County looks to balance finances, regulations and wishes for Barcroft Apartments

The Barcroft Apartments, a 1,334-unit, market-affordable apartment complex along Columbia Pike (via Google Maps)

It’s been two months since Arlington County and Amazon agreed to loan more than $300 million to facilitate the sale of the Barcroft Apartments on Columbia Pike.

In exchange for these loans, developer Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners agreed to preserve 1,334 units on the site as committed affordable units for 99 years.

Since the deal in December, Jair Lynch has started conducting initial property assessments to understand what substantive repairs and renovations need to be done in the short term to improve residential quality of life and building safety, Anthony Startt, the company’s director of investments, tells ARLnow.

It’s also working with Barcroft Apartments property management company Gates Hudson to meet with residents individually and at welcome events and administer surveys to understand their living situations.

“We are assuring all of our residents that no one will be displaced,” he said.

The garden apartments at 1130 S. George Mason Drive sprawl across 60 acres and house more tenants than some rural towns. They happen to be some of the last market-rate affordable apartments in Arlington, and proponents of the county’s $150 million loan heralded the significant investment in preserving affordable housing, while critics said the deal went through too quickly and without enough community oversight.

Now, the hard work on the county side begins: drafting a long-term investment plan and figuring out how to involve the community, particularly Barcroft residents, in the planning process. Community leaders and County Board members say this will have to balance blue-sky ideas with the financial constraints that come with an affordable housing project, all while working within the parameters of the Neighborhoods Form-Based Code that governs development in the area.

“There are a lot of cool things people would love to see, but the money first has to go toward preservation of 1,334 units, which I don’t know of a larger housing preservation deal in the D.C. area, ever,” says John Snyder, the chair of the Columbia Pike Partnership board (formerly the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, or CPRO).

He served as a representative of the Douglas Park neighborhood on the working group that developed the the Neighborhoods Form-Based Code.

Snyder’s must-haves include an on-site bus stop and bicycle stations to ensure there isn’t a large influx of cars clogging up S. George Mason Drive. His wish list includes a municipal swimming pool and playgrounds. There’s also interest in a daycare or a school.

“It’s going to be very interesting as all of this moves forward in the planning process,” Snyder says. “I just envision people getting great ideas and looking at the other end of the table where the engineers and accountants are sweating, wondering how they can do this… In other places, maybe we can raise the rent, but we can’t here.”

The County Board has encouraged county planning staff to prioritize a review the Neighborhoods Form-Based Code — which has some guidance on building size and placement, but not other topics such as form or ground-floor retail — to ensure the plans act as a floor, and not a ceiling, for whatever Jair Lynch proposes.

“One of the things is that we’re interested in saying is, ‘What is the right planning process for Barcroft?'” Board Chair Katie Cristol tells ARLnow. “Is there a planning exercise that can apply here that allows us to think holistically about the 60 acres and achieve all the different goals that we have for the site?”

The guiding star for the plan is the preservation of affordable units as the Pike develops, and other priorities include accessible open spaces and more street connectivity, Cristol said. There are trade-offs, however, to the form-based code: buildings can have more architectural sameness and fewer sustainability features compared to other projects, subjected to community input during a full site plan process.

“As a Pike resident as much as a County Board member, what I appreciate is that the thing we value above all is preservation of affordability, and you can bring in a project that does that and does not kick out our neighbors,” she said. “The neighborhood plan gives us a great guiding vision for Barcroft in its affordability, but when it comes to the form of the building, I’m hoping it’ll be a floor and not a ceiling.”

Building taller and leaning on the public transit on the Pike will allow for more green space and redirect funds from building a parking garage toward more community benefits, Cristol said. But in order to ensure the property doesn’t get too dense, Jair Lynch can cash in on a tool that allows developers to transfer density from a “sending site,” like Barcroft, to a “receiving site” that can take on more units, which can be on the Pike or elsewhere in Arlington.

There’s also opportunity to develop retail or retail-equivalent uses on the edges of the site that serve the community, Cristol says. She points to the community program and kitchen La Cocina VA at the base of Gilliam Place, an affordable housing community, and Phoenix Bikes, a bike shop with youth programs housed in the Arlington Mill Community Center.

“The plan has been really attentive to no loss of affordable housing, but there is also loss of beloved retail outlets that get lost to redevelopment,” she said. “When we think about ‘no displacement,’ that goes for businesses as well as community members… This is a great example of a way to evolve the plan a little bit.”

As for what Jair Lynch envisions for the site, more details will come after the property assessments wrap up, Startt said.

“The Barcroft Apartment community is home to families from countless different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences, and the Jair Lynch team is excited to find ways to celebrate that,” he said. “We are beginning to conduct a holistic master planning process that will take into account the input from the residents, the community, and Arlington County to create a place where people can live and prosper.”