The Arlington County Board yesterday approved plans for eight stories of apartments with affordable housing to be built above a church in the burgeoning Clarendon neighborhood, a controversial project that was struck down last year by the state Supreme Court.
The Democratic board -- in a rare 4 to 1 decision -- voted for zoning changes that they believe will pave the way for construction on a sanctuary, capped by affordable housing and luxury apartments, for the First Baptist Church of Clarendon, whose quaint steeple is a well-known landmark amid glitzy new stores and restaurants.
The project is significant because it is an example of an aging inner-suburban church with a dwindling congregation that's looking to rejuvenate its mission by using its most precious asset: the land it sits on. Just yards from the Clarendon Metro station, the land is worth more than $10 million. Other Arlington churches are eyeing the proposal with a mind toward similar projects.
Nearby residents, however, have vociferously fought the plan, arguing that the building is too large and that the unusual partnership between the county and church is inappropriate. Opponents who live in nearby homes have spent more than $200,000 in legal fees fighting the proposal. The Supreme Court sided with neighbors last year, saying that the county violated its zoning code in approving the project.
Board members said that yesterday's action provides the legal footing needed to move forward with a plan that will create 70 affordable apartments, which they say are sorely needed. The county has lost half of its affordable apartments to rising rents or redevelopment in the past six years.
"We have a community need to do that, and it's a need I can't turn my back on," said board member Jay Fisette, who voted for the proposal. "It's a significant addition to our affordable housing stock . . . and in my view, it's time to move forward."
Board Chairman Paul Ferguson, the lone dissenter, said he was concerned about the county's role in supporting a religious project. "I have some angst and reservations about the county partnership to keep the church going," Ferguson said.
Neighbors said that the county's action opened the door for other developers to put large-scale high-rises next to residential streets. More than 150 residents attended the six-hour board discussion. Housing advocates wore yellow buttons of support, and opponents carried placards and wore blue shirts that said: "Affordable Housing: Yes; Illegal Zoning: No."
"My children's bedroom looks directly at this site, and their own view of Clarendon would not be of sky or steeple but a massive, lit-up apartment building," said neighbor Myra Probasco, an office assistant. "My 14-year-old said it would be like living behind an ocean liner. Our house would be the rowboat docked behind."
The saga began more than two years ago, when the congregation of the church on North Highland Street began to explore ways to repair its 98-year-old building. It was once a thriving suburban church with more than 2,000 members. But its rolls had, at one point, shrunk to about 400, including many Latino, Vietnamese and Ethiopian immigrants. Its membership has rebounded slightly in recent months, its associate pastor said, with young professionals moving into nearby condominiums.
When repairs proved too costly, the church proposed an unusual $48.7 million reconstruction project to tear down its building and replace its too-roomy sanctuary with a smaller one. That will be topped with eight floors of 116 apartments, 70 for low-income residents. The county would help fund that construction with a $6.6 million low-interest loan. The sanctuary will be included on the first two floors of the 10-story building.
The church's well-known steeple would be preserved.
The approval drew an immediate rebuke from neighbors in nearby Lyon Village, who have felt squeezed in recent years as the commercial district in Clarendon has rapidly expanded around its Metro station. The lengthy court battle, which the neighbors won, followed.
Church officials say their plan is the only way they will be able to stay in the neighborhood and continue their mission to the community, which includes a clothing closet for the needy and one of Arlington's largest day-care centers.
"I've been surprised at the level of anger this project has received," said church trustee Robert Ryland.
And it's likely not over yet: Joan Rohlfing, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said that neighbors will "have no recourse but to sue again."
Throughout the lengthy battle, neighbors chafed at any hint that their objections were solely because the church was so close to their homes, saying the building is simply too big and officials are moving too fast to implement a zoning change that could affect the whole county.
"Everybody wants to be welcoming and inclusive," said board member Barbara A. Favola, who lives in the neighborhood and voted for the project. "As long as it's not an inconvenience."