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Managing Regional Growth Takes Spotlight in Providence Dems Debate

The Providence District is growing rapidly — in no small part because of Tysons — but a recurring theme at the debate between the Democrats running for the Board of Supervisors is that growth is leaving many in the area behind.

During a forum on April 1 at Jackson Middle School, the five candidates running to replace Supervisor Linda Smyth found themselves mainly in agreement on issues like affordable housing and Amazon coming to Arlington, though the solutions and concerns varied between candidates.

On affordable housing, School Board member Dalia Palchik said Fairfax County should be doing more to turn office vacancy into affordable housing.

“Other jurisdictions [are doing more] to repurpose offices into mixed-use housing,” Palchik said. “I want to make sure we are able to do it.”

Palchik also noted that Fairfax County’s affordable housing fund is only around $7 million while neighboring Arlington’s is around $25 million, though others like former Vienna Town Council Member Edythe Kelleher were more direct in saying the County may need a tax increase to pay for more affordable housing.

“It all starts with housing affordability,” said Kelleher. “People’s other burdens are related to that. I recommend another full penny [on the tax rate] for affordable housing.”

Erika Yalowitz, a candidate from the Tysons area, said the County might need to increase the tax rate by two or three pennies specifically to meet affordable housing needs. Yalowitz also said the County needed to do more to help make rezoning for potential residential properties easier.

Linh Hoang, a fairly new candidate to the race, said the County should do more to work with local churches and build on church properties.

Only Phil Niedzielski-Eichner, who currently represents the Providence District on the Planning Commission, urged some caution on how increasing the tax burden could inadvertently impact residents most in need of assistance.

“It’s resolvable through creativity and innovative investments,” said Niedzielski-Eichner. “I like the ideas I’ve heard from my colleagues… but when we talk about increasing cost of taxes on homeowners, we have to bear in mind that there are homeowners who no longer have income coming in and they see property values increasing. There needs to be an attention paid to having those individuals cap their taxes.”

Niedzielski-Eichner noted that the crisis of affordable housing in Tysons was driven partially by an increasingly high demand — and cost — of land in the area.

It’s a topic that came up again when the discussion focused on a Fairfax County Public Schools plan to potentially build a new elementary school on Blake Lane Park near Vienna. All of the candidates, including Palchik, expressed doubts about the prospect.

“I understand the needs of schools but do not support building a school on Blake Lane Park,” Yalowitz said. “When a park is gone, it’s gone for good. Building onto parks is not the best way to build sustainable growth.”

Kelleher said that the site was proffered 42 years ago to be used as a school one day, but that it has since been used by the public as a park and should only be used as a school as an absolute last resort.

Finally, all of the candidates expressed a cautious enthusiasm for Amazon’s announcement of a large new office campus in Arlington.

“I think it’s really exciting that Amazon is coming to our region,” Hoang said. “It’s going to spur economic development, but we need to work with jurisdiction to bring those good jobs here.”

Niedzielski-Eichner said Amazon’s arrival was part of an essential economic diversification for an area he sees as overly reliant on the federal government for the vitality of the economy. But Niedzielski-Eichner also argued that the company’s arrival also puts lapses in the area’s infrastructure planning in the spotlight.

“But when we talk about growth, have to do it smart,” Niedzielski-Eichner said. “We have too wide a gap between when projects are approved and the infrastructure is built to support that project. Need to narrow the gap between development and infrastructure.”

Palchik also tied the question of Amazon’s impact in with earlier discussions on affordable housing.

“It will impact our economy but it will create new challenges,” Palchik said, “especially on the eastern side of Providence and especially when it comes to affordable housing.”

The primary will be held on June 11. The final voter registration deadline is on May 20.

Photo via Twitter

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