Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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The slow-motion clash continues in the Westover community, where builders are tearing down aging apartments to erect $800,000 townhomes.

Residents await a drawn-out county decision on protecting World War II-era garden apartments via a proposed historic district, which would bring strict regulations on improvements.

And the county is proceeding with a narrower measure — a phased-in change to the general land use plan to create a Housing Conservation District at a dozen sites. Leaders hope loose incentives, rather than heavy regulation, will combine with a nonprofit’s investments to preserve affordable housing.

Among the locals impatient for a solution is John Reeder. This frequent letter writer and housing activist, along with Westover tenants, in May 2016 proposed the historic protection, noting that Westover had already been recognized on the national Historic Resources Inventory in 2006.

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“About three months ago, two apartment buildings adjacent to Westover Park were demolished and construction of more townhouses began,” Reeder said last week. “More are scheduled.”

He is pressing for faster action by the Historical Preservation Office and the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board. “It is wrong for the county to delay while the bulldozers work, whether in Westover or anywhere in the county,” Reeder said.

The county’s proposal for the Housing Conservation District would “seek to ensure that townhouse development does not unduly interfere with the character and form of development in those neighborhoods,” a board release said. Staff noted that a proliferation of townhouses clashes with zoning for older, multi-family subdivisions. They would “reclassify by-right townhouse development to special exception use within the Housing Conservation District, meaning such development would be considered on a case-by-case basis.”

But the county board’s priority for a Housing Conservation District does not rule out the stricter historic designation for Westover.

Historic Preservation Program Coordinator Cynthia Liccese-Torres told me that inventory work on Westover garden apartments continues in conjunction with the county’s ongoing Study of Market Rate Affordable Housing.

“The designation process is not stalled, but has been deferred,” I was told by Joan Lawrence, chairman of the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board. She and county staff are considering both the garden apartments listed on the National Historic Inventory and the market-rate affordable housing within them. Her board has not set a date for a hearing.

Since 2012, 80 market affordable apartment units in nine buildings in Westover have been lost to redevelopment, noted Housing Division Chief David Cristeal. Hence the county also provided an Affordable Housing Investment Fund loan to the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing to preserve 68 market affordable apartments in Westover.

I spoke to Huy Phan, the builder and property owner who is developing 45 townhouses at 11th and Kensington Sts. “We have other buildings in Westover that we will preserve and continue to run as apartment buildings,” he said, citing nine buildings with 72-75 units. But he is not wild about a historic district. “It’s hard to eliminate the by-right nature of the development of these properties,” he said. “It’s problematic taking away an inherent right that came to property owners when they bought it.”

To Reeder, the less-restrictive Housing Conservation District may be okay in the long run. “But it’s going to take awhile, and I’m still concerned about saving Westover buildings, keeping the green space, the trees, the setbacks and lawns of the garden apartments.”

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I’ve been enjoying the recent memoir of plugged-in Washington-area DJ Cerphe Colwell (Titled “Cerphe’s Up”).

For radio listeners in our area in the late ‘60s, ’70s and ‘80s, it brings back a flood of memories of concerts (the Cellar Door!) and his encounters with Bruce Springsteen, George Harrison, Fleetwood Mac and Jackson Browne.

Though Cerphe made his bones in a “bunker” at Bethesda-based WHFS, he has a warm spot for Arlington-based WAVA — at Lee Highway and George Mason Dr. “WAVA had a strong signal,” he writes. “And there were windows, with sunlight, where you see trees.”

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