Parable of the Good Arlingtonians

Parable of the Good Arlingtonians

Planning Commission gives its blessing to Gilliam Place.

Arlington Presbyterian Church on Columbia Pike.

Arlington Presbyterian Church on Columbia Pike. Photo from Google Maps

When the County Board’s meeting room is even a little crowded, it’s generally a sign that there’s a fight impending. But at the Planning Commission’s Nov. 30 meeting, it was members of the Arlington Presbyterian Church and the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH) that attended the meeting together in support of a new joint initiative: a new housing complex devoted to affordable housing.

At the meeting, the Planning Commission recommended approval of a plan to construct a mixed use affordable housing complex. In addition to 8,500 square feet of retail and civic use spaces, the new complex will contain 170 affordable housing units. APAH bought the property for $8.5 million at a 20 percent discount off of the market price.

Susan Etherton, a member of the Arlington Presbyterian Church for over 30 years, spoke on behalf of the church. Etherton explained that, in 2012, the church had reached out to APAH about the potential sale, which was approved by the church’s national hierarchy a year ago. The only thing Etherton asked from the county was that the new complex be named Gilliam Place, after Ronda Gilliam, one of the elders in the local church. Gilliam, Etherton explained, had been one of the first African Americans in the Arlington church, and was its first African American elder.


Susan Etherton, a member of the Arlington Presbyterian Church, addresses the Planning Commission.

“He had a heart for the community and the neighborhood,” said Etherton, and explained that Gilliam had worked to make sure Arlington’s immigrant population had adequate access to clothing. For the last 30 years, the church has run the Ronda Gilliam Clothing Bank out of the lower level of the building, a tradition Etherton hopes will continue in the new complex.

“We’re absolutely thrilled,” said Nina Janopaul, president and CEO of APAH. “We’re pleased that the [church] sees this as part of their mission. There’s been a huge loss of affordable housing over the last few years. We have 500 households currently on our waiting list.”

If all goes according to plan, construction on the new complex will start in the first quarter of 2017. The total building cost is currently estimated at $68 million. Janopaul said that APAH still needs to compete for state level tax credits on the project and the plan still has to be approved by the County Board on Dec. 12.

There were some concerns from the Planning Commission. Planning Commission member Steve Cole questioned the architecture of the new building and technicalities in the way the Form Based Code, Columbia Pike’s specialized mixed use development guideline, was being implemented.

“I am fearful that Columbia Pike will take on a very unfortunate character in how this architecture extends to other sites,” said Cole.

Cole’s motion to recommend the County Board initiate a study to review the design and architecture standards of the Form Based Code, as well as other refinements to the system, was approved by the commission. Still, Cole noted that his concerns did not detract from his overall approval of the project.

“What the church has done here is admirable,” said Cole, and then quoted Janopaul’s comment on the development. “It’s private land being used for public good.”

Like Cole, other members of the commission had concerns about aspects of the development, but supported the project overall.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Commission member Erik Gutshall. “It’s affordable housing near transportation … but I do agree with the notion raised by several of us. Are we getting what we really wanted out of Form Based Code?”

The new building will require the demolition of the existing church, which Gutshall noted as lamentable. Etherton says the congregation plans to leave the space by June 1, 2016, to move to another location that is yet to be determined. Etherton says the church is “close to tying down a space” and wants to remain as close to its current location as possible. But the new location may be a temporary one. Eventually, when the new building is complete, Etherton says the church hopes to buy back some of the space and move in.