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Making Room: Don’t let ‘neighborhood character’ erode a major affordable housing accomplishment

Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The Site Plan Review Committee begins today for the redevelopment of The Marbella. This project is a fantastic opportunity to bring much needed affordable housing to the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor.

This site plan is an excellent example of using the new zoning tools that allow additional height for 100% affordable projects, resulting in close to 500 net-new units. This project will serve not only the residents of the property, but the entire community. Ideally, the Site Plan Review process will find the best way to fit these new buildings into the neighborhood, while maximizing the opportunity to welcome low-income families into one of Arlington’s high- opportunity neighborhoods.

The Marbella is a committed affordable garden-apartment community spread across three blocks in Radnor-Ft. Myer Heights. It is owned and managed by the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH), which has an excellent track record for developing and running communities for low-income residents. This redevelopment proposal includes renovating six 3- story buildings and replacing the remaining six small buildings with two new 12-story apartment buildings. The site plan includes amenity space, courtyards, underground parking, and streetscape improvements.

One distinctive feature of the Marbella’s expansion is over 100 units for low-income residents over age 65. Arlington seniors who rent are twice as likely as younger renters to be considered housing-cost burdened, according to recent analysis. This dedicated affordable housing supply will help people remain in Arlington as they age, especially for lower-income seniors who lack generous pensions or retirement funds.

To redevelop and expand their property, APAH is hoping to use a new zoning tool approved by the County Board in April. The zoning for the R6-15 district allows 6-stories by right. APAH is requesting an additional 6-stories because their buildings will be 100% affordable to families earning below 60% of the area median income. This bonus height option was adopted as an interim tool while the County staff work on a broader Multifamily Reinvestment Study.

At 12 stories, the new Marbella properties would be among the tallest in the Ft. Myer Heights neighborhood, but they would not be out of context. The surrounding blocks contain a mix of 3- to 10-story condominium and apartment buildings. The newest property is a market rate building at 6-stories. The entire neighborhood is zoned RA6-15, which means that it is expected to be multifamily residential buildings and they can be up to 6 stories by right. In the context of the neighborhood, the remaining detached, single-family homes and two-story townhomes are more out of place than the future 12-story building will be.

The Arlington County staff and other public officials should be celebrating and embracing this proposal. Instead, it must go through a gauntlet of naysayers and critics who will find different reasons to make the site smaller and less obtrusive, which means fewer people will get to live there and Arlington will be further from its affordable housing goal.

Tonight, the Site Plan Review Committee (SPRC) meets to consider the building design for the Marbella. Top of mind will be the question of whether the design creates “effective transitions” to neighboring properties, in order to justify the bonus height that APAH needs to make this project happen. In preparation for the SPRC, the architect working with APAH has already downscaled the buildings’ massing. The changes they present tonight require eliminating 8 units and make construction more expensive. To appease a handful of homeowners, Arlington is losing the opportunity for 8 low-income families to live securely in Arlington. This trade-off doesn’t seem to fit our equity goals.

The Site Plan Review Committee is composed of representatives from Arlington’s commissions, as well as representatives from relevant civic associations and surrounding properties. In function, this group will almost always be predominantly condo or homeowners, not renters. Currently, no residents of the Marbella are included. As someone who has sat on one SPRC, it is frustrating to have design details criticized by people who will never live in the building. Including a current Marbella resident will help keep the process focused on best serving the needs of future residents, while making adjustments where possible to fit the neighborhood.

This SPRC is a critical test of Arlington’s commitment to affordable housing. Our community’s housing goals are more important than the worry about living next to a 12-story building. Every year, Arlington falls further behind its goal to increase the supply of affordable housing. By 2040, 17.7% of the County’s housing stock should be affordable rentals to meet the needs of renter households with incomes at or below 60% AMI, according to the Affordable Housing Master Plan. Currently, only 9.8% of units meet this standard, a number virtually unchanged since the Plan was adopted in 2015.

The bottom line is that the Marbella redevelopment could have added 489 new units. Today, that gets cut down to 481. How much further will we go? As long as Arlington leaders view the perceived burden of living next to a 12-story building as negotiable with the burden of lacking secure housing, we will never meet our equity goals or our goals for affordable housing. I hope a smooth SPRC process will achieve this important goal for Arlington, and make the surrounding neighbors excited about welcoming more people to our great neighborhood.

Jane Fiegen Green, an Arlington resident since 2015, proudly rents an apartment in Pentagon City with her family. By day, she is the Membership Director for Food and Water Watch, and by night she tries to navigate the Arlington Way. Opinions here are her own. APAH, mentioned above, is a financial supporter of the Alliance for Housing Solutions and Jane serves on AHS’s board, a role that includes no compensation.

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