A rendering of the planned development. Image courtesy of APAH. Image by APAH.

In Arlington's intense housing market, a breakthrough project aims to provide housing-strapped veterans with an affordable place to live. However, the project has also illustrated how the county's planning process is limited by its reliance on sector plans, and brings forward some new ideas to the ongoing conversation about parking.

Affordable housing for veterans

For better or worse, Arlington County and the US military share a long history. The small jurisdiction is home to the Pentagon, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, and the National Cemetery. The county seal represents the house of Robert E. Lee, and the largest high school’s football team is ‘the Generals.’

Veterans who rejoin Arlington’s civilian population, though, suffer from the same housing shortage as everybody else. In fact, nearly a third of the 236,000 veterans in the DC metro area are housing cost-burdened, meaning they pay well over 30% of their income for rent. Veterans in our region are also often young, putting them in an even more unstable position.

American Legion Post #139, established in the 1930s, is located on the fringe of the densely-developed Metro-accessible Virginia Square area. It hosts a social space for the local veterans' community. Over the past year, the American Legion has collaborated with the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH) to propose a groundbreaking new project.

A present view of the site. Image courtesy of the Arlington County Planning Commission.

The planned development is one of the most ambitious affordable housing projects that the county has seen in years. It's seven stories tall, and all of the 160 units will be committed to affordability for 75 years. The majority of units will be two- or three-bedroom, ensuring that not only single people but also families can afford to live in Arlington. Eight of the units will be affordable to people making about $33,000 per year (30% AMI), and most units will be affordable to people making about $66,000 per year (60% AMI).

Half of the units will be prioritized for veterans, and APAH has partnered with the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network (A-SPAN) to help homeless veterans find a place to live. Very few projects are able to achieve this level of affordability. The icing under the cake? The American Legion will continue to operate on the building's ground floor, making the building a social hub for all of Arlington's veterans.

How sectors limit development

Urban space is continuous. This is obvious if you've ever walked down a street. You aren't interrupted by a force-field when you pass from, say, a “C-O Mixed Use District” to a “RA-18 Multiple Family Dwelling District.” You probably don't even notice the change.

In defiance of this continuity though, for the past 90 years American city planning has relied on dividing cities into discrete chunks. Originally, this took the form of zoning. In Arlington, it also takes the form of sector plans. Similarly, DC has faced challenges resulting from the rigidity of the borders in its Future Land Use Map (FLUM).

Sector plans identify the county's aspirations for certain specific areas. The area around Virginia Square was most recently discussed in the 2002 Virginia Square Sector Plan, which embraced a “special emphasis on inclusion of affordable on-site housing units in new residential construction.”

But wait—if affordability was embraced in 2002, why didn't this project get started until so much later? The answer is as simple as it is unintuitive: the American Legion site isn't technically in Virginia Square. Despite lying less than a quarter-mile from the Virginia Square Metro station, despite any Arlingtonian ready to tell you that it's in the Virginia Square area, the site in question is just across the street from the border of the sector plan. Thus, it is not in Virginia Square.

Because of this bad luck, the American Legion had to wait another 15 years for the oxymoronically- and interminably-named Washington Boulevard and Kirkwood Road Special General Land Use Study “Plus”. This study, effectively a miniature sector plan, only addressed the single superblock that is home to the American Legion site, and generally brought it in line with the Virginia Square plan.

The American Legion is also just barely outside of the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro Corridor as it is legally defined. Despite being only a few minutes’ walk from the Metro, the site is on the wrong side of Washington Boulevard, and so doesn't technically benefit from the reduced parking minimums recently put into effect along the corridor.

The American Legion site (red star) just outside the borders of the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro Corridor.

Urban space is continuous, but Arlington's urban planning is disjunct, inevitably resulting in unnatural development. Arlington's ‘site plan’ process treats most developments (including this one) as individual projects and remedies this somewhat. It treats sector plans as aspirational and calls for separate County Board approval for each process, allowing developers and the county to bend the rules.

Nonetheless, the ideology of separation and disjuncture that underlies zoning and sector plans is a major factor lying behind many challenges in urban planning nationwide.

Innovations in the parking conversation

“Parking” might have been the most-heard word in the recent Planning Commission meeting held to discuss the development. It’s a perennial item of debate in Arlington, as it is across the region and the country. During this Planning Commission hearing, though, a few innovations echoed around the room.

The American Legion project will include 0.43 parking spots per residential unit, mostly in an underground garage. A representative of APAH pointed out that it will be one of the first few developments to make use of ‘transportation demand management’ techniques that aim to cut down on private vehicle ownership.

Residents of the planned development will be eligible for a 5$ annual membership to Capital Bikeshare, and APAH will provide each resident who doesn’t have a dedicated space with a 65$/year preloaded SmartTrip card. APAH will also contribute $6,900 each year to Arlington County Commuter Services, an organization dedicated to transportation demand management. Finally, the cost of a parking space will be unbundled from the rent of a unit.

Some neighbors, concerned about parking being underprovided, wonder whether this demand management goes far enough. Henry Staples, of the Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association, points out that APAH saves approximately $50,000 for every parking spot it doesn't construct—according to his calculations, 4.5 million for the building. He encourages APAH to invest more of this money, more than $6,900 per year, into other mobility options.

Takis Karantonis, speaking on behalf of Arlington’s Alliance for Housing Solutions, pointed out that new car-free residents will feed into a virtuous cycle of demand for public transport. “For this [improved] service, we need the riders, and the riders will be brought. 160 households will be using these services.”

A nearby resident of a single-family house wondered whether County restrictions could be lifted on her property, enabling her to build more private off-street parking.

Finally, a representative of APAH commented that the affordable housing developer is able to handle some transportation demand management of its own at the level of individual residents. When a prospective tenant with a car comes to call, APAH could arrange for them to be preferentially housed in one of their other developments with more available parking.

Looking ahead

At the meeting, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend that the County Board approve the project. The Board will be convening for a vote on Saturday, February 23, and interested Arlingtonians—or those who would live in Arlington but are priced out—are encouraged to chime in.

If approved, the development will take roughly two years to complete.

Taylor is a proud alum of Arlington Public Schools, HB Woodlawn class of '13. They're a nerdy gender-non-binary person interested in any aspect of spatial planning and the built environment and they'd love to chat with you. In their free time, they listen to Arabic-language music, play old N64 games, and bike too fast.