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Clarendon church and APAH float plans to build affordable senior housing

(Updated at 12 p.m. on 10/10/23) A church in Clarendon could be redeveloped with senior housing, pending the outcome of a forthcoming county land-use study.

Over the last year, Clarendon Presbyterian Church and Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, or APAH, have been developing plans to tear down the 75-year-old church at 1305 N. Jackson Street and build a 92-unit affordable apartment building for seniors 55 or 62 and older.

The church would move into a new 8,000-square-foot space in the building, with design elements and programming specifically geared toward LGBTQ seniors, says Pastor Alice Tewell. The Clarendon Child Care Center — which a parent co-op board runs from the church — would also move in and have space for up to 58 children. It has that capacity now but currently serves 40.

The process is in its early stages. This summer, Clarendon Presbyterian and APAH asked the county to embark on a special General Land Use Plan (GLUP) study to determine if the property can be redesignated from “semi-public” to “low-medium residential.”

The county granted the request and scheduled a “Tier 1” review to begin later this fall, though no meetings have been scheduled. In this stage, the Long Range Planning Committee would review whether it is appropriate to consider the property for a new land use designation.

Removing the “semi-public” designation would lay the groundwork for this project, located a 5-minute walk from the Clarendon Metro station. The project would require rezoning, too, as the site is zoned for single-family homes — and now 2-6 unit homes, with the approval of ‘Missing Middle’ changes.

The church is located next to older garden style apartments and new, market-rate apartments.

If the Arlington County Board approves the designation change, the church and APAH would then file a site plan application subject to public review. It will be a few years before the duo has the approvals they need to obtain financing from federal tax credits and commercial, local and state loans, says Tewell.

Should all this happen on schedule, the church could open its new doors in 2029 or 2030 after a two-year construction period. That means a few more years in a church building that is too big and too old to serve the congregation and community effectively, according to the pastor.

“Our current building of nearly 75 years — built for 450 people and now serving a congregation of less than 80 — is literally falling apart with massive annual repair costs, and we will soon no longer have the resources to maintain it and continue serving the Clarendon community unless we redevelop and create a new and much smaller worship space for the congregation,” Tewell said.

The congregation identified the need to redevelop in 2021 and a year later voted to work with APAH, she said.

During this time, the church sunk more than $100,000 into HVAC, electric and plumbing maintenance, according to a letter to Arlington County. The letter foretells the church moving, possibly from Arlington, in five to 10 years if the expenses continue to mount with no redevelopment option.

Should the church leave, it says, childcare, community programming and monthly food and toiletry drives would go with it, and would be “a sore loss for the entire Arlington community.”

But not everyone is on board. A petition to “save” the church and “preserve our residential neighborhood” has north of 640 signatures to date.

On Monday night, a land use attorney spoke to the Lyon Village Civic Association about the concerns he identified with this project, just outside the boundaries of a 2006 sector plan. This plan, and its 2022 update, concentrate development south of Lyon Village.

Neighbors “expect development to stop at that line,” attorney Tad Lunger said. “This proposal takes it north of that line and redraws the line. Then, you know, it will continue to move north, most likely.”

“If this is approved, there’s nothing that limits future applications from having that proximity,” he said. “We think that the aim of this application is open up all the church sites in Arlington… There’s no way to anticipate where the next proposal would come which makes living in or investing in property anywhere in the county a bit more risky.”

Attendees were split on the proposal and Lunger’s assessment. Some agreed, some questioned whether it was overblown and a few lamented assumptions that everyone in the neighborhood feels the same way about this proposal.

Two Arlington County Board candidates, Republican Juan Carlos Fierro and Independent Audrey Clement, both spoke out against the proposal. Democrat Susan Cunningham held an informal discussion near the site last weekend.

Tewell says the church saw significant interest in the proposal, judging from two in-person town hall meetings this summer that packed the sanctuary. She noted some opposed the proposal, others were unsure and still others were “overwhelmingly in favor because of the deep need for affordable housing for seniors, and especially housing that is welcoming to LGBT seniors.”

“One-third of LGBTQ+ people over 50 live at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, compared to one fourth non-LGBTQ+ people,” she said. “Due to sometimes-rampant homophobia in retirement communities, it’s not uncommon for LGBTQ elders to hide their sexual preference and gender identities. Those settings contribute to social isolation, which is deadly.”

A handful of other Arlington churches have undertaken housing redevelopment projects or are considering it, whether to right-size their finances or better use their land and serve their communities.

Mount Olivet United Methodist Church in Ballston has mulled redeveloping open space and parking on its site. St. Charles Borromeo Church in Clarendon proposes a joint housing-church project and APAH partnered with Central United Methodist Church and Arlington Presbyterian Church on similar projects in Ballston and on Columbia Pike.

Fourteen years ago a local resident unsuccessfully sued to challenge an affordable housing deal that saw an apartment building — now known as vPoint apartments — built on the site of the First Baptist Church of Clarendon. That project, which funded a new sanctuary for the church, also received considerable pushback from Lyon Village residents.

Photo (7) via Friends of Clarendon Presbyterian Church/Facebook

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