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Things to Look For in 2007…

Shirlington Ready to Boom

In 2007, Shirlington is poised to stake a claim as the county's new entertainment, educational and dining hub, thanks to the arrival of Signature Theatre, a library and new shops and restaurants.

Right now 28th Street South is awash in cranes and bulldozers, as the redevelopment of north Shirlington nears completion.

A new parking garage recently opened at the north end of 28th Street South, and more than 400 condominium and apartment units will be soon be coming online in the surrounding neighborhood. By the middle of next year, a Harris Teeter grocery store and several coffee shops and restaurants will also be tenants, and the county is in negotiations for a new hotel nearby.

"All these additional features are being added to Shirlington now, which will make it an even more desirable place to live, work or go out for dinner," said County Board Chairman Paul Ferguson.

The centerpiece of the new development will be a 55,000-square-foot complex housing both a library and Signature Theatre. By combining educational and artistic resources in one building, the county hopes to attract residents from across the metropolitan region and provide a boon to adjacent restaurants.

"We’re trying to create a new cultural corridor for the Shirlington Village to complement what is already here," said Hunter Moore, a development specialist for the county.

The library will be located on the ground floor of the building, with Signature’s offices and performing space on the second through fourth stories. A public plaza in front of the building will be used for small concerts and other community events.

The county is paying for the construction of the building’s shell and infrastructure, and Signature is providing the interior work. The new theater has two performance spaces — one with 300 seats and the other with 100 — three rehearsal rooms and a costume/prop shop.

For years Signature has been interested in moving out of its current location, along an industrial strip of South Four Mile Run Drive, and into a larger theater. The staff and performers often feel constrained by the cramped space in their current residence, which also has maintenance issues, said Sam Sweet, Signature’s managing director.

The new theater "enables us to focus on the quality of the work rather than dealing with an air conditioning unit that has a mind of its own," Sweet said.

'Challenging' Budget Year Looms

Expect the budget season to be nastier than it has been so far this decade. That's because every county department and outside organization will be battling for a smaller pot of money.

Unless the County Board wants to raise the tax rate, it will have to roll back some services and programs to fill a $20 to $30 million gap in next year's budget.

County Manager Ron Carlee predicts that if the county maintains its current level of services, it will have to make-up a shortfall between revenues and expenditures of at least $19.6 million. This does not take into account possible growth in compensation for employees, additions to a retiree health care reserve and a spike in maintenance capital.

"That will require us to make some tough choices," Carlee said.

In fiscal year 2008, tax revenues are expected to increase by 3.2 percent, compared to approximately 10 percent in the prior fiscal year. The drop is due to the leveling-off of the red-hot real estate market in the region.

After six straight years of double digit growth — upwards of 140 percent total — residential real estate assessments in Arlington are expected to increase by a modest 2 percent.

County officials predict assessments for commercial properties will grow by 9 percent, helping to restore the balance between commercial and residential in Arlington.

Several other factors are contributing to the expected gap in revenue that the County Board must find a way to close.

The rapid escalation in health care costs — predicted to be as high as 15 percent this upcoming fiscal year — is a major burden on the county, though officials expect to see some savings by switching administrators. The county is also likely to set aside millions of dollars into a reserve fund for retiree health care, officials said.

"We are going to take a look at all programs and see if we can do some at a lower cost with the same quality of service," said Mark Schwartz, the director of the department of management and finance.

Yorktown Fields to be Completed

Yorktown High School’s new outdoor sports complex is expected to be completed in the summer of 2007, providing students with top-notch athletic fields.

When the renovations are finished Greenbrier Park will contain a synthetic turf rectangular field for football, soccer and lacrosse matches, two softball diamonds, a baseball field and a running track.

Yorktown officials, students and parents have long clamored for the park to be redesigned, because the baseball diamond and rectangular field were overlaid on top of each other. This caused scheduling difficulties for the school’s athletic teams and sometimes prevented events from being held simultaneously, said Mike Krulfeld, Yorktown’s director of student activities.

"The demand far outweighed the availability of the fields," Krulfeld said. "It forced us to be creative. We always had to hope that a JV baseball game ended on time so we could get the varsity soccer game on right afterwards."

Due to the overlapping fields, many Yorktown teams have had to practice off site, putting increased strain on both athletes and parents, Krulfeld said.

The county first approved a new development plan for the 17.51-acre park in May 2002. During a March ceremony at Greenbrier, then County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman said that the park should have seen greater investment years ago, but added that he was happy to see construction finally underway.

"Folks for too long had to deal with a sub-par facility," said Zimmerman, who recounted how the park’s lights had gone out during a halftime ceremony at one of his daughter’s soccer games.

Yorktown’s athletic teams have been using facilities scattered across the county during the construction period. The baseball team played on the diamond in Barcroft Park, soccer games were held at Gunston Middle School and lacrosse matches took place at both Kenmore Middle School and Washington-Lee High School.

The surface of the rectangular field will now be synthetic turf, which is more durable than natural grass. The lighting for the park will utilize "dark star" technology and will focus the light onto the fields and minimize the impact to the surrounding neighborhood.

BRAC Counter-Attack

Throughout the first six months of the upcoming year, county officials and community activists will be hard at work drafting a plan that will guide development in Crystal City and help the neighborhood recover from BRAC.

Up to 30 percent of the leased office space in Crystal City will be vacated in the coming half-decade, as more than 15,000 defense workers and contractors leave the area.

Despite the forecast loss of so many jobs over a period of time, county officials are optimistic about Crystal City’s ability to rebound from the economic hit. BRAC presents an opportunity to restructure and diversify the county's economy and transform Crystal City into a more vibrant community that is not beholden to a single industry.

"A more diverse economic base will be a good thing in the future for Arlington and will result in a more resilient local economy," then County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman said.

Due to Crystal City’s prime location, safe environment and lower taxes and costs, officials believe it will have little trouble attracting technology, retail and hospitality businesses.

"Despite BRAC, Arlington's assets haven't changed," said County Board member Jay Fisette, further citing Metro accessibility and proximity to Reagan National airport. "Crystal City offers the whole package."

The county has established a Crystal City planning group to set guidelines for future development in the corridor. Their aim is to produce a recipe for growth that will encourage new construction, potentially transforming Crystal City's skyline.

The task force advised the county to create a transition center in Crystal City to supply job placement assistance, retraining and career advice to small contractors and local entrepreneurs.

The larger question for officials is how to turn Crystal City from a staid office park into a lively neighborhood where people flock to restaurants, bars and other entertainment venues after 5 p.m.

New restaurants like Ted’s Montana Grill and Jaleo have infused the neighborhood with a sense of excitement, but the corridor has a far way to go before it reaches the vivacity of Clarendon or Shirlington.

The key is to create a stronger "identity" for the neighborhood, with art spaces, green areas and public squares, officials contend.

The challenge for them will be shaping how dense the new Crystal City will be, balancing the need for taller buildings to attract tenants without encroaching on the adjacent residential streets.

Election Madness

2007 is guaranteed to be a busy year in Arlington politics.

Two county board members' terms will expire at the end of the year, and though neither Paul Ferguson nor Walter Tejada have formally announced their intentions, both are laying the groundwork for re-election campaigns.

Ferguson will serve as chairman in 2007 and Tejada will act as vice chairman, giving both Democrats a bully pulpit — and media coverage — to push their pet initiatives and bolster their campaign chances.

Republican Mike McMenamin, who ran for County Board in November garnering 29.3 percent of the votes, has indicated he would consider running again.

"We laid a good foundation," he said in an interview after the election.

Republicans believe McMenamin could do much better the second time around due to greater name recognition and the fact that turnout will be much lower in an off-year election.

Josh Ruebner, a political novice, surprised many in the community by running a strong campaign this past fall as the Green Party candidate for County Board.

Ruebner expects the Green Party to field candidates in future years, but has yet to decide if he will give it another go.

"We have a lot of Green Party members who were very energized by this election and are willing to play a more active role," he added.

The race for School Board may well be the one to watch. Dave Foster, the only elected Republican in Arlington, will announce in January whether he will seek a third term.

Democratic school activists are already lining up to challenge Foster, if he runs again. Abby Raphael and Mark Dorfman has both announced they will seek the endorsement of the Arlington County Democratic Committee. One or more others are expected to enter the race in the coming weeks.

Arlington's political parties are prohibited from nominating candidates for School Board elections, but usually hold endorsement caucuses.

Arlington's entire delegation in Richmond will be up for election. Neither political party expect Del. Al Eisenberg, Del. Bob Brink, Del. Adam Ebbin, Del. David Englin, Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple and Sen. Patsy Ticer — all Democrats — will face serious challenges.

Schools Looking to Take-over Head Start

The Arlington County public school system is hoping in 2007 it will be able to permanently take over the Head Start preschool program, which serves nearly 300 low-income children in the county.

Last March, the Arlington Community Action Program, a nonprofit organization, ceded control of the local Head Start branch to a federal contractor after internal and federal audits found ACAP did not comply with the terms of its grants and withheld payroll taxes.

Head Start is currently administered in Arlington by the Community Development Institute until a permanent replacement is found.

The school system is resubmitting an application this week, but does expect to find out whether they have been awarded the contract until April at the earliest.

"We are very enthusiastic about this," Mark Johnston, assistant superintendent for instruction. "I think we would be well-considered for it because of our record of providing quality pre-kindergarten experiences for children."

Head Start provides free preschool services for low-income 3- and 4-year-olds, and helps prepare them for the rigors of academic life in kindergarten.

The program supplies a range of other services that promote healthy development in young children, including mental health counseling and nutrition guidance. Head Start administrators also encourage parents to become more involved in their children’s education, and help place the parents in employment assistance or scholastic programs.

"Having a quality, pre-kingdergarten education like Head Start makes a clear difference in academic achievement over time," Johnson said.

School officials decided to apply to be the Head Start provider to ensure that the program will be well-managed and to give the school system a larger role in the education of future full-time students.

"We see this as an opportunity to have a more direct role and evolve in how we are providing services," said School Board member Ed Fendley.

The school system coordinates two preschool services: the Virginia Preschool Initiative (VPI) and a Montessori program.

VPI was started a decade ago for 4-year-olds whose parents could not afford private preschools. Four hundred Arlington children are expected to enroll in VPI this year.

Two-thirds of 374 spots in the Montessori program are reserved for children from families of lesser financial means, with the remaining positions going to children of any income via a lottery system.

Wireless Coming to Arlington

By next fall, residents should have the luxury of shopping online and checking email from any public park, library, community center or central square in Arlington for free. And in the subsequent months the county will become one of the first full-fledged, urban WiFi zones in the nation.

The county government is currently in the "final stages" of negotiations with a company to build a countywide wireless network and may have a deal finalized late next month, said Rob Billingsley, the county’s IT procurement manager.

When completed it will revolutionize the way companies conduct business in Arlington and how residents spend their free time, liberating them from the constraints of offices and homes.

"We’re becoming more and more Internet-dependent, and to have it with you anywhere you go gives you significant freedom," said County Board member Chris Zimmerman.

In December 2004, the county government began experimenting with wireless hotspots: the Central Library became such a zone to mitigate the over-crowing in the computer lab, and a wireless district was created surrounding the Courthouse Plaza last August.

The private contractor will build and own the wireless mesh network, at a projected cost of between $5 and $10 million; the county would not contribute any funding to the project.

The company that wins the contract will likely install close to a thousand small boxes on the sides of street lights, which connect via radio signals, creating the wireless "mesh" network.

While the county has yet to negotiate the terms of the agreement, Arlington officials expect that anyone with a laptop and standard wireless card should be able to surf for free in public spaces — though the connectivity will be slower than the cable access people have in their homes.

For a monthly fee, likely to be in the $20 range, residents will have the option of logging onto the countywide wireless system in their back yards, cars and in shops.

Each signal has a two-block range, so it is not guaranteed that every household will be able to access the WiFi network. The wireless signals sometimes get blocked by hills or tall trees.

Westover Library-Reed School

Residents in Westover have been waiting more than eight years for a new library in the neighborhood. This might finally be the year when that dream becomes a reality.

In mid-February, the School Board is scheduled to vote on a design plan for a new facility that will house the Westover Library and Walter Reed School.

Arlington voters originally approved funding for the library in a 1998 bond referendum. A joint project with Reed School was initiated in 2001, but the schools and county ended the collaboration due to divergent funding schedules.

But this past spring the County Board and School Board both signed a memorandum of understanding to revive the concept of a single project, responding to residents calls for the two bodies to consolidate their efforts.

"We heard from the community and it makes sense to be able to do something together," said Assistant County Manager Ken Chandler in an interview this spring.

The front section of the Reed School, which abuts the Westover shopping district on the corner of North McKinley Road and Washington Boulevard, is scheduled to be demolished and a new 16,000 square-foot library will be built in its place. The library is currently located further up North McKinley Road.

The school system has set aside nearly $12 million for the construction of its portion of the project, expected to be approximately 45,000 square-feet of space. In November, voters approved an additional $8 million for the construction of the library portion.

When completed the Reed School would house several programs: The Children's School, a day-care center for children of school system employees; the Integration Center, which serves toddlers with special needs; Arlington's Teen Parenting program; and two Virginia Preschool Initiative classrooms for 4-year-olds.

The school system will spearhead the construction process and will pay 74 percent of its cost, corresponding to the amount of space school programs will use in the new site.