The Arlington Way
By Penny Bonda, FASID
Portrait Photography By Jim Robinette
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 Arlingtons 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,
Arlingtons 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.
Kelschs early childhood experiences gave her a great appreciation
for nature and things that were wild. She wanted to do something
in the environmental fieldeverything from saving the world
to international environmental negotiation to running a non-profit
organizationand 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 Arlingtons remarkable achievements.
What is it about the culture of Arlington County that has helped
make it AN environmental model?
ALBERTS: I think its partly geography. More
people flow through Arlington every day than live or work in it.
Its 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,
its very extensiveits 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 legacyeverything
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.
KELSCH: 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 Peoples 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 Ive been here, have been very willing to look
at some of this stuff, have made it key to their campaigns and feel
that its 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
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.
Its 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?
ALBERTS: 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 were
able to keep up with. Gradually Ive seen the other members
of the board take greater interest.
I agree with Joan that the Arlington Way takes longer;
its a little bit messier. But I love going out there and saying,
Heres a general concept and here are some of the limitations
and some of the objectives that weve got. Now, lets
talk about what we can work on together to get it to happen.
KELSCH: 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
ALBERTS: That group also helped feed E2C2the 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 Ive 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, Im in with a bunch of tree huggers, yet Im
a practical, production-oriented bureaucrat who is looking at whats
marketable and workable with the development community. But,
it didnt 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 cant do it. Thus far, that has
not been the case. Were even beginning to work it into some
retro projects where I think that weve got a chance to do
some good stuff.
Of which accomplishments are you most proud?
KELSCH: I think Im happiest with the way this program
has coalesced. It started with the sustainability policy that the
Office of Support ServicesDaves departmentadopted.
Then LEED came along and now thats 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
theyre going to strive to achieve. We also have a couple of
other requirements, such asthey 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.
Were working on a green home project, modeled after the Earth
Craft house project in Atlanta. Were 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 bitgave talks and things like that.
As a result, our reputation has taken off. We were noted in The
Wall Street Journal. Weve had notations in The Washington
Post. Now I get calls for speaking engagements. So it kind of has
a life of its own and were sort of riding the waves.
ALBERTS: The thing Im 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 theyre 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, Heres 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
What have been the toughest challenges?
KELSCH: 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 its not financially
feasible. Were 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 cant do it. But I think you can tweak LEED
to apply. You dont have to do central energy management if
thats not appropriate for high-rise residential. But you can
do so many other things. Working with them has been a plodding process.
Internally, whats frustrating is that the Arlington Economic
Development Depart-ment has not jumped onboard. They are still on
a learning curve. They dont use this as a marketing tool for
ALBERTS: 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.
Were enthusiasticwe want the world to move rapidly,
but its 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 developers side. But, what I see today, as opposed
to three or four years ago, is a tremendous movement toward green.
KELSCH: 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 theyve 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 dont get the building as green as they want, that
architect now understands LEED and its part of his vocabulary.
Its a wonderful victory for Arlington and the green building
Tell us about Arlingtons smart growth practices.
ALBERTS: What weve 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 were getting different kinds of villages. Im
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. Well have a lot of walk-in
and bicycle activity. Were sharing parking approaches and
so forth for those who do have to drive in. Yet, its got the
completeness of a small or medium-sized town. I think thats
KELSCH: Each Metro stop has its own little strip of stores
and restaurantsa 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. Its 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?
KELSCH: 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 environmentthe 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 thats important to the village conceptbeing able
to offer alternate forms of transportation for those who want it.
And the planning commision is commited to this?
KELSCH: 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 were the poster child.
Is Arlington a role model for other counties
that are just starting their environmental activism?
KELSCH: I hope were 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
were doing, yet it has a well-known residential green building
program. I talked to a community in Oklahoma. Ive talked with
Alexandria, Fairfax. Ive 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 thats
hard to work around. Yet there are always things you can do; you
dont 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, were providing that
ALBERTS: Serving as a role model
doesnt 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
everybodys expectations at the same time.
Arlington is home to many government agencies
and well-known corporations. Do you work with them to further your
KELSCH: First, Id like to note that the Pentagon
is in Arlington, and they have a very vibrant, active, forward-thinking
rebuilding program. They dont 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 Ive gotten several phone calls
from businesses in Arlington who want to have Earth Day events.
Theyve heard about green buildings and they want a presentation
on it for their corporate Earth Day afternoon fair. Its 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 its right for them. So its slow, but I
think were getting there.
Are some development projects better handled
by the private sector rather than the county?
KELSCH: Smart growth is definitely a holistic approach.
The government can lead and provide guidance, but its 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.
ALBERTS: Arlington has long been built out. What growth
we have now is, in effect, redevelopment. That means density. It
also means, and Im experiencing this in literally every project
that Im 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,
its 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,
weve 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
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 cant
do that anymore. This building is a good example. Weve got
180,000pretty soon 200,000square feet of county office
space here. We dont own it. We own the ground under it. We
collect taxes on it. We dont 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
KELSCH: 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
dont want more density because then you dont have enough
amenitieselevators get jammed, theres not enough parking.
It starts to look like Manhattan and nobody wants that. So, if the
private side overbuilds, then theyll 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 spaceeven
if its green space? It may turn out that its not
that much space, and weve made good arguments for it. We have
to be very careful not to overdo it or well sink under our