Affordable Shelter for A Church, And People
Plan to Build Housing Atop Chapel Faces Opposition
By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2004; Page VA14
Architect Michael Foster vividly remembers driving with colleagues to their first meeting with ambassadors of First Baptist Church of Clarendon.
Church officials had hired Foster's firm, MTFA Architecture, to develop proposals to rehabilitate their aging building in a way that would help the congregation cut maintenance costs while furthering its urban mission work. Proposals ranged from doing nothing to the 54-year-old sanctuary, at 1210 N. Highland St., to a far-reaching and unconventional plan to tear down the church and rebuild it with a smaller sanctuary in a 10-story high-rise with housing on top.
"I drew the short straw," recalled Foster, who was chosen to present the tear-down option. "[My colleagues] wanted to know if I was going to wear a bulletproof vest" to the presentation.
As it turned out, no vest was necessary. Church members embraced the plan to demolish their sanctuary, keeping only the steeple as a reminder of the church's past. The church's day-care center -- Arlington's largest private facility, caring for nearly 200 children each weekday -- would also remain on the property, although children might be moved off-site during part of the construction.
The best course of action, church officials agreed, was to use the church's valuable property -- it is a half block from the Clarendon Metro station and is valued at about $10 million -- as equity for a loan to finance the construction of a smaller church. The design would reduce the chapel by about half, to 400 seats, and include construction of a 118-unit apartment complex to be called The Views at Clarendon.
Public-private partnerships of this kind have been successful in other urban areas, such as Chicago, New York and St. Louis, Foster said, but the model is relatively uncommon in the Washington region.
Church officials said 53 of the apartments would be affordable housing units, set aside for those earning no more than 60 percent of the Washington region's median income. For instance, a household of four with an income of no more than $51,240 would qualify, as would a household of one with an income of no more than $35,868.
Officials say many of the building's residents would likely be nurses and teachers and other public servants who cannot afford to live in the community where they work.
While church officials say the plan is a perfect way to serve its members and the larger community, many in the adjacent Lyon Village neighborhood are fighting to have the plan scaled back. They say a towering complex would visually mar the entrance to their community, increase parking congestion and fail to fit in with the feel of the landscape.
Members of the Lyon Village Citizens Association voted to oppose the church proposal and continue to lobby the Arlington County Board to consider a smaller project.
The county Planning Commission heard the proposal -- which includes a rezoning request, land-use plan and site plan -- on June 30 and voted unanimously to defer a decision so the County Board could give it additional guidance on the priority of affordable housing in that area of the county and guidelines on building height.
"The church is saying we're opposed to affordable housing," said Lyon Village resident Mary Renkey, 43, who has lived in the Clarendon neighborhood for nine years. "We think it would be a great thing on the church site. It's just [that the project] is too high and too dense and it's not zoned for that. We want them to stay within the zoning allowed" -- 55 feet.
Under current plans, the building would be 103 feet tall.
If the County Board grants the rezoning, residents fear a domino effect in which other developers will be granted permission to rezone properties to put more high-rises in and around the neighborhood.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company