Residents in Arlington Mill and Forest Glen in Virginia have been arguing over the latter neighborhood's street parking restrictions for years. Arlington Mill has little parking available so residents often park in adjoining Forest Glen, which has it in more abundance. On January 26, the county board voted to remove the restrictions, which had banned anyone without a permit from 9 pm to 6 am.
Much has been written about the lengthy, contentious process, but the underlying friction of inequity within both the neighborhood and Arlington County as a whole are worth exploring further as a microcosm of other issues facing our region.
At a recent community meeting before the vote, several attendees pointed out that Arlington Mill apartments are subsidized by the county, and the owners provided no more than one parking space per unit. This means that in some cases, three-bedroom apartments were granted only one parking space. A three-bedroom apartment can house an entire multi-generational family, and they often have significant parking needs. Transit access in this area is limited, so most people have to drive to work.
Residents in these apartments are also more likely to work in a trade that requires a work van or truck in addition to their regular vehicle. But even though these residents need more parking, neither the county board nor the landlords have taken these needs into account. Forest Glen, which is whiter and wealthier, successfully agitated for parking restrictions from 9 pm to 6 am in their neighborhood in 2016 when they argued too many non-residents were parking there.
Tale of two neighborhoods
At the western edge of Colombia Pike, where it intersects Carlin Springs Road, there are numerous apartment buildings and condo complexes, as well as neighborhoods comprised mostly of duplexes. One edge of Arlington Mill abuts a pocket of single-family homes known as Forest Glen. Forest Glen and Arlington Mill have different civic associations, but are part of the same census tract and considered together by the county for issues such as the current parking restrictions reversal.
In a recent community meeting, Forest Glen residents repeatedly said they felt singled out, and argued that they paid their taxes and didn’t get enough back. Arlington Mill residents retorted that they too paid taxes and were contributing residents of Arlington, and the current parking situation wasn’t equitable.
Despite the protestations of residents, Forest Glen is for all intents and purposes a part of Arlington Mill. There is no entrance or exit to Forest Glen without going through Arlington Mill. The two share a newly-remodeled park, and Forest Glen constitutes a relatively small number of homes compared to other nearby neighborhoods and civic associations. Based on data from the 2010 census, its population was on the smaller end of Arlington neighborhoods.
Given the lack of good transit options in the area, it makes the most sense for the neighborhoods to agitate for improvements as a whole, rather than fracture even further over a change in parking restrictions. Many of the duplexes in the area are rentals or have been converted into triplexes and fourplexes, the type of piecemeal densification that can be a boon in areas that lack housing. Here, with the substandard transit options and disproportionately low-income residents, it has led to an extremely high demand for parking.
For example, the duplex adjoining mine is a rental and has about 5-7 vehicles associated with the residents. In conversations with my neighbors, the houses with the most vehicles are renters who work a variety of labor-oriented jobs, from housekeeping to construction. Most of them can’t rely on a bus that might not show up, or have a need to bring supplies or work odd hours that don’t align with the periods when high-frequency buses run.
While Arlington is known for its white-collar consultants and contractors, there's also a need for transit that serves residents who work outside of 9-5 hours. At the meeting, Arlington Mill residents also suggested that the county force apartments to provide more parking, offer parking at a lower rate (some are charging $120 for one parking space), or find an alternate solution for apartment parking.
Differences within and without
Arlington Mill has the second-lowest median household income in Arlington, and is only ahead of census tract 1020.03, which as best as I can tell is almost entirely a single apartment building. The dropoff between Arlington Mill and the rest of the county is stark. At $40k, it’s 36% of the county-wide number ($112,000). There are four tracts that makes less than double the median household income of Arlington mill, and 50 that make more than double.
Forest Glen and the rest of Arlington Mill have their differences as well, although it’s a bit tougher to drill down without block-level census data that’s less readily available to the public. However, Arlington County did do a demographic analysis using 2010 numbers, which facilitates a comparison with 2017.
The 2010 census data also paints an interesting demographic difference between Forest Glen and the rest of the neighborhood. While more diverse than Arlington at large, Forest Glen is disproportionately white compared to the surrounding neighborhood.
Arlington Mill has density without good transit options
Arlington Mill is one of the densest neighborhoods in Arlington County that also has limited high-frequency transit access. Despite this, the Columbia Pike corridor is home to a disproportionate amount of Arlington’s affordable housing initiatives, and households here are heavily reliant on personal vehicles to get to and from work.
Carlin Springs is an important artery to get up to Route 50 and Highway 66 (Ballston is in between), but bus frequency is limited compared to its status as an arterial connecting to the Metro lines. Here's a typical weekend performance from that North-South corridor’s Metrobus route, as well as a crucial Columbia Pike route, which tends to have better performance:
Transit on Columbia Pike is a long-standing issue in Arlington, informing both the initial success of John Vihstadt in gaining a seat on the county board, and possibly influencing his election loss last fall after promised improvements failed to materialize.
Recently, infrastructure improvements in the area have been streets-focused. While these multi-modal improvements are welcome (crossing the Pike in this corner of Arlington requires keeping your head on a swivel and hustling to cross in time), it highlights the centrality of Columbia Pike and the cars that are its primary users.
Arlington Mill (including Forest Glen) is neatly contained in census tract 1022, which makes it easy to take a peek under the hood into statistics that help illustrate the neighborhood.
Despite its relatively far-flung location, a lot of people live in Arlington Mill. 2017 population estimates have it as the second-highest population of any Arlington census tract, only behind Columbia Forest (1028.01), the tract directly south, across Columbia Pike. In third place is the first traditionally-considered-dense tract, Lyon Village (1015), which is along the north side of the orange and silver metro lines near the Clarendon and Court House stops. Arlington Mill and Columbia Forest are also the 9th and 12th densest tracts in Arlington.
By my count, more than 20 of Arlington’s census tracts are adjacent to metro lines, but of the 20 densest census tracts in Arlington, 14 are metro walking adjacent, one is an edge case and five are solidly not. Those 14 metro-adjacent tracts constitute ~22% of Arlington’s population, while the five non-adjacent tracts account for ~11% of the county’s population.
The non-accessible tracts are entirely in south Arlington and mostly concentrated near the west end of Columbia Pike.
Given the population density and raw totals, there’s a strong case for additional transit options along Columbia Pike—something the county has known for a long time.
This scenario isn't limited to Arlington
My household is able to be single-car because I work in a relaxed professional environment with flexible hours. I’m also willing to put up with a commute that’s two or three times longer than driving because I’m able to work in reading and exercise.
While this seems to be a hyper-localized parking issue on the surface, the Forest Glen-Arlington Mill scenario plays out again and again across our region. Anywhere there are discontinuities between where people live and the amenities provided, there will be friction. These issues are only exacerbated when tied up into the personal differences that might exist within a single community.
Arlington County has always had a strong vision for the area’s future, but it took decades for Columbia Pike to begin to be addressed. As these neighborhoods continue to grow, hopefully the county will articulate and execute an inclusive and sustainable vision for our future going forward.