Arlington County Board Candidates Weigh in on Proposed Shelter
Board will vote today on whether county should acquire building though purchase or condemnation.
In separate interviews Monday, three candidates for the Arlington County Board criticized the process the county used to arrive at today’s decision on whether to buy or condemn an office building near a residential area to use for a year-round homeless shelter and office space.
A fourth cautioned the county to make sure it was pursuing the best course of action and lead by example when it comes to relocating the businesses currently in the Thomas Building, 2020 14th St. North. All four stated their commitment to end homelessness in Arlington County.
At least six Democrats have announced they will compete in early February for their party’s nomination to replace Barbara Favola on the Arlington County Board. Favola is resigning effective Dec. 31 in order to take a seat in the state Senate, and the courts will set a special election date, likely in mid-April.
The county board will vote today on authorizing the county manager to make an offer on the Thomas Building and, if no price can be agreed upon, to begin the process of acquiring the building via eminent domain. The county has had the building appraised at $25.5 million, and estimates the process of acquiring it, relocating certain tenants and renovating it will be about $34 million.
Several of the 21 companies that have space in the seven-story building would be required to move immediately. Others would be allowed to stay through the end of their lease. The county wants to keep the three ground-level retail establishments.
Neighbors, particularly in the Woodbury Heights condominiums, have been organizing to oppose the county, handing out fliers to "keep our block safe." They want more information on the potential impact on crime, property values, traffic flow, noise and in other areas.
“I understand, as a layman, there are real estate elements of this deal that the county might not conduct in the public eye. And that happens all the time. I understand that,” said Melissa Bondi, a candidate and former president of the Lyon Park Civic Association.
“But it would certainly be a concern for any community not to be reached out to in advance – ‘We're looking at an area. We're not going to say what block it’s in, but what are your concerns?’ I think that's a conversation that any community would want to have.”
Lyon Park went through a similar situation when a nonprofit wanted to put a domestic violence shelter in a residential neighborhood, Bondi said. Once the community was able to have its questions answered, they were able to work with the nonprofit to integrate the shelter into their community.
“It's a false choice to say we either care about the residents of Courthouse or the people served by the homeless shelter. Because I think actually we should care about both,” said Bondi, who also formerly helmed a commission that advises the county on affordable housing issues.
Those most affected by the county’s move on the Thomas Building found out about it just before Thanksgiving – either via a letter from the county or in online news reports.
“I am not incredibly impressed with the way that the county has gone about the process. It was definitely inappropriate for the residents to learn about this through the media,” said candidate Kim Klingler, a health-care advocate and first responder.
"I'm very sensitive to eminent domain issues. I don't think the conversation started out on the right foot, with the owners and the residents. If we could go back and start again, that would be the best bet. But we are where we are."
Candidate Terron Sims, an Iraq veteran and West Point graduate, said the Planning Commission, the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission and the affected civic associations should have had the chance to weigh in before the county got to a vote.
He also questioned the expense. Sims specifically highlighted the need to better fund mental health, education and stormwater infrastructure.
"For some reason, they feel the need to rush this project," he said. "And the question hasn't been answered: Why the need to rush this project? And why the need to circumvent the process that everyone's accustomed to?"
Arlington Planning Commission member Peter Fallon said while the county needs to hear the concerns of residents, that shouldn't preclude the board from moving toward the acquisition.
That process is long, and can be stopped if something better is found, he said. Also, the use permit process that would allow the county to put a shelter in the building is long and involves public input – and acquiring such a permit could be a year away, he said.
"The bottom line is we have a homeless problem,” Fallon said. “…I can respect that the people who live in the condominiums near the building are like, 'Wait, what's going on here? What are you trying to do to us?' Those folks have a right to be heard and express their concerns. And if I was being asked to vote on this, I wouldn't vote until I heard from them."
The county board should press staff to prove that the building at 2020 14th St. North is better than any alternative, he said.
The county, too, should "practice what it preaches," he said. As developers are required to assist people displaced by new apartment buildings in finding a new place to live, so should the county provide the assistance needed to move the businesses in the Thomas Building into new space with comparable rent.
Arlington School Board member Libby Garvey said, generally, eminent domain issues should be studied carefully, but that she hasn’t followed the issue closely and didn’t want to comment beyond that.
Elmer Lowe, president of the Arlington chapter of the NAACP, said he first heard about the situation Wednesday night and didn't have an opinion on it yet.