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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Mar/Apr 2003 : Cover Story

Cover Story

The Arlington Way

By Penny Bonda, FASID
Katie Sosnowchik
Portrait Photography By Jim Robinette

More Cover Story Articles

- 2010 Global Vision
- The Environment As A Business Opportunity
- Outlining Its Vision
- Environmental Action In North Amercia

Long regarded as one of the greenest local governments in the nation, Arlington County, VA, has served as a model for other communities looking to improve their environmental programs and achievements. Located just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, its close-in position attracts both residents and business owners looking to avoid the hassles and headaches of sprawl. It is described as more of a collection of urban villages than a suburb, with a resident population of 189,000 that swells to 300,000 with daytime workers. Arlington County occupies 26 square miles with a somewhat high density, but one that has been well managed through smart growth. Compact residential neighborhoods supported by mixed-use urban centers supply a sought-after lifestyle by Arlington’s diverse population.

The county has benefited over the years from thoughtful, innovative and committed leadership. Today its environmental efforts are led by Dave Alberts with the Office of Support Services and Joan Kelsch, Arlington’s environmental planner. Alberts, an architect by training, has spent much of his career in urban renewal and community development. He believes that it is his job to create an environment where planners and architects and engineers can do their best work, and finds that their creativity continues to delight and amaze him despite his many years in the field.

Kelsch’s early childhood experiences gave her a great appreciation for nature and things that were wild. She wanted to do something in the environmental field—everything from saving the world to international environmental negotiation to running a non-profit organization—and eventually found her niche in local government where “rubber meets the road and where things really get done,” she says. As two of the most respected environmental leaders in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, Kelsch and Alberts sat down with green@work to discuss Arlington’s remarkable achievements.

What is it about the culture of Arlington County that has helped make it AN environmental model?

I think it’s partly geography. More people flow through Arlington every day than live or work in it. It’s also its natural diversity, which goes way back. Less than half the students in our schools are white Anglo Saxon Protestants. More adults attend our school system here than do children. So, it’s very extensive—it’s had a lot of economic advantages being a close community. And it has borne a lot of visionary people. I think what Joan and I are feeding off of now is a wonderful legacy—everything from the Metro system and the way that the county has utilized that to the acceptance of diversity in the community to the willingness to try different things.

I think, as Dave said, Arlington had, back in the ’60s when the Metro was being planned, the foresight to put together a general land use plan that included dense urban development around the Metro stations, which also preserved very nice, well-established residential neighborhoods with trees and parks and sidewalks and lovely homes. That model has sustained Arlington and gives it a quality of life that people really like. We joke that, politically, Arlington is the “People’s Republic of Arlington.” I think the county prides itself on being on the forefront of where the state is headed, so that the county politicians, at least since I’ve been here, have been very willing to look at some of this stuff, have made it key to their campaigns and feel that it’s very important to have an environmental agenda. From that point of view, we get direction and can do pretty much what we want to achieve that goal, which is a wonderful position to be in.

The county also has always had a very open attitude toward the community and welcomes input. We have the “Arlington Way,” which lends itself very nicely to integrated design, public charettes and those kinds of things. People in Arlington love having input and the county government welcomes that. It makes the process longer. It’s a little bit tedious for staff, sometimes, but you end up with a much better project that everybody believes in. It has also made the green building movement, in particular, very successful.

You mention support and encouragement from politicians. Any in particular who have been most instrumental?

Paul Ferguson, current chairman of the board, deserves a lot of the credit. He has been pushing the environmental envelope, sometimes a little harder and a little faster than we’re able to keep up with. Gradually I’ve seen the other members of the board take greater interest.

I agree with Joan that the “Arlington Way” takes longer; it’s a little bit messier. But I love going out there and saying, “Here’s a general concept and here are some of the limitations and some of the objectives that we’ve got. Now, let’s talk about what we can work on together to get it to happen.”

There was also a group of citizens who were very active. They pulled together a sustainability roundtable with some very well-spoken, well-educated folks who pushed this from a community sustainability standpoint. I think the green building movement benefited from them.

That group also helped feed E2C2—the Environmental Energy Conservation Commission. This is a group of citizens appointed by the county board to advise on environmental and energy conservation issues. For example, they have encouraged the hiring of an energy manager for the county. They are very supportive of green buildings, of open spaces, of brownfield redevelopment projects. Several citizens on E2C2 have been around longer than I’ve been.

I joined the U.S. Green Building Council in 1999 on behalf of the county and went to my first conference that year. My initial reaction was, “I’m in with a bunch of tree huggers, yet I’m a practical, production-oriented bureaucrat who is looking at what’s marketable and workable with the development community.” But, it didn’t take very long during that conference to realize that I kept citing back to “integrated design development” as a concept . . . and I got very, very enthusiastic about LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) because it was a voluntary standard being developed by a wide range of people, ranging from the tree huggers to the developers. Rather than our own tiny community trying to invent standards, here were some good ones that we could tie into.

We adopted sustainability as standard operating procedure in our department in ’97 and now we require a LEED silver rating for any significant projects we do. In effect, architects and engineers have to prove to us that they can’t do it. Thus far, that has not been the case. We’re even beginning to work it into some retro projects where I think that we’ve got a chance to do some good stuff.

Of which accomplishments are you most proud?

I think I’m happiest with the way this program has coalesced. It started with the sustainability policy that the Office of Support Services—Dave’s department—adopted. Then LEED came along and now that’s become common practice.

We have set up a density program for private developers, where they get a little bit of extra space if they agree to build to the silver LEED standard. We require all developers who apply for site plans to submit a LEED score card with an estimate of how many LEED points they’re going to strive to achieve. We also have a couple of other requirements, such as—they have to commit to recycling their construction debris. At the end of the process, they have to show us how many points they actually achieved. This is a very good educational tool because it makes them look closely at LEED. Some of them are coming around and saying, “Hey, you know, this actually makes some sense.”

We’re working on a green home project, modeled after the Earth Craft house project in Atlanta. We’re tweaking it a little bit so that it applies to Arlington County. So, all these things that are, in and of themselves, little projects have coalesced into the reputation that we now have. When you step back and look at it, you think, “Wow, you know, we really have a pretty good thing.” Yet, it just sort of happened.

And we advertised a little bit—gave talks and things like that. As a result, our reputation has taken off. We were noted in The Wall Street Journal. We’ve had notations in The Washington Post. Now I get calls for speaking engagements. So it kind of has a life of its own and we’re sort of riding the waves.

The thing I’m proudest of is that we branded sustainability and LEED in this community. Architects now come to us and tell us they have LEED-accredited people on staff. They tell us about the projects that they’re working on in other communities that really apply to us.

When Joan said we send developers to LEED, we do not give them any paperwork. We say, “Here’s the Web site, go there, get the checklist, and go through it.” Maybe 90 percent of them may not go very far, but occasionally we get calls from developers who say, “Gee, this sounds good. We want to know more about it.”

What have been the toughest challenges?

One is educating developers who are still very resistant to these concepts. We force them to think about it with our LEED requirement, but many still say it’s not financially feasible. We’re eager for a collection of case studies and data that actually shows people how it can work. In particular, we have a lot of high-rise residential going into Arlington right now. These developers all say, “LEED is for commercial office space. We can’t do it.” But I think you can tweak LEED to apply. You don’t have to do central energy management if that’s not appropriate for high-rise residential. But you can do so many other things. Working with them has been a plodding process.

Internally, what’s frustrating is that the Arlington Economic Development Depart-ment has not jumped onboard. They are still on a learning curve. They don’t use this as a marketing tool for Arlington.

I think, though, that in addition to commercial developers listening to us, we need to listen to them. I think the economic development concept really illustrates that very clearly. A developer has a different perspective on life. We need to understand their perspective, and then try to bring those two focuses together.

We’re enthusiastic—we want the world to move rapidly, but it’s just not going to. Each day, though, we take it a little further. Yes, I would like to see more enthusiasm, if you will, on the developer’s side. But, what I see today, as opposed to three or four years ago, is a tremendous movement toward green.

To developers, though, we are tree huggers. The Navy League building that is going in right across the street is going to build for the silver standard and that will be a great test case for us. The architects are working very hard to meet the 37 LEED points that they’ve committed to. The Washington Capitals hockey team has proposed putting a full-sized ice rink on the top of the Ballston Mall parking garage, which it would use as a practice range for four or five hours a day during hockey season, but the rest of the time would be open to the public. We provided them with information on the ice rink in Salt Lake City. The architect took the information and put together a package to make the project green. Maybe silver, probably certified, but green nonetheless. This is a very public urban project with a huge community benefit. Even if they don’t get the building as green as they want, that architect now understands LEED and it’s part of his vocabulary. It’s a wonderful victory for Arlington and the green building movement.

Tell us about Arlington’s “smart growth” practices.

ALBERTS: What we’ve learned is that, as a community, it is necessary to have a balance of housing, retail, commercial, transportation core and amenities so that much of your life can be handled without having to physically travel all over the place. We kind of fell into the urban village concept, and now we’re getting different kinds of villages. I’m working on a project in the Westover neighborhood that combines a school and a new library in a small, funky, commercial area right on the edge of the neighborhood. We’ll have a lot of walk-in and bicycle activity. We’re sharing parking approaches and so forth for those who do have to drive in. Yet, it’s got the completeness of a small or medium-sized town. I think that’s the glue.

Each Metro stop has its own little strip of stores and restaurants—a hardware and grocery, a library and post office. Each stop also has its own personality. The urban village concept has allowed those personalities to develop. It’s also part of the general land use plan, and so has really allowed the sustainable, smart growth concept to grow in Arlington.

Was this a strategic decision?

Back in the ’60s, when the Metro was coming in, it was a strategically planned decision based on where the Metro stops would be and what kind of density would be put around them. The Metro allowed those strips to come together into little communities around the stops.

ALBERTS: Other more subtle pieces also come into play. For example, the county has had a bicycle master plan for some time. We have trails and systems to support and expand that. We enhance the pedestrian environment—the ease of being able to get around on foot or bicycle. I can walk to my house in a little under an hour from here on a wonderful trail system. I think that’s important to the village concept—being able to offer alternate forms of transportation for those who want it.

And the planning commision is commited to this?

I think from the ’60s through the ’80s, it was accidental. It was nice and everybody thought that this is the way it should be, but then it got a name and a movement and an award. Now we’re the poster child.

Is Arlington a role model for other counties that are just starting their environmental activism?

I hope we’re a good role model. We get phone calls all the time. I recently talked to someone from Gresham, OR, which is a suburb of Portland. I found it fascinating that they were calling Arlington when they could go three miles and talk to their buddies in Portland. Frisco, TX, called me about all the things we’re doing, yet it has a well-known residential green building program. I talked to a community in Oklahoma. I’ve talked with Alexandria, Fairfax. I’ve been invited to Montgomery County. I think with our land use plan and with the subway, we have a leg up on some places that may have entrenched infrastructure that’s hard to work around. Yet there are always things you can do; you don’t have to start with a clean slate. You can retrofit, you can tack things on, you can start doing things differently that may change in 20 or 30 years. Hopefully, we’re providing that information.

ALBERTS: Serving as a role model doesn’t mean that we should be copied. Serving as a role model, I think, means looking at our integrated planning and design, our thinking about the broader picture and how we bring more people into the game. Give visionaries a chance to have input. You lift everybody’s expectations at the same time.

Arlington is home to many government agencies and well-known corporations. Do you work with them to further your environmental goals?

First, I’d like to note that the Pentagon is in Arlington, and they have a very vibrant, active, forward-thinking rebuilding program. They don’t market it as well as I would like them to. I think they could change the world if they really paid a lot more attention to that. We use the Pentagon as an example of what can happen.

We are also working with our economic development folks to get them on board. I think if we can get them to market Arlington as a green place, then they can help a lot of these corporations.

In the last several months I’ve gotten several phone calls from businesses in Arlington who want to have Earth Day events. They’ve heard about green buildings and they want a presentation on it for their corporate Earth Day afternoon fair. It’s grassroots stuff, but this is how you make a change. People need to understand it and do it because they want to do it, because they believe in it and think it’s right for them. So it’s slow, but I think we’re getting there.

Are some development projects better handled by the private sector rather than the county?

Smart growth is definitely a holistic approach. The government can lead and provide guidance, but it’s the people that have to do it. People have to demand green residences. Tenants have to say they want a green office space because they want healthy, indoor air. That is what drives the market.

Arlington has long been built out. What growth we have now is, in effect, redevelopment. That means density. It also means, and I’m experiencing this in literally every project that I’m planning now, multi-use. For instance, Fire Station 10, which is down on the edge of Roslyn, wants to come up the corridor to provide an optimum level of service. Yet the site it wants would cost about four times as much as the building itself. Therefore, it’s going to have to be part of a private development. Even in Westover, a very low density area, we have two partners on a project, the school system and the county library. Down in Shirlington, we’ve got a library with the Signature Theater on top of it in the middle of a private development. We are well beyond the point, in public development, where we can decide, as I once did in Sioux Falls, SD, that an acre of ground can be devoted to a future free-standing library.

I think the real challenge is how well we integrate what private developers need with what we need. It may even mean looking at different ways of financing. Traditionally, government projects have been capital financed through bonds or through ongoing taxes. We can’t do that anymore. This building is a good example. We’ve got 180,000—pretty soon 200,000—square feet of county office space here. We don’t own it. We own the ground under it. We collect taxes on it. We don’t maintain the building. The landlord does that. But we have had a partnership for 15 years that we just renewed. We said to our partner, “Hey, we like green.” And the partner said, “Well, just how green do you want to make it?”

I think Arlington has to be careful to remember that too much of a good thing is not a good thing. We talk about density, about high rises and amenities around the Metros, but there is a movement afoot that says this is not a good thing. Some residents don’t want more density because then you don’t have enough amenities—elevators get jammed, there’s not enough parking. It starts to look like Manhattan and nobody wants that. So, if the private side overbuilds, then they’ll have a hard time filling their spaces. I think we need to make sure that what we plan is good. Our density program has come under a bit of suspicion. We need to ask, “Do we really want that extra space—even if it’s green space?” It may turn out that it’s not that much space, and we’ve made good arguments for it. We have to be very careful not to overdo it or we’ll sink under our own success.

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