Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpIt’s Demolition Derby time for Arlington’s churning housing stock. On every residential block, it seems, there’s a tear-down on ever-more-valuable land.

Ranch and Cape Cod homes erected during our county’s post-World War II boom increasingly are deemed obsolete. Demolition permits, county figures show, rose from 91 applications in the first half of 2013, to 129 for the same period in 2014, and 124 for the first six months of 2015.

One tear-down in progress on North Potomac Street that I happened by poignantly exposed the wallpaper of some kid’s bedroom that surely was once held dear.

All this crashing of bricks and dust means steady work for prospering homebuilders. But many Arlingtonians are less than thrilled. They watch $400,000 or $600,000 homes give way to $1.3 million formula mansions that tower over more-modest neighbors.

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“Can middle-income people in their 30s, first-time buyers, still live in Arlington?” asks Margie Bell, who gets letters weekly from builders seeking to buy her home. “Many people I have talked to who sold directly to developers never even talked to a Realtor or considered the impact of their decision,” she says.

Paul Donaldson, an agent with RE/MAX Allegiance, says the shift toward luxury dwellings harms neighborhood cohesion. “These people don’t need the space, it’s the status,” he told me as we toured a new eight-bedroom customized home. (It is being shown fully furnished, with a rented grand piano, and includes a home theater.) Most of these wealthy new arrivals are seldom home, he says. “You never see them walking around.”

“I don’t think anyone minds when a rambler is popped up to a two-story home,” Donaldson adds. “But there are things builders could do that wouldn’t change the neighborhood character.”

The one Arlington builder who returned my call, New Dimensions Inc. president Jennifer Landers, says her company works with landowners to keep the new dwelling affordable, adding that it’s not easy in the current market to unload an expensive home.

Bell asked county board member Libby Garvey for solutions. She forwarded a staff-created list of reasons why there is little policymakers can do. Property owners can sell to whomever they choose, it said, and “encouraging owners to sell to first-time buyers will likely have little impact; sellers and real estate agents’ primary considerations are the sale price and the amount of risk associated with an offer.” The missive acknowledged that many builders follow “the letter of the law” rather than consider neighborhood character. But because historic preservationists worry about losing vintage homes, the tear-down trend is being monitored.

Bell was disappointed. “The county can do something creative to encourage preserving just-right sized houses, though I know they prefer the extra tax dollars for the huge houses,” she says. She favors a public service campaign to encourage homeowners to resist promiscuous offers from builders that emphasize “no hassle, no commission” and list with an agent more sensitive to buyers’ needs.

The issue isn’t going away. County board candidate Katie Cristol, who loves to label herself a Millennial, told a Sept. 8 forum the most common complaint she hears is from longtime homeowners who say they couldn’t afford to buy here today. “The economics of teardowns versus preservation,” she said, “don’t make it easy for property owners to improve their homes to age in place, or for new owners to get a foothold.”

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African-American educator Talmadge Williams assured me three years ago it was a done deal. And though the Arlington history activist didn’t live to see it, the plan to attach the name of Freedmans Village to the refurbished automobile bridge at Washington Blvd. and Columbia Pike came to pass, on Sept. 10.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe arrived to dedicate the bronze medallions honoring the community of former and fugitive slaves that endured from 1863-1900 on the abolished estate of Robert E. Lee. Arlington Black Heritage Museum president Craig Syphax spoke, as did Arlington Historical Society former president John Richardson and county board members.

In the attention-to-detail department, county preservation staff announced a recommendation that Freedmans Village be spelled without the usual apostrophe, more in keeping with 19th-century practice.

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2 Comments

  1. Do the people who complain they no longer could buy in the area also complain that their house/property value has more than tripled in under 20 years in a lot of areas?

    Also for the people who complain about the new homes being built, do they also notice and complain the lack of upkeep and run down houses and yards of the 50+ year old houses?

    These 2 sides of the debate don’t ever seem to be brought up although they should be in the same discussion.

  2. As a 30 year homeowner in Arlington, I view teardowns with full fledged ambivalence. Market forces are relentless and any individual’s opinion is largely irrelevant. The only thing the County Board can do is increase setbacks, lower FARs, and increase open space requirements. I am not saying they should do that, but is their only option. Arlington isn’t the first place where long-time owners can no longer afford to remain in their neighborhoods.

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