This former Red Cross building has been vacant for years. Many nearby residents are fighting a plan to turn it into nearly 180 new homes, most of them affordable homes. Image by Google Maps used with permission.

This former Red Cross office building and its parking lot have sat vacant for more than a year. A nonprofit developer has a plan to bring nearly 180 homes to this area, almost all of them affordable to those making 60% of Area Median Income (AMI) or less, which is $66,180 for a family of four.

However, first they’ll have to overcome opposition from the surrounding neighbors.

From a vacant commercial building and parking lot to 161 affordable homes

Wesley Housing Development Corporation owns this vacant site, a nearby 63-unit affordable multifamily building, and two adjacent single-family homes. They have a plan to redevelop the entire area into the following:

  • Maintain the existing 63-unit multifamily building (called Whitefield Commons) and add to it an additional two affordable units (all are affordable to 60% AMI or below)
  • Build 19 market rate townhomes
  • Replace the vacant Red Cross building with a five story apartment building, adding 115 homes at an average affordability of 60% AMI or below

The site is a 20-minute walk from Ballston. The plans provide additional tree cover, a public garden, and an improved streetscape. The apartments and townhomes are a mix of sizes, from studios to three bedrooms.

As a part of the proposal, Wesley is applying for a rezoning that brings additional density. In Arlington, you can apply for bonus density for your project as long as a third of the bonus on-site homes are made into Committed Affordable Units (CAFs), which have a 30-year covenant and are held affordable to those making 60% of AMI. As such, 10 of new units produced through the zoning change will be CAFs, and the developer is applying for other financing to maintain the other units as affordable.

161 affordable homes is a significant amount. For context, Arlington’s Affordable Housing Master Plan predicts that “by 2040 the County is projected to have 22,800 renter households with incomes below 60% AMI, or an increase of 6,300 households (from 2010) representing 17.7% of all Arlington households.” The county needs to encourage and support projects that help meet the current and future demand for affordable homes.

Image by Bonstra Haresign Architects used with permission.

So, what’s not to like? According to neighbors, a lot of things

The project has undergone nearly a year of community engagement, and this last Monday it had its first public hearing in front of Arlington’s Planning Commission. It turns out, residents from the nearby Arlington Oaks and Buckingham communities have a lot to say.

Many simply think the project is too dense and the building is too tall. According to one witness, the proposal is “three times the density of nearby Arlington Oaks” and the project ”would severely damage the neighborhood.”

Brian Tucker, president of Arlington Oaks Community Association, explained how he and his neighbors have “watched as developments have defiled the neighborhood and wiped clean large portions of garden style communities that are emblematic of Buckingham.” (No garden-style apartments will be demolished in this plan, as a majority of the site is a vacant commercial lot).

Others turned to traffic and the loss of green space and tree canopy, though the project plans assure that the redevelopment will actually plant 250% more trees than it removes. One witness warned of the “the drastic reduction of open space, the desecration of the tree canopy, the addition of residents into a constrained site, and the hundreds of new vehicular trips.”

Others said the “traffic will serious overwhelm the infrastructure of the area” and that “residents of the proposed buildings will drive everywhere for everything.”

Finally, many comments were about the proposed affordable homes and their eventual new residents. A few witnesses raised a not-entirely-unfounded point about the equitable dispersion of affordable housing throughout the county.

Bernard Berne, president of the Buckingham Community Civic Association put it this way:

Buckingham has one of the largest concentrations of the county’s affordable housing, 6-7% in just one neighborhood. According to the Affordable Housing Master Plan, the whole idea is to disperse throughout the county, not make one neighborhood the dumping ground for all the affordable housing.

Another witness offered that a “less-dense project would allow Wesley to pursue other affordable housing projects in other parts of the county that are underserved.”

There is a common issue in our region of more privileged areas not building or preserving enough affordable housing, while lower-income neighborhoods become the site of the most new affordable homes. What the right “dispersion” ratio is is a good question, but I would venture that 7% affordable homes in one neighborhood is not too high of a concentration.

Rendering of the proposed multifamily, 100% affordable building, which would replace the vacant Red Cross building. Image by Bonstra Haresign Architects used with permission.

Other witnesses raised much less defensible points. Bernard Berne continued later in his testimony that “the push for affordable housing in Buckingham has been destroying the neighborhood, getting rid of our trees and getting rid of the open space.”

Berne then got into the following narrative:

What about the impact on the schools? We already have a larger percentage of people on free and reduced lunch. How many people who don’t speak English are going to move [into the new building]? What’s the effect on property values for those who don’t want to send their kids to schools where the teachers are having to struggle to teach kids who don’t speak English?… People send their kids to private schools because of this kind of thing.”

Another witness ended his testimony with the following:

How many persons who would actually move into these proposed affordable apartments would even be Arlington residents?… They will drive to work at McDonalds and Goodwill all over the county.

The underlying prejudice and racism here is deeply problematic. Unfortunately, it’s nothing new when it comes to land use battles in our area and across the US.

Rendering of the proposed townhomes. Image by Bonstra Haresign Architects used with permission.

It wasn’t unanimous opposition, and the project seems to be moving forward

Not everyone at the meeting was opposed. One 48-year residents explained how she and her husband were able to afford a new family-sized home years ago on teacher and serviceman’s salaries. She now sees those opportunities disappearing quickly and vouched for the housing types Wesley’s project is providing.

Others who could not testify sent in letters. One resident in nearby Arlington Oaks stated, “I am a YIMBY, and fully support the Red Cross Development project,” understanding that “additional density along route 50” and “ADUs [affordable dwelling units] and sustainable design (LEED) ultimately promote a better community.”

It’s also clear that the county has some issues with the project that still need to be worked out.

County staff recently asked Wesley to add additional affordable covenants to the site. One witness from Wesley’s board raised this as an issue, especially since the county has not committed any funds to support those changes. He explained that the 19 market-rate townhomes were needed as a strategy to help fund other below-market units.

Telling us to make all the units affordable, but not committing county funds to make them affordable, makes it tough… While we are a nonprofit, that doesn’t mean we can lose money.

The Planning Commission eventually approved the project, but noted two items that still need to be resolved: the question of additional affordable housing covenants on the property, and a new request for additional historical protections on one of the buildings.

The next step will be another public hearing in front of the Arlington County Board on April 21 starting at 8:30am.

GGWash sometimes organizes around issues affecting our region. Should we consider advocacy around this topic? Let us know!

David Whitehead was the Housing Program Organizer at Greater Greater Washington from 2016 to 2019.  A former high school math teacher and a community organizer, David worked to broaden and deepen Greater Greater Washington’s efforts to make the region more livable and inclusive through education, advocacy, and organizing. He lives in Eckington.