County Board Blesses Ballston Church Project

(Updated 4:55 p.m.) A plan to redevelop a Ballston church and preserve its historic graveyard got the go-ahead Tuesday night from the Arlington County Board.

The board unanimously agreed to revamp the Central United Methodist Church at 4201 N. Fairfax Drive to be an eight-story apartment building and two levels of underground parking.

Also on the site is the Robert Ball Sr. Family Burial Ground, which has now been designated as a local historic district. The first burial on the site took place in 1854, then was deeded to the church in 1906.

Given the site’s history, there had been concerns previously that construction on the site would disturb some of the remains of those buried in the cemetery.

Residents urged the developer behind the project not to move the graveyard last October. Members of the Ball family previously said that, although they did not want to prevent the redevelopment of the church, they wanted the church to honor its century-old commitment to preserve the graveyard.

Attorney Tad Lunger, representing the project’s nonprofit developer, said crews will investigate thoroughly where remains might lie.

Lunger also said an archaeological team has been on staff since the beginning of the project, and that they will be on site alongside county staffers and representatives of the Ball family if any remains or other objects are found.

Lunger said any remains discovered will be exhumed, sent to Towson University for biological analysis, then re-interred. He said that process would help clear up the “unknown history of this site.”

The first two floors of the building will include a daycare facility for 100 children and a church to seat 200 people.

On the upper floors, 119 apartments will be built, of which 48 will be designated as affordable units for 60 years. The affordable units will be financed by a $3.1 million loan from the Affordable Housing Investment Fund, while the project will apply for low-income housing tax credits from the Virginia Housing Development Authority.

“I applaud the leadership and membership of this church for bringing forward this creative project that addresses, on one site, many needs of our Ballston neighborhood,” said county board chairman Jay Fisette. “While preserving an important historic site for Arlington, we will simultaneously provide new, affordable housing, church space and child care services for years to come.”

Before the board’s unanimous approval, members and local residents alike raised concerns about the parking available at the site. A total of 128 spaces will be provided across the two levels of underground parking, with 119 for the residential units and nine for the church and daycare.

Planning commissioner Nancy Iacomini said that while the site is “under-parked” for the non-residential uses, the location presents challenges in balancing the needs of vehicular traffic.

“What we don’t want to do is over-park directly across from the Ballston Metro [station],” she said.

Board member Christian Dorsey asked if the residential spaces could be used by the church or daycare, but Michael Cullen, an urban planner on county staff, said such a change would require an alteration to the site plan. Dorsey said it is incumbent on board members and staff to solve what he called a “long-term problem” of needing more than nine spaces for the non-residential uses.

The development does not conform to the Ballston Streetscape Standards, which requires a 24-foot setback from the building to the street. Instead, the site is set back by 20 feet, and Collier Cook of the Ballston/Virginia Square Civic Association said this should not set a precedent in the neighborhood for future projects.

Architect Doug Carter of architects Davis, Carter, Scott Ltd, which designed the building, said the streetscape requirement was not flagged to his team by county staff until relatively late in the process, a scenario Fisette and Dorsey said should be avoided in the future.

“The message here is: it’s on us, by which I mean staff, to specify which plans apply and why early on, so we have this clarity,” Dorsey said. When you have plans that are saying different things, it’s natural for someone to find the one that’s least restrictive and say ‘We apply.'”

Local resident Bernie Berne said the site’s open space calculations were misleading and against the county’s zoning ordinance, as some open space is not located on the ground level. He said the plan to put some open space on the upper levels of the property was not a good one.

Cullen said the total open space of 3,396 square feet includes a portion of the cemetery under open sky, while the use of planters for shrubs and trees means the plan conforms with all zoning ordinance requirements.

In a statement Wednesday, Rev. Sarah Harrison-McQueen, senior pastor at the church, said it can expand its offerings to the community with the expanded facility.

“For over 100 years Central United Methodist Church has served the Ballston neighborhood, providing opportunities to serve, worship, and grow in faith,” said Harrison-McQueen. “With the redevelopment of the church property, we will be able to better serve the Arlington community with affordable housing and expanded child care services.”