County Considers Preserving Complex

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2006

Arlington officials are considering ways to designate the 20.8-acre Buckingham Village apartment complex a historic area, which could block or slow its demolition, officials said.

Paradigm Development Co., co-owner of the complex, announced this year that it plans to tear down the buildings and replace them with luxury townhouses and apartments. Housing activists and historic preservationists have decried the proposal, saying that the buildings are historic and that demolishing them would displace hundreds of low-income families, many of them immigrants. Residents of 79 apartments already have received letters terminating their leases and are in the process of moving; hundreds more will have to move if the County Board approves the project, which is in the planning stages.

The county's Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board voted last month to ask the county to extend the boundaries of the county's historic district in the Buckingham neighborhood to include Buckingham Village, a group of 456 low-slung brick apartments off North George Mason Drive. It was originally part of a larger complex that historians said is an important early example of garden-style urban architecture.

"These buildings were part of the original Buckingham complex built in the 1930s and 1940s, and we felt they ought to be preserved along with the rest of it," said Kevin Vincent, the historic affairs board chairman. Public hearings on the matter would be next month.

Developer Stanley W. Sloter, Paradigm's president, called the recommendation "ill-considered."

Sloter's company hopes to build 208 affordable apartment units within the new development using county affordable housing funds. The apartments would be roomier and would be accessible to people with disabilities, Sloter said, and putting up new units would be much cheaper than renovating the existing buildings.

"These guys are under this tremendous rush to get this thing designated, and it is going to trap the county," he said.

Affordable housing advocates disagreed. They said the buildings should be preserved, perhaps partly in a cooperative owned by the tenants.

"When it's not historic, they can demolish it right away, with no community input and no community discussion," said Lois Athey, a member of a group called the Save Buckingham Coalition. "From the county's perspective, it's a very famous complex. . . . There's a lot of history in Buckingham."

The full Buckingham apartment complex originally comprised more than 1,800 apartments in garden-style brick buildings built from 1937 to 1953. They were designed by noted urban architect Henry Wright, whose use of trees, a parklike setting and landscaped public spaces was part of a vision to provide humane living for working-class people.

Over the years, ownership of various parts of the complex changed hands, but in 1993 and 1994 the county designated what is now the Gates of Arlington and Historic Ballston at Buckingham -- both of which have dozens of rental units that have been preserved by the county as affordable housing -- as a historic district.

Sloter's firm worked in partnership with the county and its nonprofit housing corporation to renovate some affordable apartments in Historic Ballston in the 1990s. Sloter said that during those negotiations, the county said it would not seek to designate Buckingham Village as historic. He recently forwarded the county a letter from then-County Manager Anton S. Gardner that he says supports his contention.

The county's staff is studying the letter.

County officials also are weighing whether to discuss simply designating the structures as a landmark -- a rare move they've used only once before.

"We're still trying to figure out what all this means and what the implications are," said County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman (D). "We're not in a position to rule it in or rule it out. We're in listening mode."

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