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Affordable housing proposal in Aurora Highlands nears milestone, despite objections

Plans to build an affordable housing development near Crystal City could take a key step forward next week despite a neighborhood association’s objections.

A request to advertise hearings on a possible land-use amendment for the Melwood property in Aurora Highlands is scheduled to go before the Arlington County Board on Tuesday. At issue is the possibility of shifting the site’s zoning designation from “public” to “low-medium residential” — bringing a proposal to build 104 units of affordable housing “within the realm of consideration,” a county report says.

The report, which recommends approving a special General Land Use Plan (GLUP) study on the property at 750 23rd Street S., highlights the site’s “walkability” and its location near Crystal City’s Restaurant Row. It argues that these factors make it promising for development despite challenges.

“Circulation and parking impacts should be mitigated, the site should be designed to allow for open space and the greatest extent of tree conservation possible, the historic facade should be considered for preservation or interpretation and stormwater impacts should be mitigated, all while still allowing for redevelopment,” the county staff report says.

The Aurora Highlands Civic Association, however, asserts that an approximately five-story apartment building would be inappropriate for the neighborhood and counter to what it describes as the site’s historic nature. Arguing that GLUP study is “biased toward the applicant,” the association drafted a 30-page report calling for a development about half the size of the one proposed.

“This is an opportunity we can’t afford to miss,” said AHCA member Nicholas Giacobbe. “Preservation of the open space and historic school building can serve as a model for other communities and a centerpiece of our neighborhood.”

Currently occupying the site are the former Nelly Custis School building and the 0.8-acre Nelly Custis Park. The building is considered a contributing structure to the Aurora Highlands National Register Historic District, but it is not protected as a Local Historic District nor listed on the county’s Historic Resources Inventory, the county report says.

Redeveloping the site would involve demolishing the school building built in 1923. County staff are not recommending any zoning changes to Nelly Custis Park.

Even so, AHCA argues that the proposed development’s effect on tree coverage “would completely change the feel of the park and the surrounding community.”

Respondents were divided in their answers to a community engagement survey conducted as part of the GLUP study. About 42% of 195 respondents supported building a 35-foot high building on the site, while 38% supported a 60-foot building.

A “low-medium residential” zoning designation, in the context of this neighborhood, would allow for the possibility of a building up to 60 feet in height.

“Important policy considerations related to land use and site design include a need for more affordable and equitable housing, conserving open space and trees, addressing stormwater with redevelopment, enhancing transportation connectivity and safety, and the significance of historic resources,” the GLUP study says.

The study notes that the site’s “public” designation doesn’t match its current function as a private property from which Melwood runs job training and placement services for people with disabilities. The property was used by Linden Resources before the nonprofit merged with Melwood in 2017.

The proposed development would include units for households earning up to 60% of the area median income and some set aside for very low-income households. As many as 30 units could be set aside for people with disabilities, while Melwood would continue using the site for training and services.

The Melwood proposal has been in the works since late 2021. The county’s Long-Range Planning Committee recommended conducting a GLUP study last May, and in March the development plan secured $500,000 in federal funding.