After testimony from 100 local residents and a lengthy debate Saturday, the Arlington County Board approved a measure to fund renovations to the First Baptist Church of Clarendon to create 70 units of low-cost housing near Lyon Village.
Construction on The Views at Clarendon — a new 10-story structure integrating 116 total housing units, the church and its current ministry, and the Child Development Center, a daycare facility — is set to begin in July 2005. The project is expected to be completed within 18 months.
Controversy surrounding the church’s proposal erupted in July. Many in the Lyon Village neighborhood are angered at the prospect of a high rise building that will fracture the skyline.
“The First Baptist Church has always been a reassuring landmark,” said Virginia Martin, Lyon Village resident, to the board. “Imagine what a shock it was to hear that they were planning to build a 10-story apartment building on this site."
"There are plenty of apartments up and down Clarendon Boulevard," she said. "The image of another over-sized structure that would be just around the corner from our homes has upset many of us homeowners who are concerned this project will cause developers to cast an eager eye on our neighborhood.”
COUNTY ZONING LAWS state that buildings cannot be higher than 55 feet if they are within 165 feet of private homes.
To give First Baptist the go-ahead for the project, the board had to rezone part of the church’s property. It retained lower-density zoning along the back of the church property, creating a buffer between the site and the existing residential neighborhood.
“I am heart-sick at the prospect of living in the shadow of this 10-story monster,” said Joan Rohlfing, whose property is across the street from the site. “This should not be done at the expense of my neighborhood or my front yard."
The board approved a $4.5 million loan from Arlington's Affordable Housing Investment Fund to aid in the cost of construction, a loan that the church must repay at 3.5 percent interest. Many of those opposed to the loan, such as Steve Kauffman, called the County Board’s financial support of a church “unconstitutional,” an opinion seconded by a letter from the political action group Americans For Separation of Church and State.
The approved design will retain the church’s steeple. Kauffman, who collected 400 signatures on a petition of residents against the project, also said rezoning the site to meet the needs of the project could set a dangerous precedent.
“Once the genie of re-zoning is out of the bottle, it cannot be put back in,” Kauffman said. “Affordable housing, yes, but not at the cost of our neighborhood.”
Parking and handicapped accessibility was another issue raised by local residents. Many are concerned the influx of cars in the neighborhood will cause traffic problems. Robert Atkins said the 120-space parking facility is too small and has too little room designated for drivers with disabilities.
“There is no requirement for handicapped parking whatsoever in this agreement,” Atkins said. “This should have been caught earlier. One small dinner party in one unit of the 120 would fill all of these spaces.”
ADVOCATES OF AFFORDABLE housing in Arlington rallied to support the proposal, as did clergy from several Arlington churches and faith groups.
Of the 70 units labeled “affordable” within the complex, 64 units will be rented to families whose household income is 60 percent of the county’s median income, set at $52,200 for a family of four. Six units will be available for people making 50 percent of the median income, $43,500 for a family of four.
Housing rates in Arlington have long been considered too high by many residents and community activists. Naomi Klaus, chair of United Way's Arlington branch, said her group has identified affordable housing as the greatest community need in the county. Climbing rents caused the County Board to respond last year by passing guidelines mandating that affordable housing units must now be included in every new residential building constructed in the county.
“This project will be home to 70 families in Arlington who need this housing to stabilize their lives,” said Jennifer Denney on behalf of the Arlington Coalition for Affordable Housing.
Housing inside the Views consists of six three-bedroom apartments, 14 two-bedroom apartments, 28 one-bedroom units and 22 efficiencies. The height of the building is seven feet lower than the plan proposed in July and has two fewer apartments.
In a scathing indictment of the Lyon Village residents opposed to the proposal, Jon Antonelli, an Arlington resident and civic activist, said the motivation behind their protest had more to do with class than with zoning regulations.
“The real problem for these folks isn’t density, it’s the prospect of having poor people living in their neighborhood,” Antonelli said. “Maybe they should take some of that starch out of their sheets.
"It’s time for Lyon Village to do their part so that poor people don’t have to live in just South Arlington, but rather so they can live in all of the county.”
The Child Development Center, a daycare center currently housed on the site and set to be included in the renovations, now takes care of roughly 185 children, making it the largest daycare provider in the county. Many in favor of the projects said it would further solidify the center’s place in the community.
Alan Stanford, minister at First Baptist, defended the project against charges the housing complex would be a religious institution like his church. First Baptist, he said, has never discriminated in its other ministries — which include supplying clothing to the homeless, the daycare center and numerous other charitable endeavors — against anyone regardless of ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.
“There are many young people and professionals in Arlington who might be new and don’t know the history of our church,” he said. “This project will bring affordable housing to North Arlington. That is its purpose and our 95 year history in this community is evidence of our good intentions.”
Associate Pastor David Perdue echoed First Baptist’s commitment to bettering the community as a whole.
“This project is very much representative of what’s going on in our church,” he said. “We’re simply trying to work with people and to see them to a better place in their lives.”
Rental rates on the apartments will remain set at a rate for those making 60 percent of the local median income for 60 years.
COUNTY BOARD MEMBERS combed through details of the proposal for more than three hours before coming to a decision. Board chairwoman Barbara Favola said re-zoning the site would not create a regulations loop-hole allowing for other developers to swoop in on the Lyon Village neighborhood.
“This won’t raise a precedent,” she said.
She added that the rezoning of the site would be specific to the Clarendon Views project and any change in the plan would require the board’s approval.
“The church would have to come back to the board with a site plan amendment,” she said. “That’s ironclad in the agreement.”
On the public discord apparent in the board room, she said, “No one side of this equation is going to get everything they want.”
If the project cannot be built because of rising construction costs or any other reason, County Manager Ron Carlee said the zoning change would not remain permanent.
“If this site plan cannot be implemented, this building cannot be built and no other can be built on the site at this height,” he said.
Facing the constitutional questions surrounding the proposal, Board Member Jay Fissette said that since the church owns the property, it is being treated no differently than any other land owner in the county.
“This is not a church bail-out,” he said. “This has nothing to do with religion. It’s about a particular property owner that, in this case, happens to be a church.”