One More Step in the Missing Middle Drama

More than 180 speakers on Saturday, more on Tuesday.

Christian Dorsey, Chair of the Arlington County Board, moved on to Item 33 on the Board agenda Saturday, Jan. 21. It was the next step in the Missing Middle Housing Plan, the action to request authorized advertisement of a future public hearing on the proposed changes to general land use plan as well as the Arlington County Zoning Ordinance to effectively effectuate expanded options for dwelling types in R 5, R6 R 8, R10 and R20 housing districts. 

In simple terms, an action required by the County before moving forward on the Missing Middle proposal.


Missing Middle Housing is defined as housing choices between single family housing and high rise apartments. The efforts to review missing middle housing and whether and how it might work for Arlington began with the announcement on Dec. 18, 2019 of a three-phase study. Since then it has involved research, community conversations and public meetings and has generated more heated public debate than Arlington has seen since the streetcar debate in 2014.

As Dorsey looked around the room at the “Yes to Diversity,” “Protect the Tree Canopy” and “No Missing Middle” signs, he commented that the use of any non-audible signs to signify approval or applause was acceptable. “But if you are displeased, I invite you to suffer in silence so we can proceed judiciously.” 

It was 10:55 a.m. and the county clerk reported they had a list of 198 speakers who had requested time on the topic. Dorsey announced he planned to recess by 6 p.m. and five minutes meant five minutes so heed the 30-second audible warning chime. 

The first speaker was against allowing the Board to advertise and the last speaker of the day was for moving ahead. The hours in between were filled with arguments against lack of planning, potential destruction of the tree canopy, environmental impact and developer behavior and arguments for diversity, availability of more housing options and affordability. 

Speaker number one was Elinor Schwartz, a former Arlington Planning Commission chair and 10-year member who spoke against the proposal. She pointed out Arlington is almost entirely built out so this initiative depends on teardown of housing that may be more affordable, better constructed and have more bedrooms than their replacements. “The issue is affordability and it depends on the tear downs where construction costs will swamp affordability.”

Many hours later, speaker number 181 was Julius J.D. Spain, a 13-year Penrose resident in a single family home in an African-American neighborhood. He was the last speaker before the Board cut off for the day, moving the final 18 speakers to the Tuesday night Board meeting. Spain said he supports the proposal to move forward. “We are setting an example for others to follow. We should outlaw discriminatory housing and allow us to connect. This is a step in the right direction which I fully support.”

In between speakers such as Kit Norland asked how the proposal takes into account the environment that impacts every resident at every income level. She points out the current alarm at the loss of trees on private property, adding that the proposal threatens the tree canopy and reduces the quality of life.

Natalie Roy, a Lyon Park resident for 32 years, commented we need to do more to create diversity but there are no clear goals with this plan. “We should have explored, collected more data, evaluated the impact of this sweeping proposal.” She pointed out that currently the framework plan places its hopes on developers. “I do not find that credible.” She suggested a pilot project to evaluate impact and outcomes. 

Others such as Richard Engel criticized the process. “The process by which we make decisions is as important as the decision itself.” He said the County Board and staff failed to do due diligence in determining the actual cost and price impact on neighborhoods. Another speaker commented that the proposal had advanced quietly and under the radar during the pandemic.

Ann Holsinger expressed her support. “I want more people to be able to enjoy what Arlington offers.” She said there are few options between their current two bedroom condo and multi-million dollar houses. “I want more options for families like ours.” 

The next speaker Kathleen Willis opposes the proposal which “tears at the fabric of our neighborhood. Over-development of our neighborhoods will not bring down prices.”

Just as the day was winding down, Hank Street, a Planning Commissioner for 10 years, said, “The Arlington Way is all about consensus. What have you heard here today? Discordance. We’re acting as if there is a denial of the Arlington Way.”

Eighteen speakers had agreed to hold their remarks until the Tuesday Board Meeting where the debate will continue — yes or no, why or why not.

Dorsey said it will be two months before consideration of the amendments enabling everyone to understand which of the amendments in the staff report or the Board will be considered. A final vote is expected in March.

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