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Melwood proposal advances as county leaders hope for a 're-set'

Acceptance of General Land Use Plan document could result in rezoning of parcel near Crystal City

Arlington County Board members late on May 21 kept the ball rolling on the possible eventual redevelopment of the 2-acre Melwood parcel near Crystal City, but expressed hope the property owner and surrounding community could find more common ground than has been the case to date.

“This is going to be a re-set,” County Board Chairman Libby Garvey said in the run-up to the 5-0 vote, suggesting that everyone in the process has “gotta work together” to find an outcome everyone can live with.

“I think we are going to be fine in the end. Whether we did it correctly or not, it just feels right,” Garvey said. “What’s there [now] doesn’t make sense.”

The 5-0 vote, taken after more than 30 speakers added their views, was to accept a county-staff General Land Use Plan (GLUP) study of the parcel, which is another procedural step toward eventual rezoning of the site.

Melwood, which in 2018 obtained the parcel at 750 23rd St. South as part of its acquisition of Linden Resources, is seeking to construct a five-story, mixed-use building in collaboration with Wesley Housing. The building would have more than 100 residential units and provide space for existing programs that offer training and job options for those with intellectual challenges.

In late 2021, Melwood announced plans to raze the existing structure, but must obtain a change in zoning to accomplish the task. Its efforts have drawn flak from the Aurora Highlands Civic Association.

Not far from Crystal City, the Melwood site sits in a block that also includes a one-story commercial building, several homes and Nelly Custis Park. It is two blocks west of 23rd Street South’s “Restaurant Row,” with single-family homes and Calvary United Methodist Church found in between.

The building now used by Melwood once housed Nelly Custis Elementary. The school was shuttered in 1979 as part of a wave of closings and consolidations as the Arlington student population cratered in the 1970s and 1980s.

The May 21 County Board vote was essentially the end of one process and the beginning of another, which could end in the site’s rezoning.

“We’ll all be hearing more from each other,” County Board member Maureen Coffey said.

As a sign that everything might work out, Garvey pointed to Culpepper Garden, a mid-rise senior-living structure that sits amid a residential community near Ballston and generally is compatible with the neighborhood around it. Her colleague, Takis Karantonis, said the Melwood proposal needs to result in the “best possible and most gentle” development option.

Adding a wrinkle to the rezoning effort is a proposal by a local resident to have the site designated as a local historic landmark, owing to the building’s previous use as Nelly Custis Elementary School.

Designation as a local historic district would require approval by the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board and then the County Board. It seems a long-shot, as County Board members for decades have not approved such a district when the property owner opposed designation.

Designation would provide some, but not unlimited, protection against the building’s being razed or its exterior being significantly altered.