(Updated at 5:40 p.m.) A local nonprofit intends to redevelop and add affordable housing for people with disabilities to its property near Crystal City.
Melwood, which connects people with disabilities with public- and private-sector jobs and opportunities, currently runs a workforce development site from the building at 750 23rd Street S., in the Aurora Highlands neighborhood.
It envisions redeveloping the property into a 100% affordable, 104-unit building with about 30 units set aside for people with disabilities. The five-story building would also house workforce development services and community programming.
“This project builds on Melwood’s ongoing commitment to create more inclusive spaces and empower people with disabilities to live, work and thrive in their communities,” the company said in a statement to ARLnow. “By redeveloping the 23rd St. S. property, Melwood and its partners will be addressing another persistent gap for people with disabilities and their path to independence — affordable, accessible housing.”
Melwood took an early step forward by filing an application for a Special General Land Use Plan (GLUP) study this week. The application says the study is needed because the property falls outside of any adopted county sector plan documents.
The Maryland-based nonprofit — which has operated in Northern Virginia for many years — acquired the Arlington property during its merger in 2017 with Linden Resources, a local nonprofit that similarly provided employment opportunities to people with disabilities. Melwood says it began discussing options for the site with community members and stakeholders in 2020.
“From these conversations, Melwood heard the community’s strong interest in leveraging its facility to support affordable housing in addition to Melwood’s existing program offerings,” which currently support about 500 Arlington residents, the nonprofit said.
The proposed apartment building will address the “significant need” for independent, affordable housing for Arlington residents with disabilities, Melwood says, adding that in 2019, 22% of locals with disabilities lived under the poverty line and couldn’t afford housing.
Melwood requests that the county change the land-use designation from “public” to “low-medium” residential uses so that the property can eventually be rezoned for apartments, according to a letter from Catharine Puskar, a land use attorney representing the nonprofit.
The privately owned property is designated for public uses because, until 1981, the building operated as the former Nellie Custis School.
After the school closed, Arlington County swapped the Aurora Highlands property for a parcel near the Ballston Metro station with Sheltered Occupational Center of Northern Virginia, another work center for people with disabilities, the letter said. As part of the land swap, the county gave the center a special permit to operate on land zoned for public uses.
The property includes the tiny, .8-acre Nelly Custis Park. Long before the current iteration of the park was built, a project some objected to, the occupational center had to grant to the county an open space easement for a public park as part of the land swap.
The public easement and the park will stay, but Melwood is allowed to use the parcel to calculate how many units can fit in its proposed apartment building, Puskar said.
Work could soon get started on the once-controversial overhaul of Nelly Custis Park in the Aurora Highlands neighborhood.
The County Board is set to approve a $643,000 contract for construction at the park, located at 701 24th Street S., at its meeting this weekend. Changes will include some fixes to the park’s drainage problems, new plantings and fresh playground equipment.
The latter feature attracted the most community scrutiny two years ago, with a group dubbed the “Friends of Aurora Highlands Parks” doing battle with neighbors over the utility of adding more playground space to the park. Opponents argued the playground was unnecessary, as it was the third playground in just over one block, and took up green space at the small park, which is just under one acre in size.
The spat ultimately led to county officials issuing a public apology for their handling of the situation, and the county ultimately convened a neighborhood working group to refine the project’s scope.
The current construction plans call for “a play space designed for ages 5-12 in addition to non-structured casual space” and replacements for “outdated” playground equipment, per a staff report prepared for the Board. The project will be funded as part of the county’s “Neighborhood Conservation” program, a fund set aside for minor neighborhood infrastructure improvements that could see big cuts and other changes in the coming years.
So long as the Board approves the contract Saturday (Sept. 22), the county hopes to begin work on Nelly Custis Park before the year is out and wrap it up by summer 2019.
The Arlington County Board this weekend is set to consider a $1.6 million slate of minor neighborhood improvement projects.
Most of the time, such “Neighborhood Conservation” projects are uncontroversial. The latest includes a neighborhood sign for Shirlington, a beautification project for the historic Calloway United Methodist Church cemetery, and street improvements for the 4800 block of 9th Street S., which leads to the W&OD Trail in the Barcroft neighborhood.
One project, however, has resulted in a flurry of back-and-forth emails to reporters and county officials, accusations of lies and bad faith, and exhaustive five-page missives. No, this isn’t over a bocce court. It’s over a play area for 5-12 year olds in a 0.8 acre park in Aurora Highlands.
At $798,222, the Neighborhood Conservation project for Nelly Custis Park (701 24th Street S.) is the priciest item in the latest batch. The project includes new plantings, improved storm water management, removal of invasive species, a new ADA accessible walkway and — most controversially — a small play area for school-aged children next to an existing playground.
On one side are members of the “Friends of Aurora Highlands Parks” group, which formed last year to oppose a new playgrounds and athletic courts, saying that the neighborhood had enough of them already.
A member of the group, who in her latest emails asked not to be identified by name, had this to say about the Nelly Custis project: “It has been contentious and controversial from within the neighborhood from the beginning and continues to move forward with some very significant questions about tax-payer waste, process and community input.”
On the other side are residents and Aurora Highlands Civic Association members who say they’re in favor of the changes, which are coming after an extensive planning process involving the community.
“The neighborhood is in overwhelming support of the project and it has undergone an extensive (more than required) development process,” said Mary Humphreys, who’s lived in Aurora Highlands, near Crystal City, for more than 10 years. “Unfortunately, there is a very vocal resident… who is opposed to the improvements and despite many kind and collaborative efforts, he continues to spread incorrect information.”
Humphreys said the spat essentially boils down to the fact that opponents of the play area want local parks to serve “age-diverse needs” — more green space, dog park and water features, not just playgrounds.
For opponents, until the project is approved, the fight continues. On Monday, the “Friends” member who asked not to be identified wrote a letter to the County Board with a slew of questions. Among them:
“How can the public have confidence in the environmental integrity of NC park projects when the formal process fails to include a review by all relevant county commissions, including the Arlington Park & Recreation Commission and the Environment and Energy Conservation Commission?” she wrote. “No commission or committee formally reviewed this project despite requests for them to do so.”
“This is not the Arlington Way,” the letter-writer concluded.