They had known for weeks – probably months – of the likely outcome, but for preservation advocates, the Arlington County Board’s April 17 decision to deny historic-district status to the Rouse estate still had a sting to it.
“The whole thing was really a needless waste,” sighed Historical Affairs & Landmark Review Board (HALRB) chairman Richard Woodruff, who blamed “a complete failure of leadership” during a five-month-long preservation fight that ended with century-old, if dilapidated, structures bulldozed into a pile of rubble.
In a not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper denouement – albeit one with the occasional verbal spark to it – County Board members voted 5-0 in support of recommendations by the county staff and Planning Commission to deny the HALRB’s request for historic designation.
Their collective judgment was that, with the buildings on the 9.5-acre parcel razed to the ground by the owner weeks before, there was no longer enough reason to view the site as historic.
“There is no basis for the historic designation,” said Planning Commission member James Schroll, who nonetheless said local residents might have lost a “generational opportunity” to either obtain the property for public use, or work with the owners to come up with a compromise.
HALRB members had made their unanimous recommendation on historic status last December; County Board members, however, dawdled until February to start the requisite procedural steps for consideration of the recommendation, and put off until April a final decision. That gave the property owner – a philanthropic trust set up by the late Randy Rouse – more than enough time to obtain the necessary permits to knock down the structures.
It was that slow-walking of the process that may have angered preservationists the most. Some view it as a cynical maneuver by elected officials who didn’t want to take the political heat for allowing the house to be torn down and the property to be redeveloped.
“This did not have to happen. The County Board, the county manager and staff allowed it to happen without the slightest intervention,” said Tom Dickinson, a local resident who a year ago submitted paperwork seeking to make the property a local historic district, and has led the battle ever since.
“My only motivation from the beginning was to do something right for the community, for all of us,” he said.
Dickinson, who estimated he had spent 1,000 hours on the effort, called the county government’s behavior “an unforgivable act.”
But, as those who parse the tea leaves and read the body language of County Board members for clues probably had discerned for months, elected officials had no intention of standing in the way of the razing of the buildings. They feared legal action from the property owners, a battle they were told multiple times by County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac they were likely to lose.
At the April 17 meeting, County Board member Libby Garvey suggested that preservation of the worn-out structures on the Wilson Boulevard parcel was not the hill county leaders wanted to die on.
If the county government had attempted to purchase the site, it would have cost millions for the land followed by “an incredible amount of money” to preserve the circa-1907 main house and bring it to modern standards, she said.
“We really can’t discount the cost,” Garvey said, saying there were better options to provide support for historic-preservation imperatives.
“We need to be smart,” she said.
Thomas Colucci, an attorney who represents the estate of Rouse (who died in 2017 at age 100), said the vilification of the trust for trying to maximize value of the parcel by selling it for redevelopment was unjust.
“To characterize the owners as a bunch of greedy people is far from the truth,” he said. “All the money they get from the sale of the property will be spent on charitable endeavors in Arlington.”
And that, for those who really like to dig into the weeds of Arlington’s sometime kabuki-theater form of governance, might be one reason County Board members acted in a way to least irritate the property owners – they might be looking to collaborate with them down the road, once the dust has settled. County Board Chairman Matt de Ferranti tacitly acknowledged the possibility toward the end of the lengthy meeting.
(Did the County Board and county government act in good faith with the community throughout the process? “A lot of people never will be persuaded,” Garvey acknowledged. And the County Board’s reputation may not have been helped when at least one board member was nibbling on snacks through the presentation of the issue. Not quite Nero fiddling while Rome burned, but not necessarily a good look.)
Colucci, one the region’s top land-use attorneys and one who has played hardball with the county government on the matte rfrom the start, said all the ideas being suggested for alternate uses were nice, but not especially relevant.
“The owner is the owner,” he said. “Everybody seems to have an idea what they want to do with the property; however, no one else has an economic interest.”
Tearing down the existing structures was not a scorched-earth act of vengeance, Colucci said, but of necessity. “The owners really had no choice,” he said, as the unoccupied structures were in “very, very bad condition – which everyone seems to think isn’t very relevant, but it is.”
The HALRB’s Woodruff, who has retained a placid public demeanor but clearly was irked by how the matter had unfolded, said an opportunity was lost when the Rouse trust and the community seemed to go to their corners and come out swinging.
“I had hoped the owners and the county might have come to an agreement,” he said. “This could have been done.”
Woodruff largely blamed the property owner for that failure, but in his April 17 remarks gave no quarter to County Board members and staff, either. He said their effort proceeded “not in a timely way that might have saved the buildings.”
“Instead, this board delayed two months, thus giving the owners time to receive the requisite permits and knock the buildings down,” he said.
The property – known to many preservationists as the “Febrey-Lothrop Estate” for previous owners – is zoned for moderately dense single-family homes. Dickinson estimated the worse-case scenario would be shoehorning “55 megamansions” on the site, located close to the Arlington-Fairfax border.
During the four months while the debate over preservation raged, activists in the housing arena jumped into the fray, aiming to convince county leaders that moderately priced units should be a priority for the parcel – an effort that won them enmity from preservationists, who thought they were muddying the waters.
As part of their action on April 17, County Board members directed staff to lay the groundwork for a potential study of the site, focused on historic-preservation and affordable-housing issues, and come back with a proposal by the end of October.
That could set up a showdown between preservationists and housing activists, but more likely the point will be moot – the parcel by then could have a new owner, and a development plan already could be in the pipeline.
County Board member Katie Cristol suggested that the best approach in the future would be working with property owners, on this site and across the county, in an effort to devise win-win outcomes.
“I would like us to look forward,” she said.