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Arlington plan for homeless shelter faces neighborhood opposition

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Residents and small-business owners in an Arlington neighborhood, outraged over the county’s plan to put a year-round homeless shelter in an office building it plans to buy, are circulating petitions, organizing meetings and planning to fight the proposal before the County Board next week.

Residents of the Woodbury Heights condominium learned of the county’s plan, in a letter sent by FedEx, the day before Thanksgiving, one day after county officials issued a news release. The residents of the 18-story, 170-unit condo immediately mobilized.

Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan recommended that the county buy the seven-story Thomas Building at 2020 14th St. North. Most of the property would be used for county offices, but Donnellan also envisions a two-floor homeless shelter for single adults there, which would replace the winter-only emergency shelter that is two blocks away.

Donnellan said the homeless shelter would be sealed off from the rest of the county offices and have a separate entrance. Woodbury Heights residents say the only place for a separate entrance is at their back door, which they frequently use because it cuts a block off the trek to the Court House Metro stop. Not only do they not want to encounter crowds of homeless people, but they are also worried about the shelter’s impact on property values.

“Every morning and evening, hundreds of folks will get to thread their way through lines of homeless, and some of us will get to be even closer to the situation,” said Kenneth Robinson, who has lived in the condo complex since 1987. “It will be the only condo in the country with a homeless shelter at its doorstep.”

The building is in a high-rise neighborhood, across the street from the county’s justice center, adjacent to a Hilton Garden Inn and near several apartment complexes, which residents estimate house 2,400 people. The county’s main offices are a block away.

A two-hour meeting with Deputy County Manager Marsha Allgeier and staff from the county’s Human Services Department on Tuesday night didn’t calm their concerns.

“They aren’t interested in those of us who pay taxes, only the 100 who are homeless,” said January Holt, a seven-year resident of Woodbury Heights who has set up a Facebook page and passed out leaflets at weekend farmers markets. The officials, she said, were condescending and unhelpful in their answers.

“We understand the homeless need a place, and we don’t want to come off as NIMBYs but . . . there are other options that could be explored,” Holt said.

Allgeier said Wednesday that she heard the residents’ concerns but does not plan to ask Donnellan to change her recommendation. Donnellan, in a Nov. 29 presentation to the County Board, called the purchase “a strategic acquisition” that will allow consolidation of some county offices, construction of underground parking, and the development of a livelier mix of government, commercial and retail space.

County Board members generally supported it. They will hold a public hearing Tuesday night.

“The fact is we have a current shelter a block away, and in my opinion it has operated without significant problems,” Allgeier said. “I do not feel there is a danger.”

The current emergency shelter, which sleeps up to 75 people, opens at 4 p.m. and closes early in the morning during the cold months, which forces many homeless people to congregate outside just as commuters are walking to and from Metro. The proposed new shelter, with 50 permanent beds and an additional 25 during winter, would not require people to wait to get in or push them out, Allgeier noted, and services would be available that would help get people off the streets.

“I think that’s a benefit to the neighborhood,” Allgeier said.

The county still needs to buy the 14th Street building, which it has valued at $25.5 million. If it cannot come to terms with the owner, Donnellan said, the building will be acquired by eminent domain. Virginia lawmakers are considering limiting the use of eminent domain by local governments in its session next year.

Donnellan also said that the county would work with businesses currently in the building to find other retail space.

Jeremy Hicks, practice operations manager at Navigant Inc., which rents office space there, wasn’t assuaged.

“Needless to say, the tenants of our building and residents of the surrounding condominiums are furious with the county’s under-the-radar proposal and failure to study the impact this acquisition would have on the small businesses and residents of the area,” he said, adding that the businesses are starting a petition to the County Board.

“We don’t believe due diligence on the county’s part has been taken,” Holt said. “It seems they’re trying to fast-track it. Our homes are our biggest investment, and we’re all concerned about property values.”

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