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New Deal for Woodbury Park

After major changes, board approves affordable housing plan.

After more than a year of planning, two more weeks is small change. But two more weeks of planning brough major changes to a plan for new affordable housing in Clarendon, changes that county officials found controversial but ultimately acceptable.

After voting for deferral two weeks before, county board members voted unanimously on Saturday, Oct. 4, to approve revised plans for new affordable housing and luxury condominiums on what is now a parking lot at Woodbury Park.

In their Sept. 16 vote, board members asked the developer to reconsider the plans because of concerns over parking, building aesthetics and a lack of three-bedroom units.

In lengthy deliberations that pushed nearly to the start of last weekend’s county board meeting, county staffers and developer AHC, Inc., made changes to address some of those concerns. But when the plan came to the board for approval, some said the changes hurt the goal of providing the best affordable housing.

Initially, the proposal called for two nine-story buildings. One was to hold 102 market-rate condominiums, proceeds from which would allow the 112 units in the second building to be rented at prices deemed affordable for residents earning 60 percent of the region’s median family income, $91,500 in 2002. Most prospective renters would need a combined income of $54,400 or less to qualift for the “affordable” units.

Board member Barbara Favola supported the original plan and said last-minute changes placed aesthetics over affordable housing. “If we keep picking it apart, we’re going to end up with mush,” she said.

Fellow Board member Chris Zimmerman cautioned that observers should see the debate for what it was — commitment to detail, not a lack of confidence with the plan.

Board member Jay Fisette agreed. “We have two very doable opions,” he said. “Either one is a winning project.”

FLOURESCENT “YES” STICKERS, signifying support for affordable housing, adorned the shirts of almost all the 35 speakers at Saturday’s board meeting. But there was still plenty of disagreement. By cutting out part of the upper stories for aesthetic reasons, late changes reduced the number of new affordable units from 112 to 108.

The original plan called for no contributions from the county’s Affordable Housing Investment Fund. Financial projections for the new plan are shaky : while county staffers believe AHC can complete the project without AHIF funds, AHC isn’t so sure. If the project goes over-budget, the county will absorb at least some additional cost.

“It seems to me that it loses us units, it loses us dollars,” said Charlie Rinker, an affordable housing activist.

Two weeks ago, Ellen Bozman, a former county board member, spoke in support of the plan, and she came back Saturday to reaffirm that support. Aesthetic changes were minimal, she said, and didn’t make up for the reduction in affordable units.

It’s far from a perfect development proposal, board members said, but they were willing to make exceptions for the sake of affordable housing. The new buildings will include 8,500 square feet of office space, inconsistent with the Clarendon-Courthouse Sector Plan. But board members said the offices would ensure AHC has an active place in the county in the future.

If the site plan had not been designed to provide affordable housing, the outcome could have been quite different. “I don’t know that we would have recommended approval of it at this scale,” said County Manager Ron Carlee.

BOARD MEMBERS ALSO approved a transportation incentive pilot project for the development. County funds will help pay for residents of the new affordable housing units to take Metro. Board members hope the project will encourage residents not to own cars and instead take public transportation. If successful, the pilot could become a permanent addition to the county budget, with dollars coming from the general fund as part of the transportation initiative.

It’s unlikely to work, said Eric Gutshall, president of the nearby Lyon Park Civic Association. There’s not even a grocery store within walking distance of the new building site, which means residents will almost have to have cars. Besides that, it’s troubling that the market rate condos received plenty of parking in the approved site plan, while the affordable units had the transportation incentive plan “dumped on it,” Gutshall said.