Arlington Pedestrian Advocates Slam County COVID Response, Sidewalk Emergency Ordinance

Street Justice Newsletter: Vol 2, Edition 96 (8/20/2020)

Arlington Pedestrian Advocates Slam COVID-19 Walking Response and Anti-Pedestrian (?) Emergency Ordinance

“The response that we got back from the County Manager’s Office and senior County leadership was that pedestrians are not a priority, said Eric Goldstein, Chair of Arlington County’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee (PAC), during the group’s first virtual meeting last week. “That’s almost a direct quote if not a direct quote. They were rather blunt about that.”

Goldstein was recounting efforts over several months by leaders of the County’s official citizen advisories and community groups to re-purpose road space for greater pedestrian health and comfort during COVID-19’s imperative for 6 foot-gaps between passersby. Members of Arlington’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committees are the most committed, knowledgable, and politically-connected advocates for safer streets. Arlington’s five County Board members and County Manager are supposed to take under serious advisement the recommendations of these folks.

“[The County Manager’s Office and senior County leadership] indicated that they do not have the resources to help make the street safer for pedestrians at this time,” Goldstein continued. “Their attention, to the extent they did have resources, were going to be focused elsewhere on supporting businesses over supporting a safe street network for pedestrians.”

The Pedestrian and Bike Advisories were disallowed by the County from meeting and taking official actions since the beginning of COVID-19. Kicking off the discussion last Wednesday night with his PAC colleagues to contemplate an official response to this blunt rebuke, Goldstein said: “I imagine this is not going to be the last time that we face circumstances where we do, in a rather urgent manner, need space for pedestrians beyond what the sidewalk provides. I would hope that we can become more flexible as a County and more adaptable.”

“It was disappointing … to basically be told by the County I live in that my safety does not matter more, or at least as much, as the businesses that exist on the ground floor of my apartment building,” said PAC Vice-Chair Chris Yarie. “The lack of a response and leadership coming from the County Manager’s office since the beginning of this pandemic. Especially around transportation-related issues … it has been absolutely demoralizing, awful, and inexcusable.”

It "seems like this will be impossible in most of the County without pushIng pedestrians into walking in the street," wrote Christine Ng, a resident from Shirlington, in the PAC listserv. "In my neighborhood, the restaurants have taken over the entire sidewalk with tables and the property management company removed a parking lane to make a new protected “sidewalk.”  It’s been working pretty well but still hard to keep 6’ from others."

Prolifically-engaged walking advocate and PAC member Pamela Van-Hine mentioned that her Aurora Highlands Civic Association co-wrote with the Crystal City Civic Association a follow-up letter to Arlington’s County Manager after the executive rebuked initial requests for greater road width re-purposed for safe, pandemic-era walking. She mentioned that letter had specific suggestions. “As far as I know, we didn’t even get a response. So, I’m as disgusted as Chris [Yarie] is about this.”

Ms. Van-Hine added that she sees the diminution of pedestrian safety during COVID-19 as connected with a broadly-written emergency ordinance the County Board passed unanimously on July 31st to restrict pedestrian gatherings on Arlington sidewalks and other public spaces. The ordinance came swiftly after pictures of dining and nightlife patrons went viral on social media where few wore masks and nearly none appeared to be socially distant. The Board has “ indicated that the purpose of [this change] was to deal with crowds waiting to enter establishments such as bars in Clarendon but have not taken any effort to make it such that people *can* be on the sidewalk *without* congregating.”

The connection between the two issues is that Arlington's leadership has spent almost six months now doing nothing to increase space for safe walking, sitting, and biking while they’ve reacted quickly, without public notice, to restrict the already limited pre-existing public space. “The Arlington Way” of four-dozen official citizen advisory groups, working groups, plus the network of Civic Associations, was shut off from their feedback and input channels. Arlington is not unique during COVID-19, DC-area governments in seeming to prioritize businesses rather than space, safety, and health for residents people. However, Arlington County has done less than perhaps any other peer jurisdiction in the DMV. The County did little more than change some curbside parking spots for Pick-Up/Drop-Off/Delivery, something even Loudoun County did.

Chris Slatt, citizen Chair of Arlington’s Transportation Commission, mentioned that the Commission will be taking up debate and a recommendation to the County Board on this measure during their August 27th virtual meeting. Slatt wrote a column in Arlington Now opposing this emergency ordinance and was joined in opposition — somewhat surprisingly — by conservative ArlNow columnist Mark Kelly.

The Arlington County Board duct-taped the congregating ordinance onto the County’s jaywalking ordinance. The addition must be debated at a public legislative meeting of the Board to be formally added to the law. All five Arlington County Board members are At-Large, so interested stakeholders should send emails to all of them. Chair Libby Garvey has not permitted a fulsome airing of all resident stakeholder public comments during the Board’s virtual meetings.

During that Transportation Commission meeting and the next few months of Arlington County Board meetings, there may be opportunities — with enough stakeholder lobbying — to do much more on these issues. This reporter has observed zero input from public health officials except for comments supporting greater pedestrian space. Strikingly, just like in leadership decision-making in the District, the public health officials aren’t called upon to discuss how fewer lanes for cars is probably needed to keep us all safer.

“The ordinance is very narrowly tailored: It only applies to streets with a posted notice. As yet, no signs have yet been posted,” wrote one County Board member to Street Justice. “The goal of the new ordinance is to help bring seriousness to, and resolve, the outdoor crowding issues resulting from queuing for drinking at restaurants in very limited areas of Arlington, and we’re all hopeful that this first round of education and outreach will obviate any need to enforce the ordinance by ticketing anyone.”

“The new ordinance does not apply to people walking. It’s only for people congregating and standing in groups for extended periods of time,” said a representative from the County Manager’s office. “Temporary street reconfigurations and closures require staff resources and enforcement at a time when staffing levels have been reduced or reprioritized to support COVID-related operations.”

Changes like widened sidewalks, “slow streets,” pandemic-protected bike lanes, etc have all been ruled out by Arlington County Police. Public comments by Police representatives, the County Manager, and several senior County leaders assume the need for “an army” of police officers to enforce the tactical-urbanism designs and millions of dollars in new barriers and other traffic furniture. Like with NYC, deference to dragnet-style deployment ideas from police nix the feasibility of public space changes that would actually give Arlingtonians adequate space to socially distance. Street Justice has had several off the record conversations with influential players on all sides of this discussion in Arlington to confirm this description.

In other news…

Arlington County adopted a budget for the FY2021 beginning August 1st which removed almost all of the proposed increases in operating funds for departments like Transportation. However, according to Pedestrian Advisory Chair Eric Goldstein, the new budget kept $300,000 for a new Sidewalk Audit program. Goldstein was relaying that info from a call between Arlington’s County Manager and Chairs of citizen advisory groups like the PAC. Bike Advisory Chair Gillian Burgess confirms after conversations with relevant Arlington agencies. Arlington does similar audits for road surfaces and area government authorities do such evaluations less frequently for off-street bike/walk trails.

Instead of Arlington’s normal every-two-year capital budgeting process, the County quickly passed a one-year Capital Improvement Plan that continued the course of pre-existing and “essential” spending. We use the scare quotes because a new stormwater management plan was passed in that CIP which equity advocates argue disproportionately benefits already-privileged single-family homeowners instead of the majority of Arlinngtonians who live in multi-family housing.

Future capital budgeting plans aren’t finalized, but ArlCo PAC Chair Goldstein mentioned his assumption is that the County will do CIP processes again next year and the year after (the normal 2-year CIP year). It’s the COVID-19 era, so who knows. We mention it because Arlington did NOT budget for more concrete to fix broken sidewalks identified in the aforementioned audit of sidewalk conditions. County staff has put the materials cost to fix sidewalks on the list for future capital budgets.

Arlington’s Vision Zero Task Force has been on hold since the beginning of COVID-19, with hoped-for meetings in May and July canceled. The working group of pre-existing citizen and staff advisory groups devising a Vision Zero action plan per 2019 County Board resolution is set to meeting virtually on September 10th. PAC Chair Eric Goldstein predicted that Action Plan will probably arrive in early 2021.

Arlington’s Site Plan Review Committee (SPRC) began operating virtually earlier this summer before the citizen advisories got up and running online. According to PAC representative on the SPRC Pamela Van Hine, they’re receiving public comment volume many more times the usual amount because the Committee is placing developer and County staff presentations online for open comments over several days. Van Hine has followed two Crystal City projects, including 101 12th Street which received 100+ comments from residents. PAC’s second representative on SPRC, Ian Blackwell, mentioned the project he’s following in Rossyln is also getting high public comment volume due to increased accessibility of developer proposals and the means to comment virtually.

In September, Arlington’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committees are planning a joint meeting and inviting a presentation from the County’s new Deputy County Manager, Samia Byrd, who serves as Chief Race and Equity Officer.

New 📷 🎥🎙️ 📊

  • Multimedia Content Archive > 2020

  • RAW AUDIO - ArlCo Pedestrian Advisory - 8.12.2020

  • RAW AUDIO - DC Bike Advisory Leg Committee - PART ONE - 8.17.2020

  • RAW AUDIO - DC Bike Advisory Leg Committee - PART TWO - 8.17.2020

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