Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The Church of Arlington County

Who would have thought that liberal Arlington County would end up with it's own state-sponsored church?

That's the conclusion of many of our neighbors in Lyon Village, where new signs are sprouting up like mushrooms after rain, asking:


It's a good question. The dispute centers around a plan to transform the First Baptist Church of Clarendon. The church, with a dwindling congregation and facilities falling into disrepair, came up with a plan a few years ago to take advantage of the prime land it's sitting on in the heart of the popular Clarendon neighborhood.

The idea was to demolish the existing church (most of it), add a high rise apartment tower, and use the financing to renovate and rebuild the church. This, of course, was in the hey-dey of the real estate boom, when anything was possible.

The only problem was that the land was zoned for a seven story building, but the church's consultants said they needed at least 10 stories to make the project economically feasible (i.e., to have enough money to rebuild the church).

So they approached Arlington County with a scheme to increase the allowed height of the project in exchange for including 70 "affordable" housing units. The County bought in, pledging $4.5 million and making the zoning change happen, despite universal objections from neighbors in two-story houses that would be dwarfed by the mammoth new building.

Since then, the original funding has fallen through, forcing the County to increase it's share to $13.1 million--more than the private investors in the project are putting up.

As the facts about this project get out, opposition is spreading. Here at the Curmudgeon we certainly think the economics are suspicious. We're not fans of the County building "affordable" housing in the first place. We'd much rather see the County negotiate with private developers to get affordable housing in exchange for zoning trade-offs, AND use rent vouchers to help lower income families afford apartments out of their range.

Needless to say, for $13 million Arlington could subsidize the rent for many families for many, many years.

In any event, it's clear that the Baptist Church project has become a classic boondoggle, regardless of however well-intentioned it might have been (although we're convinced the Church's main goal was it's own self-preservation, not affordable housing).

County Board members should drive through Lyon Village and take a look at the signs. They're going to keep spreading, and may become a true political liability as the extent of coming budget cuts become more widely known. It's not too late--the County can back out of this one.

For more information, put together by opponents of the project (who, to be fair, are primarily motivated because they don't want such a large project looming over them), go to askthecounty.com.

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