It’s the old adage, Robert Ryland said, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Ryland, a trustee and 15-year member of the First Baptist Church of Clarendon, looks at what the church has done for the community: day care, meeting space for Alcoholics Anonymous and others, community youth groups, for community closets and community pantries.
“We’ve given everything,” he said. But when the church comes to the community, seeking approval for a development project, trustees get only cold shoulders, Ryland said.
Trustees and church members are looking at developing the church at 1210 N. Highland St. as a means to fund some of the programs offered by the 95-year-old congregation. At the same time, Ryland said, they thought they could do some good for the community with construction of an apartment building on the church site, a building with almost half of its apartments dedicated as affordable housing.
Those plans ran into opposition from the church’s neighbors in the Lyon Village community, opposition that has dealt a delay, if not a setback, to the church. “The building they’re proposing is the most expensive form of construction you can put on that site,” and will dwarf nearby houses, said Bill Gearhart, president of the Lyon Village Civic Association.
County Board members were set to consider the church project, including building plans and a rezoning request, at their July 10 meeting. But on Monday night, Planning Commissioners decided not to vote on those plans until September, after listening to almost 40 speakers offer their comments on the church, pro and con. The decision effectively delays County consideration of the plans until at least late September.
At their June 26 meeting, County Board members acknowledged that dissent in the community would probably delay their discussion of the church’s plans. But they also discussed possible votes supporting the aims of the project at their July meeting.
Delays won’t sway church plans, Ryland said. “The people of this church are fully behind this concept. We’ve explored our options. This is the best around, the best for us and the best for the community.”
But a vote against the church won’t stop change, he said. “It would be disheartening to the congregation, but there are other options, and the community won’t like them.”
<b>A FOUR-STORY</b> church with a prominent steeple, First Baptist stands only a half block from the Clarendon Metro station. Church leaders estimate that the costs of running the church, in its current state, would eat up funding for the church’s day care center and other services. “We spend a huge percentage of our budget on upkeep. This is very inefficient,” said Ryland.
“We have the largest day care center in Arlington,” serving nearly 200 children a day, he said. “We had to expand after another nearby closed.”
That mission could be jeopardized if the church stays the way it is now, Ryland said, so the congregation and trustees looked for a new way to bankroll First Baptist’s role in the community.
Working with non-profit developer Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, the church developed plans to put a 10-story building in the church space. It would include a two-story church, along with eight floors of apartments containing 118 units.
Rent collected from those units would help pay for the church upkeep, day care and other missions, Ryland said. Still, he said, “We’re not about making money,” so church leaders were interested in including affordable housing in the plans. Of the 118 apartments, 53, or 45 percent, would be dedicated for 30 years as affordable housing. These 53 apartments would be priced to be available to low-income families — specifically, families that make 60 percent or less than the area’s median income. In the D.C. region, that means a family of four would qualify with a combined annual income of $51,000 or less.
Those types of apartments are dearly needed in Clarendon, Ryland said. “I am cognizant that this is a county not everyone can afford to move into,” he said.
To fund those apartments, APAH is seeking around $3.5 million from the county’s affordable housing investment fund, just over 10 percent of the project’s $30 million price tag.
<b>PRESENTING THEIR PLANS</b> to neighbors and county planners, the church made some concessions. In discussions with the county’s historic affairs and landmark review board, chair Nancy Iacomini asked developers to do more to let the church’s steeple stand out, changes that were incorporated into plans.
Also, initially, APAH and First Baptist had planned a 12-story building with close to 150 units and the same ratio of affordable housing.
In initial meetings with Lyon Village neighbors, the community said that was too tall, and the church cut two floors off their plans. “Maybe we should have gone in and asked for 16 floors, but that’s not our style,” said Ryland.
That wouldn’t have solved the problem, said Gearhart. “Our key concern is the building height, and the impact on the neighborhood.”
Development has brought tall buildings to Clarendon, but not to the neighborhoods of single family houses within a few blocks of the Metro corridor. “There are other, taller buildings in Clarendon,” Gearhart said. “But not within 165 feet of residential zoning.”
The church plans would have required a rezoning action by the county, changing the church land from residential to commercial zoning necessary for apartments but also for retail and business offices.
Gearhart also pointed to the $3.5 million that APAH is seeking in county funding for the project. A smaller building, he said, would not require such an investment of public money.
“We suggested that if the church wants to tear down the structure and build a new church, they can build a structure on the site with three levels of affordable housing,” said Gearhart.
<b>AS WORD OF</b> the plans spread among neighbors, and opposition began, rumors spread too. Neighbors said the church was pursuing other goals. “There’s a thing going around that we’re only doing this for church purposes,” Ryland said, though he wasn’t sure what that meant.
Meanwhile Lyon Village residents said they’ve heard rumors that they’re being called elitists, opposed to affordable housing.
“I can’t say they’re against affordable housing, because I don’t know,” Ryland said, but pointed to community support for a 12-story luxury apartment building closer to the Metro station.
That’s farther from Lyon Village, Gearhart said, and doesn’t indicate anything about residents’ views on affordable housing.
“In a meeting we had back in April, there was … any number of statements from people in the audience saying, ‘I understand and support the efforts to create affordable housing,’” Gearhart said. “But this is the wrong way to go about it.”
At the county level, Board members have held several one-on-one meetings with developers and residents leading up to a July 10 deferral.
“We’re working hard on a resolution,” said Board Chair Barbara Favola. “There are going to be extremists on both sides of any argument. But sometimes, to achieve a public goal, you can’t just do things only when it’s convenient.”