Arlington affordable housing dispute morphs into test of church-state separation

Peter Glassman has filed suit over government loans for housing that will be built atop the First Baptist Church of Clarendon, behind him.
Peter Glassman has filed suit over government loans for housing that will be built atop the First Baptist Church of Clarendon, behind him. (Megan Rossman/the Washington Post)
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By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2010

The First Baptist Church of Clarendon, its pews emptying, needed cash. Arlington County, its red-hot Metrorail corridor pushing up real estate prices, needed affordable housing.

So the church and the County Board agreed to an unusual redevelopment of prime land one block from the Clarendon Metro station. The church would sell the air rights over its sanctuary. A developer, with the help of government subsidies, would build a new sanctuary with eight floors of apartments on top, most dedicated to affordable housing. And the church's historic steeple would survive.

Neighbors in well-to-do Lyon Village were not impressed. They sued twice to stop construction, calling the building intrusive. Now they've turned their zoning battle into a fight over the First Amendment.

Clarendon resident Peter Glassman is suing the church, the county and Virginia in federal court, saying the development violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

Glassman, a financial adviser who lives near the church, says the $48 million in county and state loans and federal tax credits that are paying for the redevelopment enrich the church. The county took "unprecedented steps to promote, sponsor and fund the demolition, rebuilding and renovation of a Baptist Church with taxpayer money," his lawsuit says. The county contributed $13 million in low-interest loans.

On April 2, a judge in U.S. District Court in Alexandria will hear the county's motion to dismiss the case. An earlier ruling has allowed construction to proceed. Interior demolition began in December, and the church has moved to temporary quarters in Rosslyn.

The disagreement

Glassman's complaint alleges that the subsidy per unit -- $660,000 -- is excessive and proves that the county wanted to bail out the church. In court papers, county attorneys call the claims a "tangled web of allegations." The county says that its portion of the subsidy is $186,500 an apartment and that a separate nonprofit group, the Views at Clarendon, will develop and manage the apartments. Three church members serve on the nonprofit group's seven-member board.

The county also disputes that the church received more than the fair market value when the nonprofit group paid $5.6 million for a portion of the property, including the air rights, last year.

Integrating a church sanctuary with condominiums or offices is just beginning to happen in many communities, but a factor in the Clarendon lawsuit is how the church is incorporated into the new development's design. The church and the housing above it will share an entrance, a lobby, an elevator and other elements.

"Residents will literally pass through the church's property, overlook the church's steeple and be subject daily to the church's message," the suit says. It's the third legal challenge in the six-year history of the contentious project.

Like many older congregations, First Baptist's membership had dwindled as busy immigrants moved into the area and older parishioners moved out. Church leaders realized that they could tap the equity in the property, valued at $10 million after rezoning to allow apartments, to finance construction of a smaller sanctuary and other improvements.

In 2004, the county approved the plan, which included 46 market-rate and 70 affordable apartments with starting rents of about $1,000, a sanctuary, a renovated church education center and three to four stories of underground parking.

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