Good Deal for Open Space

Reading "Houses to Go Up on Church Site" [Extra, July 1], one might conclude that the Alexandria City Council's June 22 action regarding the Second Presbyterian Church site was a major setback for open space. This, I believe, is not the case.

Open space is a condition of the land and not necessarily its ownership. It is land primarily covered by trees and grass, and most of its surface is permeable -- able to absorb water. Its preservation in densely populated Alexandria is for aesthetic, environmental and livability reasons. Much of the open space in the city is in the central -- i.e., Seminary Hill -- area on private or institutional land, a function of large lot zoning, several urban estates and the lightly developed institutional properties such as the Virginia Theological Seminary and Episcopal High School. How to encourage property owners to maintain their land in an open space condition given extraordinary land values (and taxes) remains a challenge.

Creating additional publicly owned open space whether as active or passive parks is another matter and an urgent priority.

Neighbors of the Second Presbyterian Church, represented by the Seminary Hill Association, learned through their experience with the development of the seven-acre Goodman tract and expansion of Alexandria Hospital that by working with city officials and the property owner before a site plan is submitted, it is possible to obtain major concessions and avoid confrontations before the Planning Commission and City Council. In both instances, significant open space gains were achieved.

Four years ago, when it became apparent that the Second Presbyterian Church could no longer function as a viable congregation, SHA followed its past negotiation path and a created a neighborhood task force that began discussions with the National Capital Presbytery and the city regarding how this lovely, expansive and bucolic six-acre property might be responsibly developed.

At that time, no open space fund or plan existed. The presbytery, as the new property owner, ultimately decided to sell the site for residential housing without requesting changes to existing zoning. After protracted negotiations between the SHA task force, the presbytery, developer and city staff, an innovative development plan was created. It reduced the number of permitted homes from 11 to eight, saved two historic trees and numerous other trees on the property, created a 1.1-acre public park at no cost to the city and provided many other amenities to grace the Seminary Hill neighborhood. In addition, the homes would generate significant new tax revenues on property that previously was tax exempt. Approximately 75 percent of the site would be retained as public and private open space. It's not a bad deal at all, and one with which the Planning Commission generally agreed.

Unfortunately, The Post chose not to report these accomplishments but gave coverage to those who wanted the city to purchase the entire site at any price for undefined public open space uses. (SHA's letter and position is online at www.seminaryhillassn.org.) In its June 22 action on this matter, three members of City Council sent a very disturbing message to Alexandria: Civic groups should not bother trying to obtain neighborhood consensus and negotiate with property owners and developers prior to formal proceedings. Agreements that citizens groups negotiate with developers are of little importance, and council members know best. To developers, these council members signaled that open space and other concessions they might offer beforehand in negotiations with stakeholders and the city would be of little consequence in the council's ultimate decisions.

The idea that the Second Presbyterian Church site could be saved if utilized for another religious function requires caution. Most religious groups require large congregations and large buildings in which to worship and operate ancillary functions that operate seven days per week. To believe that a new religious group -- after paying an incredibly high price for the land and structures of Second Presbyterian Church (assuming the developer is willing to sell) -- would promise to leave this property essentially in its present condition is delusional.

Hopefully, the Second Presbyterian Church site issue is finally resolved and Alexandria can proceed to develop policies and secure the funds to preserve more open space for both public and private lands. Whether this will be accomplished through an orderly process, and with negotiations regarding specific properties involving impacted stakeholders and city officials at an early stage and encouraged by the City Council, remains to be seen.

Bill Dickinson

Alexandria

(Although Bill Dickinson is a former president of the Seminary Hill Association and currently a member of the city's Open Space Steering Committee, this letter represents his personal views.)

Church's Novel Solution

In response to "First Baptist Should Stay" [Letters to the Editor, Extra, July 1], yes, the First Baptist Church of Clarendon should stay at its current location serving four congregations, with a day care center, a clothing center and other services to the community. The dilemma faced by the church is how to serve the congregation in an outdated and aging facility. Should they sell the site for use as high-rise commercial development, or try to find an approach that preserves the icon so well known in Clarendon while upgrading the facilities for worship and daycare?

The innovative proposal before the County Board offers additional apartment housing for Arlington, with 45 percent of the units earmarked as affordable housing. This approach is intended to enrich the church's 95-year history in Clarendon by offering even more community outreach rather than abandoning it to commercial development.

The presence and activism of First Baptist's congregation is inextricably bound to financial viability in a very high-end commercial location. The church's proposal adds valuable and much-needed affordable housing to a vibrant and highly rated day-care facility, while preserving the facade and steeple that mean so much to the Clarendon community. This congregation should be applauded for its efforts to remain in Clarendon, serving Arlington in even more ways than before.

Peter Garwood

Laverne Garwood

Arlington