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Board, Developer Forge Buckingham Compromise

Preliminary plan will save additional affordable units and work to maintain present residents.

After weeks of tense negotiations, county officials and a local developer late Tuesday night fashioned a preliminary redevelopment plan for hundreds of Buckingham Village apartments, enabling more residents to remain in the historic neighborhood.

The temporary compromise would create one third more affordable units than originally envisioned by the Paradigm Development Co., and prevent the displacement of any residents until at least March 2007.

The agreement creates “committed affordable housing, preserves historic structures and makes this a community where people from all income levels can live,” County Manager Ron Carlee said.

The County Board agreed to not designate Buckingham Villages I through III as historic landmarks, which would have prevented Paradigm from tearing down the apartments for at least one year.

In return, the developer said they will increase the number of affordable units in the complex from 212 to 292, and will try to maintain some of the historic structures. If the redevelopment is completed as planned, the Buckingham complex would still lose more than 150 affordable apartments, units that those earning less than 60 percent of the region’s median income have sufficient means to rent.

While county officials and the developer lauded the compromise, which ended months of wrangling over the controversial redevelopment plan, both sides said that much negotiating lies ahead if a final settlement is to be reached. If an agreement is not forged by March 1, the county can proceed with historic landmark hearings for the three villages.

“Our work is only just beginning, and the outcome is not certain,” said County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman.

UNDER THE DEAL, the county will contribute between $16 million and $20 million to keep nearly 300 units at an affordable level. The county also hopes the committed affordable units will be reserved for families currently living in the three villages, and that others who are displaced can find housing in the neighborhood.

In February, Paradigm announced it would begin redeveloping three apartment complexes in the neighborhood, ultimately leading to the creation of nearly 200 luxury townhouses and 530 apartment units.

The buildings are more than 60 years old and are becoming increasingly expensive to maintain, said Paradigm President Stanley Sloter.

Residents have already vacated the 84 units in Village II, and under the compromise plan, Paradigm will undertake its original aim of replacing those units with 69 luxury townhouses.

Paradigm now intends to replace the existing units in Village I with a combination of new affordable apartments and townhouses, and will strive to preserve the historic garden apartments in Village III.

“The priorities are to save the community and the people who live there first” rather than the buildings themselves, Sloter said in an interview before the July 11 meeting.

Work began on Buckingham Village in 1937, and the first occupants received New Deal loans. Eleanor Roosevelt attended the opening of the earliest apartment units and praised the complex as an exemplar of Depression-era development.

In recent years it has become a haven for new immigrants to America, mostly from Latin American countries. “Buckingham became the golden door for Arlington’s immigrants, just as it was in the 1940s,” said Patricia McCullough, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years.

The Buckingham community is home mostly to low-income service workers, who community activists fear will now be forced to leave Arlington in search of cheaper housing. “We can’t be a county where housing is just for people [who earn] 80 percent of median income,” said June O’Connell.

AN AD-HOC ORGANIZATION, calling itself the Save Buckingham Coalition, formed to pressure the County Board to designate the villages as historic, thus saving them from demolition.

While some representatives of the coalition were involved in the compromise negotiations, others said they were disappointed by loss of so many affordable units.

“It’s time for our elected officials to say no and stand up for what is morally correct," said Priscilla Haskins, one of the founders of the organization.

If the board had proclaimed the villages as a historic landmark, Paradigm would have had to halt its demolition plans and would have been required to put the property up for sale at a fair market value. If no buyer came forward within a year’s time, the company could have petitioned the county to allow it to proceed with its development plan.

Designating the three villages as historic only meant the buildings could not be knocked down, and the developer could still kick out the tenants, renovate the interiors and sell them at higher prices, county officials said.

“Declaring it historic [would have] give[n] us zero affordable units,” County Board Vice Chair Paul Ferguson said. “It would not preserve the community.”

The preliminary compromise seems to stave off, at least temporarily, the possibility of a lawsuit. A previous county manager, Anton Gardner, had promised that the county would not try to slap a historic label on Buckingham Villages I, II and III.

Sloter contended that there is no statue of limitations on the promise, and that a reversal of an earlier agreement would result in a backlash from the development community.

During Tuesday night’s meeting, which featured nearly 40 public speakers, board members and housing activists made clear that while they agreed to the compromise, they were not thrilled with the final terms.

“This is not the deal I want,” Zimmerman said. “The deal I want preserves all 456 units as affordable for the people who live there.”

But in the end an agreement that preserved almost 300 affordable units for current residents was a more appealing option than the alternatives.

“We will spend more than we want to save less than we want,” said Carrie Johnson, who was part of the small committee that drafted the plan. “But it’s better than not trying and saving nothing.”