Current Phoenix Bikes headquarters. Photo by TrailVoice on Flickr.
Arlington is Virginia’s smallest and densest county, meaning space is at a premium, especially public space. Nonprofit organizations have recently asked Arlington to build on county-owned properties. But will their proposals benefit the public?
Phoenix Bikes, a nonprofit youth program and community bike shop, wants permission to build a new headquarters on county land adjacent to the Washington & Old Dominion Trail in South Arlington. The building would include space for their programs in addition to community rooms and public facilities, including bathrooms, air pumps, and water fountains.
Phoenix Bikes currently operates out of a small shed in Barcroft Park, about a half-mile from where it would like to move. The organization has committed to raising one million dollars to build a new headquarters. By having the county provide land for free, the group would only need to pay for the building’s construction, saving money.
The proposed site is wooded, though it’s not parkland. But at least one neighbor opposes the project, distributing flyers claiming that the building’s visitors will park on local streets since it would only have three parking spaces, and that its public bathrooms will attract “drunks.”
County officials don’t know how many trees would have to be cut down, but Arlington does require a tree replacement plan for any construction on public land. The Arlington Parks Department will hold a third community meeting about the proposal in January.
While Phoenix Bikes is asking for free land, Arlington would gain benefits as well. It would get a new community space that doesn’t require county funds for construction, while supporting an organization whose focus on bicycling fits in with the county’s broader goal of promoting sustainable transportation. And people using the W&OD Trail would gain access to public facilities.
Since county funds would support Phoenix Bikes’ proposal, officials need to ensure that it’s compatible with their goals for that site. Another concern is how much access the community will have to the building’s “community rooms.” There’s also the question of what to do with the building if Phoenix Bikes decides to leave or is no longer able to maintain the building.
Other groups are seeking new uses for public land as well. Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE), a coalition of civic and interfaith groups, presented a petition last Saturday asking Arlington to build affordable housing at various publicly-owned sites throughout the county, including the East Falls Church Metro station, the Lubber Run Community Center near Ballston, and the Arlington Central Library near Virginia Square. This is something the county has done before, at the Arlington Mill Community Center on Columbia Pike, which was recently rebuilt to include affordable apartments.
It’s a coincidence that both Phoenix Bikes and VOICE made their appeals so close together. But it highlights many of the pressures from the high demand and diminishing supply that exists today in Arlington’s real estate market.
Arlington only has 27 square miles of land to work with and is in the middle of one of the most robust real estate markets in the country. As pressure rises for more space we may see more and more proposals to have the county sell or lease its land for a variety of uses. The key is ensuring that public land gets reused for public good.