

The students were brought out into the streets in part because they fear that some of their classmates may be forced to return to their home countries if a more hard-line immigration bill is passed.

In December the House passed a bill that would tighten security along the border with Mexico, require businesses to prove the legality of their employees and would prohibit churches and nonprofit organizations from providing aid to undocumented workers.

Latino leaders say that for many Arlington Latinos, a massive rally on the Mall earlier in March, along with the student demonstrations, was their first foray into political activism.

Now that an interest in politics has been sparked — partially out of necessity — Latinos in Arlington are beginning to ask how they can become involved and affect change at the local, state and federal levels, leaders said.

The demonstrations "energized a political base that didn't exist before," said Andres Tobar, chair of Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations. "Now that immigrants see their whole future is impacted by the people they elect, they will see the value in going out and voting."

While many Latinos in Northern Virginia have become influential businessman or outspoken community leaders, it is time for the population to wield power at the ballot box, leading Arlington Latinos said.

In response to this pressing need, County Board member Walter Tejada joined elected Latino officials from across the region to promote a voter registration drive, with the goal of getting tens of thousands of Spanish-speaking citizens to the polls this past November for the first time.

Throughout the summer and fall, Tejada and other Latino activists canvassed Arlington neighborhoods speaking to residents about the importance of voting and helping them acquire the necessary paperwork. register

"We have got to educate the community about the nuances of being able to vote," Tejada said during a June 12 press conference. "We have to make sure people understand who can and can't vote, and how to register."

AIR FORCE MEMORIAL OPENS

In October, under a majestic azure sky, the Air Force unveiled its stainless steel and concrete tribute to the airmen who have served in its ranks, and the 54,000 men and women who have died in combat.

The monument, located at the eastern end of Columbia Pike adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery and overlooking the Pentagon, will transform the Washington skyline and is expected to serve as a tourist magnet for Arlington. The dedication ceremony drew more than 30,000 people, including President Bush and other dignitaries.

The Air Force is the only branch of the armed services that did not have a memorial in the Washington area. Air Force officials say the homage is long over-due, and that it is fitting the memorial will be completed this year, which is the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Air Force.

Three soaring spires, the tallest of which is 270 feet high, make up the main portion of the $50 million monument. They are meant to evoke the image of a "bomb burst" and the spirit of the Air Force, said retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Edward F. Grillo, Jr., president of the Air Force Memorial Foundation.

"The challenge of the architect was how do you display the medium of air and space," Grillo added.

The memorial also includes a bronze Honor Guard statue, two granite inscription walls at either end, a glass "contemplation wall" and a surrounding park.

A foundation to find land for the memorial was set up in 1992, and the original location was to be just north of Arlington National Cemetery near the Iwo Jima Memorial. After Marine officials raised objections to the placement, the Air Force and Congress worked together to secure property next to the Naval Annex.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held in September 2004, and construction on the monument began at the beginning of the following year. James Ingo Freed, best known for planning the U.S. Holocaust Museum, designed the memorial.

The memorial can be seen from across Washington and adds another prominent monument to Arlington, which is already home to the National Cemetery, Iwo Jima and Netherlands Carillon Memorial.

The Sept. 11 memorial at the Pentagon is due to be completed in 2008, and combined with the Air Force monument will attract thousands of tourists a year to South Arlington, county officials said.

"This further identifies Arlington as a destination and as a place people traveling to the nation’s capital will visit," said last year’s County Board Chair, Chris Zimmerman.

CAPITALS VENTURE TO BALLSTON

November saw the opening of the Kettler Capitals Iceplex, a $42 million rink with two sheets of ice that will host everything from the Washington Capitals' practices to national figure skating competitions.

But for Arlington County Chairman Chris Zimmerman, it’s what the facility offers the community that makes it all worth the wait.

"There’s something over 6,000 hours available [to the public]," he estimated. "Bringing the Washington Capitals to this new home is a great thing for Arlington. But it’s something much more — we get a whole new facility with this partnership."

Tobin Smith, chair for the Arlington County parks and recreation commission, said there would be "significant availability" for the community to use the complex, upwards of 97% of its total operating hours.

"The county, with the hours it will have, will try and reach some new audiences," he said.

The Kettler Iceplex — KSI Services Inc., of Vienna secured the naming rights for the facility — is scheduled to be open 360 days a year, 18 hours per day per rink. Both rinks are NHL regulation size; one will have seating for 1,200 fans and the other will have a 250-seat capacity. Metal bleachers will be covered with blue cushions to cut down on the chill factor for spectators. There is also a large "observation space," with a view of both ice surfaces, that has yet to be developed and could be used for additional spectator capacity.

Officials expect the rinks will be large enough to attract regional and national skating events. The 1,200 seats are the minimum required by the United States Figure Skating Association in choosing locations for championship events. The Special Olympics hockey championships are already on the calendar for Ballston next April.

The facility is located on the 4-acre deck of the Ballston Mall’s parking garage, and will have 200 parking spaces of its own. Accessible by elevator from the mall, it will have party rooms and meeting rooms available for rental, as well as an arcade and a concession stand. There is a pro shop, which will feature a large variety of Capitals merchandise and hockey equipment.

The Capitals’ training camp facility is large enough for 35 players, coaches and scouts; its corporate offices will house close to 60 people.

Nate Ewell, director of media relations for the Capitals, said it will be the first time the team has had all of its hockey operations under one roof. "We’re moving closer to our fans, and our players are as well," he said.

Indeed, star winger Alexander Ovechkin is one of the Capitals players who’s living in Arlington this year. He joked last season that when the practice facility was finished, he’d ride his bike to work.

For Capitals fans, the rink marks the first time in franchise history that the team's practice facility will be Metro accessible.

More information about the rink can be found at www.capitalsicecenter.com.

The team hopes the chance to see Ovechkin and his teammates will bring many current and new fans to the Ballston rink during the week. Crowds of a few hundred have been coming to see the team in Ashburn during the week this season, with those numbers spiking to a thousand on weekends. Ewell said the team "would expect those numbers to go way up" in the new facility.

Management from the Ashburn Ice House, where the Caps currently practice, will also manage the Ballston facility and have temporary offices inside the mall in the former Suncoast Video location.

Inside that office is a wall of fliers advertising different youth and adult hockey leagues and skating clinics. More information can be found at www.capitalsicecenter.com.

Newman was optimistic that skater who now travel to places like Reston, Mount Vernon and Fort Dupont to compete will make Ballston their home rink. "When Reston opened in 1993, they started a men’s lunchtime league that I played in. Three quarters of the people came from downtown DC to play at lunchtime," he said.

Newman is also hopeful that the facility will be a boon for the Northern Virginia Scholastic Hockey League, a high-school league that has survived without much support or recognition from Northern Virginia public schools.

"There’s so much growth in the hockey leagues in western Fairfax County and in Loudoun [County], and it will continue to grow. This will really anchor it close in," said Newman, a coach for the Yorktown Ice Hockey team. He said that team currently practices at 5:30 a.m. in Reston, and will now have afternoon practice time at the new Arlington rink.

In addition, George Mason University’s club hockey team and hockey teams from Georgetown, American and George Washington universities will also use the facility for practices and games.

Newman said the biggest draw might be the combination of community ice rink and retail shopping mall.

"There’s an expression in the ice industry: ‘Cows can’t skate, but that’s sort of where the rinks end up,’" he said, drawing a laugh from the reporters, county and mall officials at an open house for the facility last week. "You’re in a rink out in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do. Here, you can drop your son or daughter off, go shopping, go get a cup of coffee at Starbucks or whatever you want to do."

Zimmerman agreed, saying that the rink, the movie theater, the shopping and the dining options combine to create a entertainment experience in Ballston.

"What better place for a date in the Washington area?" he said.

IN MEMORIAM

Michelle Gardner-Quinn

Michelle Gardner-Quinn, a graduate of H-B Woodlawn and a senior at the University of Vermont, went out in downtown Burlington to celebrate a friend’s 21st birthday on Oct. 7, but never returned to her dorm that night.

What followed was a six-day search for Gardner-Quinn that gripped both the Washington region and national media. Police, after being alerted by a resident, found Gardner-Quinn’s body off the side of a rural road 15 miles southeast of Burlington.

Burlington police have charged Brian Rooney, a 36-year-old construction worker in nearby Richmond, Vt., with Gardner-Quinn’s kidnapping and murder.

As a college student she traveled though Brazil, Costa Rica and South Africa, and each trip deepened her commitment to environmental activism and instilled within her a resolve to devote her life to climate control issues.

"My connection to all life forms prevents me from sitting back and watching this catastrophe" of global warming unfold, she wrote earlier this fall in an essay for an environmental studies class at the University of Vermont.

Following her murder, more than 650 family members, friends and former classmates filled the auditorium and cafeteria of H-B Woodlawn for an emotional memorial service to remember Gardner-Quinn, and celebrate her vitality and passion for life.

Quinn’s friends remembered her as both an accomplished artist and stellar athlete, who was as just as comfortable performing on the state as on a soccer field.

"Michelle's absence leaves a big hole in many lives," said Rev. Bill Hoffman, her pastor at the Church of the Covenant in North Arlington.

"She touched so many lives in such a short period of time,"

Paul Matthew Zeller

Paul Matthew Zeller, a 24-year-old Arlington resident who served a tour of duty in Iraq, was shot and killed June 30 while walking on the sidewalk near the Pentagon Row shopping area.

Police are unsure of a motive for the killing, and do not currently have any suspects. "We just don’t know what the motive was, whether it was an abortive robbery, a person who knew him or a random act of violence," said Police spokesman Matt Martin. "All are possibilities, but we don’t know."

But they continue to investigate the incident. Arlington detectives interviewed more than a dozen witnesses, who were either on the street at the time of the shooting, or live in nearby apartments.

"It is far from a cold case," said Lt. Brian Berke, the supervisor of the Homicide/Robbery Unit. "We are following up to this day on active leads, and we plan on doing so until we can bring this case to closure."

The shooting roiled the usually safe Pentagon neighborhood.

Family, friends and neighbors of Paul Matthew Zeller have established a fund to encourage anyone with information about the June murder of the 24-year-old to come forward to police.

"We're just hoping this reward fund will make a difference and help the police get the information that they need to bring justice to this case," Lydia Robertson, Zeller's sister, said in a statement.

Anyone who wants to contribute to the reward fund can send donations to: PNC Bank - Paul Matthew Zeller Reward Fund,

6805 Old Dominion Drive,

McLean, VA 22101, Account: #5304437975.

Anyone who has any information that could assist detectives is asked to call the police tip line at 703-228-4242.

Julio Bonilla

Julio Bonilla, an 18-year-old senior at Wakefield High School, was fatally shot outside the Arlington Mill Community Center on April 27, in what police called the county’s first gang-related homicide since 2003. A 17-year-old Wakefield student was shot during the incident but survived.

Arlington police apprehended and charged 21-year-old Ismael Paiz, of Falls Church, with Bonilla’s murder. Police have charged two other individuals with participation in a criminal street gang, in relation to the case. They are Hector Rodriguez-Quezada, 19, of Falls Church, and a 16-year-old Arlington juvenile whose name is being withheld because of his age.

The double shooting stunned Wakefield students and the Hispanic communities in south Arlington.

"The students have been shook up," said Cathy O’Malley, president of the Wakefield PTA. "Everyone is sad to hear about what happened and concerned about it."

Further compounding the tragedy is the fact that Bonilla’s father died in February after a fire ripped through their south Arlington home, O’Malley said.

Isidro Bonilla, 50, died from smoke inhalation after running upstairs to save his 7-year-old son. Over the past two months the Wakefield PTA has helped collect money for the family.

"This adds real somberness to the news because it’s the same family," O’Malley said.

Wakefield officials declined to comment on the murder. Principal Doris Jackson sent a letter home to parents to inform them of the tragedy.

"Our thoughts and sympathy are with the families of these students," Jackson wrote.