Clarendon church apartment project could be national model

Local,Virginia,Real Estate,Liz Farmer

An apartment development being built above an Arlington church sanctuary is being closely watched by urban parishes around the country as a potential solution to their shrinking budgets.

"We're getting quite a few calls about this one," said Michael Foster, a principal of Arlington's MTFA Architecture, which designed the project.

The Views at Clarendon will consist of 70 affordable apartments and 46 market-rate apartments on eight floors being built on top of the two-story sanctuary and administrative wing of the First Baptist Church at Clarendon. The building's total height will be lower than the church steeple.

The project is being done in conjunction with the church, which sold its air rights to the nonprofit Views to develop affordable housing on its site located one block from the Clarendon Metro station.

Foster said MTFA is now working on ideas for Christ Lutheran Church of Bethesda and St. Augustine's Episcopal Church in Southwest Washington, where similar mixed-use designs are being considered.

"And we're in conversations with a half-dozen more [churches] in the region and nationally," Foster said. "I think others are watching this project closely ... to see how it pans out."

Churches have invested in mixed-income housing before -- but sharing land with a development is a unique move that could inspire a trend across the country.

Urban churches like the Church at Clarendon have seen their congregations -- and contributions -- diminish over the years while the need for services like a mission and food bank increase, straining the budget.

If Clarendon's example is successful, other city churches also could leverage their valuable land to stay afloat.

"Churches have been in these locations for a long time and these are the sites where people most want to develop," said Scott Melnick, managing director of Jones Lang LaSalle's Maryland office. "From a ... public-private standpoint, I think you'll be seeing more of that because there's more of a push now for affordable housing -- it helps get those deals done."

The development has met challenges since its proposal in 2004 and isn't out of the woods yet. Although lawsuits contesting the zoning were defeated, a 2009 lawsuit arguing the development violates the First Amendment's separation of church and state is on appeal in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Excavation on the site's parking garage began in the spring and buildup is expected to begin next month, according to Foster. The church will keep ownership of the first two floors of the building while the nonprofit will own the apartments above and the parking garage below.

The development is expected to open late next year.

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