Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Dueling flyers are blanketing homes around Westover in these dog days of August.

The anonymous one warned sternly against a proposal to designate Westover Village as an historic district. Current and “future owners of your property are at risk of losing certain property rights very soon,” it declared. “Those include the right to change a property’s exterior or demolishing it to build a new dream home.”

A rebuttal is being home-delivered by a team combining the Green Party and Preservation Westover. “We are Westover residents and neighboring villages concerned about losing more and more affordable housing in Arlington, about maintaining the diversity and character of Westover as these `townhouse villages’ replace our homes,” goes its message, according to leader Dee Loeber.

In the past two years, seven Westover apartment buildings built in 1940 and surrounding trees were demolished, eliminating 70 market-rate affordable units, the Green Party reports. Since builders set up equipment a block off Washington Blvd., the funky neighborhood has been abuzz—though not unanimous on the solution.

On June 23, activists sent the county a request for the historic designation with an (unsuccessful) demand that demolitions be halted. The county held a public forum July 21, where officials described such designations as collaborative and more flexible than some fear. A study is planned with reviews from the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board and the Planning Commission.

The anonymous flyer urges immediate voting via petitions delivered to The Italian Store or Ayers. “Your property will be forever locked in its existing state,” it warned. “You will not be able to significantly change the exterior appearance, which over time will likely result in lower or stunted property values.”

The signed rebuttal argues that property values do not decline in historic districts, and “tenants DO contribute financially to our community,” Loeber said.

Westover hosts a “diverse set of mostly fun-loving residents who shun meetings,” Bob Orttung, Westover Village Civic Association president, said in a letter calling a September meeting. “Rather than stating what we are opposed to, we should define what future we would like. Do we want a diversity of people living here with different levels of income, or only those who can afford today’s high prices? …How can we achieve it without infringing on property rights of land owners?”

Three county board members told me due diligence could take two years, with no predictable result. “We asked staff to assess a full range of options that provide some level of protection for the remaining affordable garden apartments in the Westover area,” said Jay Fisette.

Westover resident John Vihstadt said, “The central focus is on the apartments and what tools the county might use, whether historic designation, something else, or a combination, to foster preservation of a dwindling supply of affordable rental housing.” He would not “tie the hands of single-family home and business owners.”

Katie Cristol agreed designation isn’t the only strategy, or necessarily the best. “It’s more likely to have farther-reaching consequences than the more tailored alternatives,” she said, citing land and regulatory tools like a special affordable housing preservation district, transfer of development rights and the Affordable Housing Investment Fund.

I dialed the number on the unsigned flyer and spoke to a man who declined to give his name. He said it went to 400 homes in the affected area.

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Arlington’s own broadcast queen Katie Couric—now doing a Yahoo podcast—last Saturday reminisced while a contestant on the NPR news quiz show “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me.”

She noted that Carl Kassel, scorekeeper emeritus of the weekly radio comedy, was her supervisor when she was a high school intern at WAVA in Arlington, at Lee Highway and George Mason Drive.

In that era introducing women in the workforce, sexual harassment was common, she acknowledged. “We’d say harass was two words,” Couric said. The host asked whether her tenure anchoring the CBS News was shortened because she lacked “gravitas.” That word, she likes to say, is Latin for “testicles.”

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