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Proposed senior living facility in Alcova Heights heads to County Board amid affordability, sustainability concerns

A proposed senior living facility on S. Glebe Road is teed up for Arlington County Board approval this Saturday.

Sunrise Senior Living proposes redeveloping a church in the Alcova Heights neighborhood with a 4-story, 99-unit building with 120 bedrooms and 53 parking spaces.

The public and county review of its plans kicked off this February. During a meeting last Wednesday, the Planning Commission unanimously recommended the Board adopt the proposal from Sunrise.

If the project is approved and construction begins on schedule, the project at 716 S. Glebe Road would be the first new senior housing project since the 1980s, per Arlington’s Commission on Aging. In 2020, the County Board approved an assisted living facility along Langston Blvd, but it languished and was recently sold to another developer.

While pleased that Sunrise is picking up the senior housing baton, some planning commissioners were dismayed Sunrise may only end up committing one unit for affordable housing or making a roughly $226,000 cash contribution to affordable housing. They were also disappointed Sunrise is aiming for LEED Silver certification rather than LEED Gold.

The commission approved motions urging the County Board to ask staff and the applicant to keep exploring ways to add more on-site affordable units and make the building more energy efficient.

“This is a really great opportunity to do something different,” said Planning Commission Vice-Chair Sara Steinberger. “I don’t want to lose the opportunity here because we can’t move fast enough.”

Representing Sunrise, land use attorney Kedrick Whitmore said the developer has take significant steps on sustainability and has long wrestled with its affordability commitments.

He told commissioners to temper their expectations for these areas, arguing they are skewed by developers who deliver LEED Gold certification and on-site affordable units in exchange for bonus density. Sunrise does not want more density because it has to do more for fewer residents, he said.

While excited at the prospect of new senior housing, the Commission on Aging is “very disappointed that the developer has not committed to setting aside some units as affordable units,” says member Cynthia Schneider.

“Both Alexandria and Fairfax County have policies where assisted living facilities set aside a certain number of units as affordable,” she said. “We would like to see this project have a similar commitment.”

Arlington County currently has no formula for calculating senior housing contributions, Whitmore said. It considers rent when calculating how many committed affordable units a developer should provide, whereas senior housing has more comprehensive housing costs to consider, Whitmore said.

“We’re staring into a black box and have trouble committing, at this point, to doing an on-site unit,” he said.

There is ample time for the issue to get sorted out, Commissioner Tenley Peterson said.

“We’re a couple of years out from when this building is going to get built,” she said. “We don’t need to figure it out until we get to the certificate of occupancy.”

The developer also has concerns that more energy-efficient electric appliances, for instance, are not as reliable as their gas counterparts, particularly in an emergency.

This concern did not land well with some commissioners and the Climate Change, Energy and Environment Commission, or C2E2.

“The resiliency of the building benefits quite significantly from a more sustainable building,” Commissioner Leo Sarli said. “It might be penny-wise, pound foolish not to do more environmental building. It’s a cheaper building to maintain, less energy being used every day, and when there’s a resiliency situation — when there’s an emergency — you run less gas, or fossil fuels, to heat or cool.”

C2E2 Chair Joan McIntyre agreed.

“Experts on assisted living design pointed out net zero energy buildings, consisting of high-performing building envelopes, heat pumps and other efficient electric systems and onsite solar, are most resilient during an extreme climate event,” she said.

C2E2, which ranks every project that goes before the Planning Commission and County Board, ranked this project 39 out of 100, the lowest score it offers, McIntyre said. She recommended more trees, less parking and the addition of solar panels to boost its score.

Senior living providers have been seen as slow to adopt higher LEED certification levels due to cost but there are some LEED Gold-certified communities out there.

One such community was built a decade ago in Baltimore. Other existing and forthcoming facilities are as close by as Tysons and Bethesda and as far away as California, Colorado, New York and Nevada.

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