Members of the Arlington Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board (HALRB) have opted against moving forward, for now, on a proposal to confer historic-district status on a 70-year-old apartment compound in the Arlington Mill neighborhood.
But the buildings may end up preserved, nonetheless.
Board members on July 20 decided not to take the procedural step necessary to have staff begin investigating the historical provenance of the 118-unit Haven Apartments on the western edge of Columbia Pike, but reserved the right to come back to the matter later.
“We should leave our options open,” HALRB chairman Richard Woodruff said, noting “not a great desire [among commission members] to burden staff with doing a formal study.”
Historic-district designation might end up being unnecessary, Woodruff said, if a current development deal goes through.
The owner of the apartment complex is hoping to receive county-government approval to transfer the development rights on the parcel to the Macy’s site in Ballston, which if approved would green-light construction of 236 units of affordable housing as part of that redevelopment project.
As part of such an agreement, the county government would receive a preservation easement on the Haven site, effectively retaining those apartments on the site, potentially forever, as committed-affordable units.
Since that process is likely to play out in a few months, rather than the roughly 18 months it would take historic-preservation staff to complete a report on developing an historic district, “it seems redundant” to conduct such a study at present, Woodruff said.
Getting the easement (which provides more protections against future development than a local historic district) would allow HALRB members to avoid deciding whether an apartment complex that would seem to have little going for it, architecturally, is worthy of “historic” status.
In fact, the local government’s Historic Resources Inventory, while including the parcel, gives it the rather lowly “notable” status.
“There are more architecturally and historically important” properties on Columbia Pike to look at for historic districts, said HALRB member Andrew Wenchel Jr.
And he, like several other members, said there was no need to use resources on the effort at this point.
“The staff has got other things that they need to do,” he said.
The application for local-historic-district status was filed not by the property owner, but by local civic activist Bernard Berne, and at the time of the HALRB meeting it was not known whether the property owner would be supportive of the designation. In general, County Board members (who have the final say on establishing local historic districts) have been reluctant to impose them over the will of property owners.
In his presentation, Berne noted that Arlington already has three other garden-apartment complexes that are part of historic districts, and that the Haven Apartments do have some distinctive features.
That, however, was not the view of Linda LeDuc, who was representing the Arlington Mill Civic Association at the meeting.
“These buildings do not have any great defining architecture to them,” she said, while acknowledging that the exterior doorframes did have their charms.
More broadly, LeDuc said residents of Arlington Mill were concerned about the prospect of the aging apartment buildings – which sit on 3.7 acres of open space – being proposed for perpetual preservation when the site conceivably could be better used at a later time.
“We wish to improve our housing stock,” LeDuc said of the neighborhood’s position. The site “offers an opportunity to create new mixed-income housing in the future,” she said.
That’s something that likely would not transpire if the county government agrees with the plan to transfer the site’s development rights to Ballston.
Unlike local historic districts, which do provide property owners the ability to demolish existing structures after attempting to find a purchaser, the historic easement being considered for the Haven site would seem not to allow any redevelopment opportunities.
(An easement such as this is more often used on public or quasi-public sites, such as the Arlington Arts Center, which leases the former Maury School in Clarendon from the county government.)
Whether or not the proposal for an historic district ever makes its way back to HALRB members, Woodruff said it would be valuable to do some investigating into the Haven Apartments’ provenance.
“There is a desire for people to know more,” he said.
A nearby apartment complex – Monterey – was designed by the same architect during the same period. Berne said he plans to come back with a proposal for local-historic-district status for that parcel in coming months.