By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 2, 2006; VA20
In nearly a dozen civic forums and debates in Arlington this election season, the two challengers looking to unseat County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman (D) on Tuesday have said that residents routinely raise concerns about the rising cost of living in the county, one of the most affluent in the region, and its lack of affordable housing.
In challenging Zimmerman, a 10-year veteran of the board who is also a member of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board, Republican Michael T. McMenamin and Green Party candidate Joshua F. Ruebner have tried to present themselves as voices for those overlooked in the county’s recent development boom.
Ruebner, an activist, says he would represent those in lower-income brackets who are being squeezed out by luxury redevelopment, particularly around Columbia Pike. McMenamin, a lawyer and president of the Maywood Community Association, says he will speak up for neighborhoods he believes are being given short shrift in the wake of the county’s recent spate of expensive building projects.
McMenamin said that taxes and affordable housing are the major issues facing the county, where property values have more than doubled in recent years and the county has lost nearly 10,000 affordable apartments.
“People are worried about diversity here in Arlington, and people want to make sure there’s enough affordable housing,” McMenamin said. “It’s happening to the middle class, too; people are being forced out because of higher property taxes.”
McMenamin has also waged a campaign against what he sees as wasteful county spending — particularly on such pricey projects as the $135 million-plus North Tract recreational complex slated for an area north of Crystal City. He also frequently cites two projects for which millions of dollars in bonds have been approved by voters but have not yet been built — a new fire station for Cherrydale and a library for the Westover neighborhood.
McMenamin says that county officials have invested too much in luxury projects such as North Tract at the expense of money for neighborhood improvements such as traffic-calming, storm drainage and street repairs.
Ruebner, a grass-roots coordinator for an organization that advocates Palestinian causes, says he was inspired to run for the board as a Green Party candidate during the fight this spring to save affordable apartments at historic Buckingham Village, home to many low-income residents and immigrants.
He has accused the current all-Democrat County Board, including Zimmerman, of being too friendly to developers and too interested in “gentrifying” the county of 197,000, which is the sixth most affluent in the nation among counties of its size, according to U.S. Census data.
Ruebner has been particularly critical of development planned for the diverse Columbia Pike corridor — where he lives in a small townhouse — including a $120 million plan for a streetcar line that critics say will clog traffic and be little improvement over a bus system.
“In my campaign, I’ve called for a halt to overdevelopment, and that message has resonated with people,” Ruebner said.
In recent weeks Ruebner also has knocked the Arlington County Democratic Committee for taking $7,800 in donations from real estate developers this year. Chairman Peter Rousselot said the money went to operating expenses for the office and not for campaign literature for Zimmerman and other candidates.
Zimmerman, known as one of the board’s strongest advocates for affordable housing, scoffed at Ruebner’s charges.
“Anybody who has actually been involved in county affairs would find that amusing. The truth is I don’t take developer contributions,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman said that during his 10 years on the board he was most proud of advances made in preserving affordable housing in the county — more than 6,000 affordable apartments have been saved — in recent years and improving transit and pedestrian options for residents. The county’s ART bus system, created five years ago, has a million riders a year, Zimmerman said.