The financial control board will no doubt nudge the cash-strapped District of Columbia toward financial solvency, but federal lawmakers could quickly accomplish the same ends with a simple piece of legislation: All they need do is comply with the wishes of the nation’s First Congress and restore D.C. to its original diamond configuration, annexing the land that today comprises Arlington and part of Alexandria.
The congressional agreement that set the capital city’s original boundaries in 1789 called for the seat of government to be built along the Potomac River. Maryland and Virginia agreed to relinquish property for government use, and George Washington appointed three commissioners to scope out an appropriate site not to exceed 10 miles square.
On March 15, 1791, at Alexandria’s Jones Point, Pennsylvania surveyor Andrew Ellicott set the first of the 2-foot-high boundary stones that would establish the District’s diamond-shaped outline. But at President Washington’s insistence, the federal government was built on the Maryland side of the river, leaving nearby Virginia merchants with little business—except, perhaps, a thriving slave trade, which put them at odds with their northern neighbors. By 1842, Alexandria stood on the brink of fiscal ruin. When a congressional bailout failed to materialize, the city’s residents petitioned for retrocession to Virginia. Congress complied—much to the chagrin of Washington’s city council, which feared this would be the first step toward undermining the well-being of the nation’s capital—and in 1846, a third of the District was returned to the Old Dominion. Abraham Lincoln later urged Congress to reannex the land, but to no avail.
It’s time for Congress to redress the blunder of its predecessors and restore the District’s original boundaries—an action that would slash the city’s deficit and make D.C. an economic powerhouse.
By incorporating Alexandria and Arlington, the District would not only reap a financial windfall but offset its recent out-migration, bolster its tax base, improve its demographics, augment its commercial and manufacturing sectors, and add valuable services and facilities. (Coming up with precise numbers on many of these counts is difficult, since Alexandria’s borders spill south and west of the original District boundary, and revenue and census figures naturally include the entire city. But those portions of Alexandria beyond the original diamond boundary generally include its less-desirable neighborhoods, which D.C. doesn’t want anyway.)
The most recent census data puts Arlington’s population at more than 170,000 and Alexandria’s at over 111,000, which means the District would immediately increase its current population (606,900) by at least one-third. And what a financial boost those new residents would provide: Alexandria ranks 10th in the nation in per-capita income ($31,699), and Arlington ranks 17th ($30,242). Both jurisdictions have highly educated residents—Arlington has the nation’s third-highest percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree, while Alexandria ranks seventh—and both rank in the top 20 for median value of owner-occupied homes. That translates into millions of dollars in additional real estate tax revenues.
Only 4.3 percent of Arlington’s families and 4.6 percent of Alexandria’s live below the poverty level (compared with 13.3 percent of District families), so the human services burden will not appreciate dramatically. At the same time, 22.1 percent of Arlington households and 18.1 percent of Alexandria’s have incomes of $75,000 or more—well above the District’s 14.2 percent, which adds a wide-ranging pool of well-to-do residents. Arlington is home to more than 1,200 retail establishments and Alexandria boasts another 1,000, collectively accounting for some $2.4 billion in taxable annual sales. With an average of more than one car per household in both jurisdictions, the additional revenues from licensing fees would net the city a few million dollars annually and perhaps 10 times that in parking-enforcement revenues, as an expanded army of ticket-writers fans out over 30-plus square miles of new, prime territory.
Restoring the original boundary would make the District home to the Pentagon, which means the city would instantly become a major force within the military-industrial complex. The soon-to-be-refurbished National Airport would also be within the city, and D.C.’s aviation-related businesses would include such heavyweights as USAir, MCI Telecommunications, Bell Atlantic, PRC, CACI, and American Management Systems. Various smaller high-tech firms and Beltway bandits would make D.C. a veritable cloverleaf interchange on the information superhighway. Old Town would give D.C. another trendy neighborhood and virtual control of Potomac riverbanks. Add Gannett and Time Life Books to the Washington Post Co., and D.C. becomes media central.
The Fashion Center at Pentagon City, one of the nation’s most successful shopping malls, would generate a bundle of sales tax revenues for the city. The Army Navy Country Club and other desirable recreational facilities would lie within the city limits. Marymount would give the city another university, and Arlington’s fine public schools and libraries would raise the District’s overall standards. The city’s ailing health care system would be bolstered by such institutions as the Northern Virginia Doctors Hospital and the National Hospital for Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation.
Since the railroad yards near National Airport would now be within city boundaries, the crybabies in nearby neighborhoods who once opposed construction of the Redskins’ new stadium there would find their objections falling on deaf ears. (If they’re not willing to sacrifice for the good of the city, they’re welcome to move to someplace like Chantilly.) Jack Kent Cooke could build his skybox-filled stadium there, rather than in Laurel or Loudon, Md., and it could double as home to the baseball franchise that’s supposedly been promised to Northern Virginia. Futhermore, an office park could also be constructed in this location, along with the huge new convention center everyone’s been clamoring for. And because the Gannett building and other trans-Potomac structures already exceed the building-height restriction that has stifled economic growth downtown, developers in this part of town could build to 30 stories or more. That would mean even more office buildings and, no doubt, scads of white-collar businesses.
The addition of Arlington and Alexandria would significantly bolster the city’s white population, so members of Congress with racially inspired resistance to statehood—even while insisting their objections have more to do with such factors as land size—might now be inclined to sanction the creation of New Columbia. As a bona fide state, D.C. would receive additional federal dollars for such things as highway construction. More important, though, actual representation in Congress would undoubtedly make the city more attractive to newcomers, and that in turn would result in new-home construction and increased property values.
Of course, the annexation of Arlington and Alexandria would carry a price. Crystal City would be within the city limits, for one thing. And the voter rolls would include the likes of Larry King. The Freedom Forum would also have a District address, which means its work force would include USA Today founder and shameless self-promoter Al Neuharth. Also, Rep. Jim Moran’s choice congressional district would be legislated out of existence, giving more prominence and clout to Rep. Frank Wolfe, one of Congress’ most objectionable windbags.
But such minor nuisances are surely worth the price of financial solvency for our ailing city. As part of the bargain, D.C. would also get the Four Mile Run park system, some great Vietnamese restaurants near the Clarendon Metro station, and Upton Hill Regional Park, which has not only a batting cage and a swimming pool, but a miniature golf course with the world’s longest hole. Putt-putt may not solve the city’s financial woes, but it would go a long way toward bolstering its sagging morale.