Candidates Debate Future of Arlington’s Growth

Candidates Debate Future of Arlington’s Growth

Arlington County Board Democratic candidates debate future of Arlington‘s growth.

Candidates competing in the Democratic Primary for County Board

Candidates competing in the Democratic Primary for County Board Photo by Vernon Miles.

With County Board members Mary Hynes and Walter Tejada announcing that they would not seek reelection to their seats, six Democrats have thrown their names into the ring to be one of the party’s two candidates to the County Board this fall. Some candidates are new faces to the election, others have run for County Board before. Differences, and similarities, have emerged through the first month of the campaign.

Katie Cristol

As the only female candidate and the only candidate under 35, Katie Cristol believes that she represents an opportunity to expand the diversity of voices on the County Board. Cristol said that she didn’t want her campaign to rely on “identity politics,” but said that the lack of diversity in the County Board candidates was part of her decision to run.

“One of the catalyzing moments for me was when I heard about who all was running,” said Cristol. “We were looking at the second Democratic primary in a row without any women running. I really believe we can do better. I want to bring a lens as a woman and one half of a young couple.”

Cristol was appointed to the Arlington Commission on the Status of Women by the County Board in 2012 and was involved in the research and writing of the Report on the Status of Women, which analyzed childcare, homelessness, poverty, safety, and business as they related to women in the county. Cristol said that, while working on the commission, she learned that the County Board has not adequately reached out to Arlington’s diverse citizen groups, particularly renters and citizens for whom English is a second language.

Cristol believes this failure of the county to reach out to these groups was part of what led to the failure of the Columbia Pike Streetcar. She believes the County Board did not adequately explain the benefits of the project, but also objected to making the streetcar the focus of the 2015 County Board election.

“I think it's really problematic that we keep asking candidates about [the streetcar] when it’s a dead issue,” said Cristol. “We have solutions we need to develop as part of Plan B on the streetcar. We’ve got to move past the streetcar and we have to have a government that’s uninterested in relitigating that policy. We’ve got a great plan for redevelopment along the pike to build a main street for Arlington but it doesn’t hold without transportation. Getting the pike moving in terms of bus transportation is key.”

On the other hand, Cristol said that she was happy to see some of the high-cost projects close.

“The County Board has made the right decision on closing the Artisphere. My read on broader political dynamics is that there are concerns that we are taking on big projects in lieu of partnering with members of the community who want to make contributions with a modest amount of support.”

Cristol specifically referenced the Arlington Players, an arts group in Arlington that she said has been trying to convert warehouse space for use as an arts complex. Cristol also specifically noted that Reevesland is emblematic of a citizen group trying to push forward a successful idea and being stonewalled by the County Board in favor of funding its pet projects.

“What our government should do is leave the community alone to achieve what it can do for itself and help where it needs support,” said Cristol.

Cristol also believes that her background as an education consultant and her volunteer work at Randolph Elementary School makes her ideal for working with the schools. While Cristol says she appreciates that the School Board has been tightening its belt, she’s also seen a lot of waste as a result of communication failures between the County Board and the School Board.

“We need to look at duplications in programs,” said Cristol. “Not shrinking one budget or another, but where line items can support each other. A lot of parents get their kid in summer school, not for academic enrichment, but because it’s summer child care. It’s really expensive for schools, so in talking with parents at Randolph, I’m hearing that if there were representatives from Parks and Recreation, we could be getting parents to see parks and rec programs as an option instead of summer school. You save a few million dollars in summer school costs. I share that because there are a lot of non-dollar solutions like that sitting in the budget.”

Christian Dorsey

Christian Dorsey has said his experience in economic policy think-tanks and his extensive public service resume make him an ideal candidate for Arlington County Board, a position he has run for twice before. Dorsey is currently the director of external and government affairs at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington D.C., a think tank that researches national economics and proposes policy.

“Working in a policy think tank, I understand the regional economics,” said Dorsey. “I understand how to assess these issues.”

Dorsey has also served on the Planning Commission and the Tenant-Landlord Commission. He is currently a member of the APS Facilities Advisory Committee.

As the executive director of the Nauck Services Center between 2004 and 2008, Dorsey says he learned that affordable housing is a complex process that requires creative solutions. Dorsey proposed bringing faith-based communities, nonprofits, and businesses to the same table to work on revitalizing neighborhoods while respecting the local communities. Most importantly, Dorsey believes working with faith-based communities and nonprofits will help expand the outreach of affordable housing programs.

“We can’t ignore human capital, people need access to resources.”

Dorsey says another piece of solving the affordable housing crisis, and making government more inclusive, is to develop new means of reaching out to get feedback from disenfranchised communities in Arlington. Dorsey again emphasized that visiting citizens at their churches is a method of reaching community groups who are often uninvolved with the County Board.

“We need to go to their houses of worship,” said Dorsey, “that way we don’t call on the same 100 people to represent this community. We can’t believe that is sufficient. There’s a popular perception that these groups are choosing not to be involved, but the opposite is true. We’re not in their communities and we need to be. We need to meet with folks who have taken on leadership responsibilities. Take staff out of offices and bring them into these communities”

Dorsey noted that this may involve bringing language translators to these outings to reduce the barriers between staff and the communities that often consist largely of immigrants whose first language is not English. Dorsey noted, in particular, the importance of connecting with Arlington’s active Mongolian, Ethiopian, and Spanish-speaking communities.

Failure to communicate with Arlington’s diverse communities was also what Dorsey cited as the primary downfall of the Columbia Pike Streetcar.

“The streetcar was not the best idea to deal with those issues. East and west isn’t the only need. We need transportation for north-south, to bring the markets to the south for business. It’s critical to connect the county.”

For Dorsey, the fact that the streetcar would travel in car lanes gave the project a “net zero” in terms of ease of transit along Columbia Pike.

“We should take the resources from the streetcar and use those funds to create north-south connections for our bus fleet, and I have hope that this will happen. Columbia Pike is solid, it works. Should there be higher bus service, sure, but it works and north-south is terrible”

Dorsey also noted, that with squeezed incomes, Arlingtonians are taking a more critical eye towards big projects (like the streetcar). Rather than embracing this, Dorsey said he’s disappointed that some in his party, particularly those on the County Board, have become unnecessarily confrontational.

“Some Democrats have closed off and alienated the party from the voters who supported us,” said Dorsey.

When it comes to schools, Dorsey said the County Board has not been as involved as it should be.

“We need to find sites that the county can offer more technical assistance with,” said Dorsey. “The county has a better handle on sites that can work. These buildings are going to be community sites, help them figure those out. The current method is ridiculously inefficient and wastes tons of resources.”

According to Dorsey, the current method of having the School Board find a site and bringing it to the County Board is backwards.

“We need to do it in reverse,” said Dorsey. “We need to be involved from the start and think of these sites as community facilities. The county must work with the school system on that, we have to get that done. It’s face it, the more time we devote to capacity, the less we devote to instruction.”

Peter Fallon

Peter Fallon acknowledges that he’s not a particularly “sexy” candidate. As an accountant and member of the Planning Commission, Fallon says his strength is that he knows the issues and underlying problems in Arlington better than any other candidate, but said that a tendency to give long explanations, and the fact that he’s a middle aged caucasian man, does not make him particularly exciting as a County Board candidate. But with two seats opening in the 2015 County Board election, Fallon believes the unique nature of the election provides an opportunity his previous two runs for County Board did not. According to Fallon, he’s always been a “default second choice.” But in 2015, that might be enough.

“People in the community know me as a policy guy, and I’ve been working on being a more effective candidate,” said Fallon.

Fallon also said that while he has run for the board twice before, he hasn’t run for any other position, even when he was approached by the party about running for the 48th District or the School Board, and he believes that shows a level of sincerity to his commitment.

“It’s not about wanting to be elected to something .… I don’t have an interest in another office,” said Fallon, “County Board is where I want to be.”

Fallon believes that, with the amount of experience being lost on the board, his greatest strength in the race is that he can “hit the ground running.”

Fallon said he believes the County Board has been dismissive of dissension, referencing the Democratic majority’s conflicts with Independent John Vihstadt and Democrat Libby Garvey, who was expelled for her support of Vihstadt. Fallon said he always works towards trying to see all sides of an issue and looking for a common ground.

As a member of the Planning Commission from 2004 to 2013, and chair of the commission in 2009, Fallon said he supported the streetcar, but said he still had reservations about the project. Fallon said that his background as an auditor and accountant led him to closely scrutinize the project’s timetables and financing, which he said were a cause for some concern.

When moving forward with projects, like the streetcar, Fallon said the County Board can become overly grandiose and became overly reliant on government contracting. Despite transitioning to reliance on a residential and commercial tax base, Fallon said the County Board continued to spend recklessly.

“What are our basic needs?” said Fallon. “[They] don’t come up with requirements and standards like this when [the County Board] discusses these projects.”

Fallon said the poor financial decisions of the County Board are becoming more notable with the opening of the Silver Line as other parts of Northern Virginia become more competitive for office and commercial spaces.

“Arlington has rested on its laurels,” said Fallon. “we should have been diversifying.”

During his time on the Planning Commission, Fallon said he’s been regularly frustrated by the county’s mindset of spending on one large project instead of addressing a variety of smaller-scale needs.

“The County Board does not multi-task,” said Fallon. “They tried to build two fire stations at once, and one contractor went bankrupt. One project inevitably pulls all of the attention and resources, so voters get annoyed when all they hear about are these big projects.”

While Fallon said the ideas expressed by other candidates for turning empty office space to commercial or residential spaces, he said the issue is a lot more complicated than it sounds.

“The floor plates for those buildings are for government clients from the 1960s and the 1970s, they’re not marketable spaces and they can’t compete regionally,” said Fallon. “Those buildings are vacant and they’re going to stay vacant. We can either adapt them or tear them down.”

Fallon also said that, in developing new residences, Arlington needs to become more accessible to younger generations.

“Millennials make too much on paper to qualify for traditional affordable housing, but wind up paying student loans and other costs,” said Fallon, adding that the county can’t just snap its fingers and compel developers to create more affordable and middle class housing in Arlington. “These deals have to work for everyone, the dollars and cents have to make sense. We can’t just tell them to slash rents, most developers would rather have their units be vacant than slash rent.”

According to Fallon, the first step towards improving affordable housing in Arlington is to maintain the current housing. After that, to entice developers to add affordable units, Fallon said the county is going to have to consider granting greater height and density allowances for projects.

Fallon says, as a candidate, he finds it difficult to frame these complex solutions into two-minute answers to debate questions.

“There’s a challenge of putting policy like this into candidate-speak,” said Fallon. “One can be accused of knowing too much, the information can be overwhelming, but at the same time it can’t be boiled down to just a one-minute speech.”

James Lander

James Lander believes his greatest strength as a candidate, and what separates him from the other candidates, is that he is already an elected official. Lander is currently the chair of the Arlington County School Board, a role that he says has given him extensive experience in working with the County Board and the county manager. Lander says that experience has taught him that Arlington can’t build or buy its way out of its problems.

“We need to make investments in building capital, but not through tax incentives,” said Lander. “We need to make sure our local work force is what our businesses want it to be. That’s what will bring smaller businesses to Crystal City and Columbia Pike, and that’s how we begin to pull ourselves out of this economic lull.”

Lander also said that the County Board needs to stop looking at issues like affordable housing and education as separate problems with separate solutions.

“Everything is interconnected,” said Lander. “Pre-kindergarten [education] is something we can move out of the schools and mix with affordable housing.Young folks, immigrants ... these are people that benefit the most. Low income families need access to pre-kindergarten education. That diversifies our residency and gives us a better return on investment.”

Lander suggested moving the pre-kindergarten classes from Hoffman-Boston Elementary School to a nearby affordable housing complex. Lander said this move would open up more than 800 seats at the school, which in the long run Lander says he hopes could help reduce overcrowding in other schools like Oakridge. According to Lander, the move would also come with the added benefit of giving low-income families more direct access to pre-kindergarten programs.

Lander said he’s seen the impact a lack of affordable housing has on Arlington’s ability to provide other basic needs. Lander says many teachers and county employees are unable to live in the county where they work, in the same communities as the people they serve.

Lander is a resident of South Arlington but says he’s never bought into the notion that there’s any sort of inequality between North and South Arlington.

“It’s great for people who are interested in different lifestyles,” said Lander. “Arlington can’t be the same thing all over. I want to preserve and enrich differences and diversity in our community.”

Lander says that the biggest problem with the county’s spending on big projects, and part of what leads to what Lander called a perception of disenfranchisement, is a lack of transparency from the county.

“There isn’t enough transparency [on how we spend],” said Lander. “The streetcar was something, the million dollar bus stop was another one, and the dog park. This spending is something where the community has said they don’t understand what’s happening. … If our commercial tax base is declining and we’re talking about dog parks and bus stops, we're talking about the wrong thing.”

Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider, president of the Yorktown Civic Association since 2010 and a member of the Arlington Transportation Commission, said that he’s still a proud Democrat, but said that the current elected officials have seemed increasingly out of touch with the local community.

“I’m running as a liberal Democrat, and without taking away from that, we need to acknowledge that there is an unease and anxiety from last year’s election.”

Schneider was referring to independent John Vihstadt’s reelection to the Arlington County Board over Democratic challenger Alan Howze. According to Schneider, the Arlington Democratic Party’s loss was a commentary on unease felt about spending on projects like the streetcar, a $500,000 dog park near Rush Creek and a $1 million bus stop.

Schneider says he isn’t against spending, but he’s against what he calls “stupid spending.” Schneider says any spending has to reflect the values of the community, but also has to fit into priorities established by the county.

“Arlington can do anything it wants,” said Schneider, “but it it cannot do everything it wants.”

Schneider said that, while he would never endorse a $1 million bus stop, the county can’t back down from funding to schools and parks. In terms of larger projects, even ones that would be an asset, Schneider said the county also needs to continually question whether these can be funded through private-public partnerships or philanthropy.

“We shouldn’t have a County [Board] that is the workhorse of all of the solutions,” said Schneider.

While Schneider supports investments in transportation on Columbia Pike, he had serious doubts and questions about the streetcar. But, even worse than the handling of the streetcar project, Schneider says he was disappointed by the way the County Board handled the cancellation.

“There had been thousands of hours and hundreds of people involved in planning this over a decade,” said Schneider. “Those people, who had invested their lives in this project, deserved a more thoughtful dismantling.”

With two spaces opening up on the County Board, and the impending appointment of a new county manager, Schneider says he hopes next year’s County Board can focus on reducing what he calls “sandbox politics,” referring to bickering on the board and positions staked on political calculations rather than the decisions made for the good of the county.

Bruce Wiljanen

Bruce Wiljanen, a retired employee of the Democratic National Committee, said that when the other Democratic candidates were announcing their campaigns, he didn’t hear them discussing any of the issues he said were important to him.

“My wife and I always said that we can’t complain if we don’t play the game,” said Wiljanen. “I want to do my best to keep the great things here. One of those things is our parks and our green spaces. Our green spaces are getting to be picked away, whether it’s fire stations or whatever, and we need to be vigilant about that. Once those parks are gone, they won’t ever come back.”

Wiljanen said that the county’s priority needs to be building on spaces that are already built on, whether those spaces are owned by the county or need to be purchased.

Wiljanen also expressed disappointment at the other candidates’ lack of clear policy regarding bringing new corporate tenants to Arlington. Rather than offering tax incentives to larger companies, Wiljanen said the County Board needs to focus on bringing in technology entrepreneurs, particularly highlighting Crystal City’s location near the Pentagon and Reagan National Airport as a promising location for robotics entrepreneurs.

The Debate

The similarities and differences were highlighted during the first debate, hosted by the Arlington Young Democrats, on April 15 at the National Rural Cooperative Association on Wilson Boulevard.

One of the more defining moments was when each candidate was asked to cite what they believed the single most important issue in the election is. For Fallon, who answered first, the biggest problem has been a sense of competitiveness that has grown between groups like parks and schools. While Fallon acknowledged that there are limited resources, he also believed the County Board has not done enough to facilitate communication and mutual benefit between these groups.

Schneider answered, similarly, that the Democratic Party and the County Board no longer has the complete trust of the voters and that the only way to restore confidence was to begin listening to the voices of the public instead of shutting them out of the process.

Dorsey agreed that the Democratic Party has been working in a bubble — focusing on high cost project while ignoring the basic needs of it’s citizens. Dorsey referenced Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, saying that the county has neglected the basic levels like housing security and allowed infrastructure, like the sidewalks, to crumble.

Cristol said that Arlington’s continual loss of affordable housing was one of the biggest crises facing the county. She added that public-private partnerships in Crystal City, particularly focusing around converting empty commercial spaces into micro apartments, was one of the keys to helping alleviate affordable housing loss and high office vacancy.

For Lander, none of the discussion of policy and goals will matter if the county cannot manage to maintain a commercial tax base to support them. Lander said the county needed to focus on bringing digital startups and other technology entrepreneurs to Arlington to secure long-term commercial growth.

Wiljanen, taking the most broad view of the topic, said that the county has no strategic vision for the county, which is where many of the community conflicts emerge. Without established priorities and plans for community assets, Wiljanen warned that Arlington will fall behind its Northern Virginia neighbors.

The candidates each expressed support for Arlington’s schools, with slight variations on school priorities. Wiljanen, Dorsey, and Lander all expressed support for a greater emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Schneider and Cristol said the schools need to develop local business and community partnerships to provide older students with internship opportunities or vocational training.

The candidates were somewhat divided on Arlington’s urbanization. Cristol challenged the idea that urban development in Rosslyn was coming at the cost of green space, noting that different parts of Arlington develop with different needs.

“Rosslyn doesn’t look like Maywood, and it shouldn’t,” said Cristol. “There is a vision for coexisting in Arlington.”

“We need to recognize that Arlington is urban and suburban,” said Fallon. “We’re not Manhattan and we’re not Mayberry. There are different lifestyles in different neighborhoods, and we need to look at the different consequences of development.”

Lander said that development in Arlington needs to have a small footprint to increase the amount of available green space.

Wiljanen said that urban development needed to focus on making maximum use of current systems, like the Bus Rapid Transit systems, rather than adding on new projects.

All candidates expressed similar support for an increase in busing in Arlington. Each of the candidates also somewhat dodged a question on whether or not they would support Garvey for County Board chair, answering universally that they would work with every member of the board regardless of political divides.

The next debate will be at George Mason University Founder’s Hall on May 6, from 7 to 9 p.m. The Democratic primary will be held on June 9.