Troubled by the lack of affordable housing in the area, Arlington Presbyterian Church’s congregation had sold their 87-year-old sanctuary and moved out.
A nonprofit affordable-housing developer began demolishing the church, with its green-sided steeple, in anticipation of building 173 low-income apartments.
Then the congregation had another civically minded idea.
Since the developer, the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH), didn’t need about a quarter of the Columbia Pike property it had bought from the church for $8.5 million last year, why not create a small pocket of green space there to cushion the concrete in the highly urban neighborhood and provide a space of reflection and revival?
It was almost too late. When the church delegation called on APAH, the developer was about to sign a sales agreement with a single-family-home builder that wanted to buy the leftover parcel and was willing to wire them $700,000, the final funding needed to make the entire $71 million project work.
“We asked them to stall,” said church elder Susan Etherton. In a five-week whirlwind of activity, the church got the consent of the National Capital Presbytery, figured out the costs of land purchase, taxes, utilities, park maintenance and design, and made a matching offer.
“It was more than amazing — it’s miraculous!” Etherton said.
Nina Janopaul, APAH’s chief executive, agreed.
“Deadlines help all of us,” she said, laughing. “I think this will be a great center and hub of activity” on Columbia Pike, she added.
The congregation is working on what will go in the outdoor space. One of the most-requested amenities is a labyrinth. There are also suggestions for a pollinator or small vegetable garden.
A church member has already donated an Adirondack chair, painted with the words “Pause here.” A neighbor offered his architectural skills to plan the space.
“This is a way we can tithe back to the community,” Etherton said. “Missionally, we are called to care for creation, and we’re hopeful our neighbors will join us.”
Other churches have built and sustained semipublic garden spaces over the years. In New Jersey, the College of Saint Elizabeth has a 92-year-old garden inspired by the plays and poems of William Shakespeare. In Washington, the most prominent ones include the Franciscan Monastery’s gardens and Washington National Cathedral’s Bishop’s Garden and Olmstead Woods.
Jim Shepherd, the cathedral’s director of preservation and facilities, said the 57 acres, designed in the early 20th century, encourage visitors to linger and contemplate. “Our grounds are really, in many ways, an extension of our cathedral,” he said.
The Arlington church hopes to rent some of the 9,000 square feet of ground-level space for their worship services in the new Gilliam Place development, named after a longtime church volunteer.
The official groundbreaking for that project happened Thursday afternoon and was attended by partners who put the jigsaw puzzle of financing together: the Virginia Housing Development Authority, which authorized $15 million in federal tax credits; Capital One and Enterprise Community Partners, which provided $31 million in private financing; officials from Arlington County, which gave $18 million in loans; officials from the Virginia Housing Trust Fund, which gave $700,000; and many church members.
The project, which is scheduled to be finished in 24 months, also includes a $500,000 loan from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta.