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Committee's Action May Protect Buckingham Village

Developer calls proposal a recipe for a "white elephant."

The Arlington County Historic Affairs and Landmark Review Board took a step on April 19 that may protect 444 apartments at Buckingham Village, at least temporarily.

The historic committee voted to expand a currently existing Buckingham neighborhood historic district to include Buckingham Villages I, II and III, said Michael Leventhal, Arlington historical preservation coordinator.

If the Arlington County Board approves designating Buckingham Village an historic district, the demolition of the apartments would be delayed for at least a year after the approval.

Before demolishing the apartments the owner would have make the property available for sale at fair market value for a year. It would be available to purchasers who promised to preserve it. Only if the owner found no purchaser on these terms could he demolish it.

"I will leave no stone unturned to try to preserve our community," said Arlington County Board Member Walter Tejada at a preservation rally last week, "... within the boundaries of the law."

IN FEBRUARY the Paradigm Development Company sent notices to residents of Buckingham Village II to vacate within 120 days. The company plans to demolish Buckingham Villages I and III in 2007. Situated at North Thomas Street, North Pershing Drive and Henderson Road, the garden-style complex was built in the 1930s and early 1940s. Ultimately 12 "villages" were built.

In place of the current development, Paradigm plans to build 269 townhouses and 528 apartments. Of these apartments 208 would be dedicated to affordable housing.

Since the notices were sent, some of the roughly 1,200 residents, who are 86 percent Hispanic, have been mobilizing to prevent the demolition of Buckingham Villages I, II and III.

On April 20 70 people rallied in support of saving Buckingham Villages I, II and III.

"One of the things we are very prideful of in Buckingham is our diversity. And with this development, one of the things we will lose is the diversity," said Emily Vazquez, a neighboring resident.

A large number of the residents are disabled and senior citizens, some of whom have lived there for 30-plus years.

In 1991 the survey committee of the Historic Affairs board recommended the villages be made part of an Arlington Historic District. This recommendation was based on its importance "to the history of architecture and urban design at both the local and national level," the committee wrote.

"One fact we have to accept, whether we like it or not, is that developers can do pretty much what they want with their property," said Christian Dorsey, chairman of the Tenant Landlord Commission for Arlington County "... But just because developers have rights, doesn't mean they are right."

The current investment group, albeit with a different name, bought Buckingham Villages I-XII in 1993, said Paradigm President Stanley Sloter. The group did not want the property designated a historic district. It reached a deal with the county board to allow Villages IV-XII to be designated a historic district as long as I-III was not, Sloter said. As part of the deal the owners of the property entered into a joint venture with the county to rehabilitate Villages VIII-XII for affordable housing, Sloter said.

The county putting Villages I-III into a historic district would be counterproductive to the goal of affordable housing at the site, Sloter said.

THE LAND is currently zoned for townhomes, he said. Paradigm is using the site plan process to propose a development that would include apartments as well as townhomes. Some of the apartments would be rented at affordable rates, Sloter said.

If Villages I-III would be declared a historic district, the land could only be redeveloped as townhomes and these would not be affordable, Sloter said.

"The buildings are old and are falling down," Sloter said. To create a historic district of the area "would essentially create a white elephant" of the property. If put in an historic district, the property with its current buildings would not be economically viable to either the current or any potentially future owners, Sloter said. An outside subsidy might change this.

However this may be, the group opposing Villages I-III’s demolition, Save Buckingham Coalition, has been pushing for the land to be put in a historic district, said Coalition member Charlie Rinker.

If the property were put in an historic district it would give the coalition a year to find someone else to buy property and preserve it or to find some other way to preserve it, Rinker said.

Responding to Rinker’s historic district idea, Tejeda said, "I would be receptive to look at that."

A question Tejeda said he would have about the idea would be, "Is it preserving the people or is it preserving the buildings?"

In the next few weeks the Arlington Planning Commission will take up the recommendation. If it agrees with the historical board, the commission will hold a public hearing on the topic. If at the hearing the historical board recommends the area for the designation again, the Arlington County board will take up the matter.