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Melwood's development plan draws flak from Arlington neighbors

Parcel sits on 23rd St. South not far from Crystal City
Graphic from Melwood's proposal to the Arlington County government shows its parcel along 23rd Street South in Arlington. "Restaurant Row" is one block beyond the right edge of the graphic; Richmond Highway is two blocks further to the right.

Slow down, you move too fast; don’t try to slip this rezoning past.

Slip it past without full consideration of past history and future ramifications, that is.

That’s the message being delivered – albeit in a less Simon & Garfunkel-y way – to the Arlington government by a civic association in relation to proposed redevelopment of a site on the periphery of Crystal City.

The proposal to put a five-story building with more than 100 residential units on the parcel comes from Melwood, which took ownership of the parcel at 750 23rd St. South as part of its 2018 acquisition of Linden Resources, a program (once known as SOC Enterprises) that provided training and job options for those with intellectual challenges. The building on the site continues to be used to support some of those jobs.

In late 2021, Melwood announced plans to raze the existing structure and build a new one, with training programs on the lower floors and affordable housing (some for Melwood clients) on the upper.

Such a switch would require the county government to change zoning – currently mostly C-1, which allows for low-intensity commercial operations and limits building heights to 35 feet – to something allowing more intense development. Winning approval of redevelopment also would necessitate changes to the county’s General Land Use Plan, or GLUP.

And that has drawn fire from the Aurora Highlands Civic Association, which on Nov. 21 sent a three-page letter to County Board members on the matter.

The letter, signed by association president Cory Jacobson Giacobbe, contends that the proposal runs afoul of the GLUP, Crystal City Sector Plan, Pentagon City Sector Plan, Historic Preservation Plan and Aurora Highlands Neighborhood Conservation Plan.

Taken together, those plans “unequivocally set forth the importance of maintaining the existing scale and integrity of the low-scale single-family neighborhood” that surrounds the site, Jacobson Giacobbe wrote.

In May, Melwood successfully convinced county officials to conduct a special GLUP study of the site, noting that its current designation as public space is inconsistent with its current use; that the site is not included in the Crystal City Sector Plan or any other sector plan; and that the proposal “advances several county goals.”

Jacobson Giacobbe counterpunched that the Crystal City Sector Plan, adopted by the County Board in 2010, was supported by surrounding civic associations with the proviso that higher height in the heart of Crystal City would be acceptable only if surrounding neighborhoods would be left out of urbanization efforts.

“These neighborhoods should be able to rely on the commitments made to them,” she wrote to county leaders.

Her letter compared the Melwood proposal to one filed by leaders of Clarendon Presbyterian Church and the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, seeking to raze that century-old church and build housing (with modest space for the downsized congregation) in its place. That proposal, too, has picked up opposition from those living around it, who said the resulting project would be out of scale to the neighborhood.

The Melwood plan is wending its way through Arlington’s planning process, and ultimately is likely to land before the Planning Commission and County Board. If so, the five County Board members will have to choose between two constituencies – an active neighborhood association on the one hand and advocates for more low-income housing on the other.

If that’s what it boils down to, odds may be stacked against the neighborhood, as the current County Board often has put increasing housing stock above all other considerations.

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.

Though a non-profit, Maryland-based Melwood – legally-speaking, the Melwood Horticultural Training Center Inc. – is no mom-and-pop operation. It reported $112 million in revenues in its 2022 fiscal year, according to figures reported to the Internal Revenue Service.