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Woodbury Meets More Delays

Board asks for revisions to development that would increase county's affordable housing.

In the works for over a year, a plan to build new affordable housing units at Woodbury Park was delayed again last week. Considering the flaws in the proposal, that’s a good thing, said some affordable housing advocates.

“It’s not like there’s a rush on this,” said Count Board member Chris Zimmerman. “I think we’ve got a chance for a win-win here.”

After several hours of discussion Tuesday, Sept. 16, the County Board voted 4-1 to defer a site plan request that could bring 112 affordable housing units, along with 102 luxury condominiums, to the Woodbury Park area of Clarendon.

Planned by AHC, Inc., the Woodbury Park redevelopment would preserve existing affordable units and put two new nine-story buildings on what is now a parking lot. One building would 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.

“This is a very unique application that is all about affordable housing,” said Tim Sampson, an attorney representing AHC.

OPPOSITION TO AFFORDABLE housing was not a problem for County Board members, or most of the 43 speakers at public comment session. Indeed, speakers repeatedly said they did not have a problem with bringing additional affordable housing to the site.

But at nine stories, the new buildings would dwarf the surrounding homes and garden-style apartment buildings, residents said. The issue came down to whether the proposal meshed with other plans for the area, like the Clarendon Sector Plan and the Clarendon-Courthouse Neighborhood Conservation Plan.

Those plans call for a gradual tapering of building height in the area, which sits just south of Fairfax Drive and is often seen as a transition area between the higher-density development of Clarendon and the surrounding neighborhoods.

“Our idea of tapering is not having a building 32 feet away from another building that’s three times as tall,” said Kristine Wood, a member of the Clarendon-Courthouse neighborhood conservation committee.

Deferral of the application sent a message, Wood said, that neighborhood conservation planning was important and could not be ignored, even when dealing with affordable housing.

“Sometimes the need for affordable housing … perhaps competes with other needs,” said Lewis Bromberg, chair of the neighborhood conservation advisory committee, and one of several residents who said the plan conflicted with established development plans.

PERHAPS NOT ENOUGH focus on affordable housing was the problem. “I question whether 60 percent of median is appropriately call ‘affordable,’” said local resident Ronnie Freeman. “I don’t think that 60 percent, or even 50 percent really targets the truly needy in our community.”

In the Washington, D.C-area, affordable housing is allocated based on a comparison with the average median income for a family of four, which in 2002 was $91,500 according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. So most prospective renters would need a combined income of $54,400 or less to qualift for the “affordable” units.

Zimmerman said the very nature of the proposal was “troubling.” Complete focus on affordable housing would have yielded a significant number of three-bedroom units, which better accommodate working families, the Board member said.

But economic factors prohibited the developer from planning three-bedroom units. Of the approximately 42,000 affordable units in the county, fewer than 1,600 are larger than one-bedroom.

“So much of this project, as it is presented here, is driven by not the affordable-housing part of it,” said Zimmerman, “but by the desire to be able to make a certain amount of money selling what are essentially upscale condominiums.”

SUPPORTERS OF THE project focused on the affordable housing component. Former Board member Ellen Bozman came to the meeting to endorse the plan. “I’m a strong supporter of this project,” she said.

The development would not conflict with the neighborhood conservation plan or the sector plan, she said, partly because it would require no zoning changes.

Board members Barbara Favola and Jay Fisette agreed. “The request for nine stories, at least in my mind, is in no way out of line with what our stated policies are for providing bonus density to achieve affordable housing,” said Favola.

“I have not heard that the proposal is inconsistent with a reasonable interpretation of the plan,” said Fisette. “That doesn’t mean it’s the best proposal, or that it doesn’t need to be adjusted, or that the height is right or wrong.”

ULTIMATELY, BOARD MEMBERS deferred the proposal to the October 4 meeting. Deferral doesn’t mean the 15-month planning process failed, said Zimmerman, who has seen other projects come before the board with a number of issues still unresolved. “That often is what happens when you have an applicant that is really anxious and committed to going forward with their project,” he said.

The hope is that AHC can adjust their plans to address neighborhood concerns and possibly focus more on the affordable units and less on the market-rate condominiums.

Reducing parking spaces could save money on construction costs, Zimmerman argued, which could cut down on the number of luxury condominiums needed to make the financing plan succeed.

AHC initially resisted requests to cut down on parking because doing so would make it harder to secure loans to finance the project.