The County Board will hold a hearing next month to determine whether hundreds of apartments in Buckingham Village should be designated historic landmarks, which would prevent a developer from tearing them down for at least one year.
The five board members agreed to debate the issue, in the wake of last month’s vote by the county’s Historic Affairs and Landmark Review Board to expand the existing Buckingham historic district to include Buckingham Villages I to III. The discussion will be part of the board’s June 10 meeting.
"This is a step we are taking to guard and protect our options," said County Board member Jay Fisette in an interview. "We have not made any decisions as a board as to how far we will go or whether we will approve a landmark designation."
In February, Paradigm Development Co. announced that it would begin redeveloping three apartment complexes in the neighborhood, ultimately leading to the creation of nearly 200 luxury townhouses and 530 apartment units. More than 200 of the apartments will be rented at below market rates to low-income families.
Residents have already begun to vacate the complex, and community activists fear that many will leave Arlington in search of cheaper housing.
"Soon the few families who remain will relocate somewhere else," Pat McCullolugh, a Buckingham resident, told the board during an emotional May 20 meeting. "People who do the service work in the neighborhood and community will not be able to live here."
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.
If the board votes to proclaim the villages as a historic landmark, Paradigm would have to halt their demolition plans and would be 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 petition the county to allow it to proceed with its development plan.
The county has only once designated a property as a historic landmark, and county officials admit that it would be a bold step.
"This is a serious matter not to be taken lightly, and I’m sure the County Board will give it the consideration it needs," said Mike Leventhal, Arlington’s historic preservation coordinator.
MEMBERS OF THE Save Buckingham Coalition praised the board’s decision to allow a full public hearing on the matter, saying it will give them the opportunity to persuade board members that this move will help preserve the character of the neighborhood.
"First and foremost this will give us a little time and allow a meaningful dialogue with Paradigm," said Priscilla Haskins, one of the founders of the organization.
Paradigm President Stanley Sloter had less kind words for the hearing, arguing that the board is "rushing forward" with an "ill-considered idea."
By allowing the redevelopment process to proceed, the county would receive a greater number of affordable units, Sloter said, because the price of preserving the units would be so high.
Earlier this month the company released a letter from former County Manager Anton Gardner stating that the county would not try to slap a historic label on Buckingham Villages I, II and III.
But County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman signaled that the current board members are not beholden to a promise made by a previous county manager.
"Like all other evidence that is brought forward [it will be] taken into consideration," Zimmerman said. "I’m not sure that the board is bound by it."
Yet Sloter retorts that there was no limit of statutes on the promise, and that the vow is as valid now as when it was made more than a decade ago.
"We had assurances that we would be allowed to redevelop them without historic designation," Sloter said. "If the agreement had expired in 2000, we would have torn them down in 1999."
There could be serious implications for the development community if the county reverses an earlier promise, Sloter added.
"Anytime you use a tool like historic designation clearly to accomplish a different kind of goal, you run the risk" of alienating developers, he said.
THE BOARD seems to be conflicted over how far it should go in order to preserve the Buckingham apartments.
Walter Tejada said during the May 20 board meeting that "some of us are not going to be shy about siding with the community."
But Vice Chair Paul Ferguson cautioned the community that the board has to separate the issues of historic designation and affordable housing, and that Virginia property-rights laws restrict the power of localities.
Board member Barbara Favola implied that it is not feasible for residents to expect Buckingham to remain in its current condition.
"The proposal is causing us angst because there will be some changes," she said. "We have to accept that premise and make those changes in a way that reflects our values."
The Save Buckingham Coalition will bring dozens of neighborhood residents and supporters to next month’s meeting, in hopes of swaying the board.
"It’s time for the County Board to choose who they are really going to serve," Haskins said.
And if the board takes no action? "The majority of people will not sit idly by," Haskins said. "We have our voice and our vote."