A Major Change To Columbia Pike Zoning Is Delayed After Citizens Point Out It Is A Gentrification Bomb

Will the County Board attempt to defuse it? Or just punt and hope we forget?

Arlington County Board meetings are usually dull affairs where Board members rubber stamp proposals from the County Manager’s office. But at this week’s recessed meeting, there was a rare moment when Board members listened to a small but powerful group of voices telling them to take a closer look at what they were approving.

The item under consideration was Consent Item #30, which has beautifully concise name (we will explain, please don’t try to read it):

Request to authorize advertisement of public hearings by the Planning Commission and County Board to consider proposed amendments to the Arlington County Zoning Ordinance Article 11.2 "CPN-FBC" Columbia Pike Neighborhoods Form Based Code Districts (Appendix B) to: (1) increase the Area Median Income (AMI) limit for affordable homeownership units from 60% of AMI to new limits that range between 80% and 100% of AMI while extending the affordability term for such units, and (2) allow for a cash contribution into the Affordable Housing Investment Fund (AHIF) in limited instances when the proposed N FBC development includes commercial uses.

The backstory on this is that county staff proposed an amendment to the code that governs development along Columbia Pike at the beginning of the year. They began to test it on various civic groups in the Columbia Pike area in late February. You can read the Columbia Heights Civic Association’s critique of the proposal here and here.

The proposal had two parts. First, for commercial developments, developers will need to make a cash contribution to the county’s affordable housing fund. This seems non-controversial and an improvement, because there is currently no such requirement.

The second, controversial change is to residential development. Let’s say you want to build a condo building on Columbia Pike. If you want more “density” (i.e. a larger building that will make you more money) you have to play ball with the county and their Form Based Code. Currently, you will have to provide a certain amount of units that would be affordable to someone making 60 percent or less of the average median income of Arlington County (AMI). The proposed change would make the income requirement 80 to 120 percent. This would apply only to condos - apartment buildings would keep the 60 percent requirement.

Columbia Pike civic leaders pointed out two major issues:
1. It seems awfully strange to be giving subsidized affordable housing to someone making significantly more than median income (120 percent of Arlington AMI is around $100,000 per year).
2. By making the condo requirements so much easier to meet than the apartment requirements, developers will be incentivized to tear down existing apartment buildings and replace them with condos. This would cause a mass displacement of lower-income renters, many of whom are people of color.

At the Zoning Committee’s March meeting these concerns were voiced by some of the Pike’s most influential residents and civic organizations and the staff seemingly compromised by lowering the AMI criteria from 80 - 120 percent to 80 - 100 percent. Nevertheless, Pike civic leaders allege that the staff took advantage of the cancellation of advisory committee meetings during the COVID-19 shutdown and attempted to fast-track the amendment by slipping it into the Board’s Consent Agenda (which is a list of mundane bureaucratic rule changes that the Board approves in bulk at the monthly Regular Meetings). Adam Henderson, who heads the Pike Presidents Group, noticed this brazen attempt to bypass the democratic process and intervened with Board member Matt de Ferranti to have it pulled from the Consent Agenda and moved to the recessed meeting for public comment and a staff presentation.

It was during the public comment period that the driving force behind this amendment peaked out from behind the curtain.

Gentle readers, let us introduce you to Barbara Johnson. Barbara was kind enough to reveal where the 80 to 120 percent idea came from - a Foxcroft Heights redevelopment proposal!

There is quite a bit to unpack from Barbara’s statement:

  1. Barbara is extremely mad that the 120 percent tier was removed from the proposed change. This is going to cut into the margins of her clients! Barbara is clearly used to the profits of her clients carrying a lot of weight when it comes to zoning considerations. And from the way she lays it out, it sounds like this whole 80 to 120 percent proposal was handed to county staff from her and the developers she represents.

  2. Barbara says “whether or not anyone wants to admit it, the housing market is becoming more rapidly like Seattle” and she has receipts in the form of appraisals. The County Board definitely does not want to admit this. Seattle, of course, is the home of Amazon - and has experienced skyrocketing housing costs. When local activists tried to warn the Board that the same would happen in Arlington, they were repeatedly told that “Arlington is not Seattle” and would not see the same rising prices. Whoops!

  3. When Barbara runs over her time, the buzzer goes off and she ask “Can I continue?” in the most contemptuous way possible. She is not accustomed to being cut off in her meetings with the county. Barb even had an extra minute of speaking time because the timer wasn’t started until well into her statement. Probably a simple error, but our intrepid citizen-reporters, who have spent many hours waiting for their three minutes to speak at county board meetings, have never seen the timer so sloppily enforced.

Unfortunately for Barbara and her clients, this is all happening when the Black Lives Matter movement is bearing down hard on politicians everywhere. One of the most decisive voices in the public comment section was that of J.D. Spain, the president of the local NAACP. Mr. Spain brought up some inconvenient facts about the racial and socioeconomic makeup of the Pike and the Board’s own past vows to consider racial equity in planning decisions.

Once the Board had heard the county staff’s presentation and began deliberation on the rule change, it was clear that the comments about potential mass displacement of tenants was weighing on their conscience. After some back and forth, Katie Cristol announced a motion to split the amendment in two: to advance the non-controversial provision on commercial redevelopments but postpone a decision on the residential one until October.

Anyone familiar with Arlington politics understands that this amendment is going to go through, postponement notwithstanding – most likely with the AMI range restored to 80 to 120 percent (in their deliberations Libby Garvey was already balking at approving an advertisement that excluding the 120 percent range). In Arlington, you simply do not go against the landlord-developer industrial complex - which now includes Amazon, an entity with essentially limitless resources.

Local activist groups opposed to the Amazon deal argued that HQ2 would hypercharge gentrification and inequality, especially on the Pike, and that Arlington, existing within a Dillon’s Rule state, would be essentially powerless to stop it. And that the Board would be faced with monumental pressure to facilitate the gentrification. A month ago they would likely have rubber stamped this, but recent posturing by all four board members regarding racial justice forced their hand to kick the can down the road.

As stated above, we here at The Spectator are doubtful the County Board will attempt to pull the brake lever on the gentrification train they themselves set in motion. But we are heartened to see that the actions of engaged citizens had an impact. If not for Adam Henderson, J.D. Spain, and others, this amendment would have passed without further inspection. We hope continued public pressure will bend policy further in the public’s favor - and away from the developers. We also hope the County Board will take their new commitment to racial justice beyond selfies with Black Lives Matter signs and into the policies they enact.