Arlington Mercury has broken the story that Arlington County Board Member Walter Tejada is no longer committed to a streetcar on Columbia Pike. This bombshell – inconsistent with a campaign pledge – sets up a potential showdown when the Board considers the various transit alternatives to submit for federal funds for the Pike later this summer. Along with newcomer Libby Garvey, a Pike trolley skeptic (and herself facing challenges to her left and right in the fall election), they face a potential fight with Chris (“I want a trolley”) Zimmerman and Board Chair Mary Hynes, both firmly in the pro-trolley column. The swing vote may be Jay Fisette. (Does that make him Anthony Kennedy or John Roberts?)
On one hand, Mr. Tejada’s decision to re-think the trolley is consistent with his duty to the Federal Transit Administration to genuinely consider the alternatives before him. It is also consistent with his duty to his constituents, many of whom are opposed to the project. On the other hand, his reason for skepticism – the effect of the streetcar on affordable housing – is a hard thing to mesh with the facts.
The effect of the streetcar (alone) on housing values is, at best, marginal. The primary Arlington government policy that is set to effect housing prices isn’t the trolley: it’s the developer-friendly Form Based Code. The Form Based Code (FBC) isn’t all bad – the notion of clear rules by which developers and the government have to live by is critical in a County where micromanaging noise permits takes up an inordinate amount of Board time. Further, the goal of creating transit-friendly retail-housing developments along the Pike would provide higher-quality living for existing and future Pike residents.
The problem with the FBC, however, is it is designed to create more livable communities, without providing nearly enough housing for those who want to live near it. Simply put, the development will drive demand without sufficient increased housing density to meet that surging demand, resulting in rising prices. (The “inclusionary zoning” in the FBC is not sufficient to replace even existing low-income housing stock, to say nothing of meeting increased housing demand.) The FBC (not the streetcar) sets all the incentives for existing owners of market-based affordable housing to redevelop, driving the many tenants out of Arlington. If Mr Tejada is serious about affordable housing, he needs to consider higher density in Arlington, in particular, in the Pike’s FBC. (More on that idea here.)
It is refreshing nevertheless to read that Mr Tejada is reconsidering the unnecessary, ill-conceived streetcar; it’s even more encouraging, however, to hear him grapple with the reality that the Board’s plans for Columbia Pike incentivize an end to many of the affordable housing units in Arlington.