Church in Virginia Seeks to Offer LGBTQ-affirming Senior Housing

Clarendon Presbyterian Church (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

Leaders and members of the Clarendon Presbyterian Church, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary on April 13, have said they decided to continue to fulfill their mission of religious faith by using the land on which their church is located in the Clarendon section of Arlington, Va., to develop a new, larger church building to include LGBTQ affordable housing for seniors along with an independently run childcare center that currently operates in the church.

“In line with the church’s deep history of supporting affordable housing, LGBTQ communities, and seniors, in 2021, the church relaunched a visioning process of how we might invest our most valuable physical resources, our church property, for the good of the community,” church leaders said in a Feb. 9, 2024, statement describing the project.

The statement says that in 2022, the congregation voted to partner with the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing (APAH), a real estate development company that specializes in affordable housing projects. Through that partnership, the statement says, the two partners in June of 2023 applied to the Arlington County government for a zoning change that would allow the construction of a building that could accommodate as many as 92 residential apartments for seniors 55 or 62 and older.

Among other things, the project calls for demolishing the current church building and constructing a new, larger building that would include a smaller version of the church space for its religious services as well as space for 40 to 58 children ages two through six at the Clarendon Child Care Center, which has operated at the church for more than 60 years.

Rev. Alice Tewell, the current pastor at Clarendon Presbyterian Church, told the Washington Blade another important factor contributing to the decision to redevelop the church property is the high cost of maintaining a 100-year-old building and its aging infrastructure that was becoming less and less affordable for the church’s budget. And like many churches across the country, the membership of Clarendon Presbyterian Church has declined over the years, making it no longer necessary for a worship service space as large as that in the current church building, Tewell said.

The statement describing the development plan says that without a major redevelopment project, the church could no longer afford to remain in the current building, forcing it to move to another location outside of Clarendon and possibly outside of Arlington. 

According to Rev. Tewell, the redevelopment decision came after several years of internal discussion, meetings with longtime church allies, including members of the LGBTQ community and other community groups.

“And after all these conversations, we came to where we could serve Christ, which is part of our faith, and where we could be good neighbors in Arlington – would be to tear down our entire property and rebuild so it would include senior affordable housing as LGBT welcoming, a new church space, which we also plan to turn into a community space, and the new space for our preschool center,” Tewell told the Blade.

She noted that the church’s location at 1305 N. Jackson St. is walking distance to the Clarendon Metro station and many local amenities such as restaurants and retail stores, making it a convenient location for the senior residents in the redeveloped space. 

She also points out that church members have consulted with the New York-based LGBTQ seniors advocacy organization SAGE, which informed them of the great need for LGBTQ welcoming senior housing, including in Northern Virginia.

But news of the church’s redevelopment project, especially reports that it would include a proposed 92-unit apartment building, prompted many nearby residents to raise strong objections and to call on the Arlington County Board, which must make a final decision on a zoning change, to deny the zoning change request.

Most of the opposition comes from residents of single-family houses, who point out that the church is located in a largely low-density residential neighborhood with just a few nearby low-rise apartment buildings. In August of 2023, a group of nearby residents created an online petition that gathered at that time more than 1,000 signatures calling for the county to turn down the church development project.

“We, the concerned residents of Arlington, Virginia, stand united in opposition to the proposed destruction of the historic, over 100-year-old, Clarendon Presbyterian Church (CPC) and the subsequent construction of a massive 6-story apartment building having 100 units within our cherished residential neighborhood,” the petition states. “We believe that this development project will have serious detrimental effects on our community’s character, quality of life, and historic heritage,” it says.

The Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, or APAH, the development company working in partnership with the church, submitted an official application on June 29, 2023, for a Special General Land Use Plan Study calling for the needed zoning change for the church project with Arlington County Zoning Administrator Arlova Vonhm. APAH officials have said the initial application was the first of a multi-step process seeking final approval of the project.

Garrett Jackson, APAH’s Director of Resource Development and Communications, told the Blade that APAH on behalf of the church asked the Zoning Administrator to put the application on hold while the church and APAH consider revisions for the project.

“We are currently working with our architect, engineer, and construction management team to assess the feasibility of different development options while also considering feedback we have received from the county and the community,” Jackson told the Blade in a March 15 email.

In a phone interview with the Blade on March 21, Jackson and APAH officials Mitchell Crispell and Brian Goggin, said the decision to put the project on hold did not come as a result of an informal message from the Zoning Administrator that the project was about to be turned down. 

“So, we were the ones that put it on hold,” said Crispell, APAH’s Director of Real Estate Development. “It wasn’t the county that said no to us at all. We wanted to kind of pause for a minute and consider our options, the feasibility of different options and the development plans,” he said.

Crispell noted that the decision to put the project on hold came last fall, a few months after the application was submitted in June and after strong opposition to the project surfaced by nearby residents. Crispell, Jackson, and Goggin pointed out, however, that opposition to development projects is a common phenomenon in Arlington and other jurisdictions and that ongoing dialogue between developers and concerned residents often leads to a resolution to the objections.

“We understand the back and forth that it takes to get these projects to fruition,” Jackson said. “So, you’ve got to rest assured that this is very much a part of the very thorough process that both APAH and the county go through regularly to make sure that we’re getting the absolute best product in the actual building that will go up for Clarendon Presbyterian Church and for the future residents,” Jackson points out.

Jackson and his two APAH colleagues said they couldn’t immediately predict when they will resubmit the application for the zoning change. Spokespersons for the Zoning Office, the Arlington County Board, and Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz didn’t immediately respond to a request by the Blade for comment on the church project and the likelihood of the county approving the project.

Among those supporting the church project is James Fisher, a longtime Arlington LGBTQ rights advocate and longtime church member. Fisher and Arlington gay civic activists Jay Fisette, a former elected member of the Arlington Board, and longtime Arlington resident Bob Witeck, who support the project, told the Blade they believe many nearby residents also support the church development project.

Fisette and Witeck said they do not believe anti-LGBTQ bias is a significant factor, if a factor at all, in the opposition to the church project.

“I personally observe this as disquiet about building a larger and taller presence in a space that abuts residential neighbors unsure of the implications or stresses that might come,” Witeck said. “I’m no Pollyanna, but really believe that with time, this change will be smoother than people fear or imagine,” he said.

Fisette said the church project comes a short time after the Arlington County Board adopted an “Expanded Housing Options” policy that allows for larger residential buildings in some areas originally zoned for low-density, single-family homes. This change drew objections among many residents in areas similar to where Clarendon Presbyterian church is located.

“I would say the LGBTQ elements of the proposal are likely more of a plus than a minus,” Fisette told the Blade. “I expect 99 percent of any resistance-anxiety relates to density  and the real-feared impacts of that density,” he said.

Tewell told the Blade the church’s support for the LGBTQ community dates back to the 1980s, when church members voted in support of a then-controversial proposal to allow the D.C.-based Whitman-Walker Clinic, which had a Northern Virginia outreach, to use space in the church for a support group for people with HIV/AIDS and for HIV caregivers.

“And that started changing the church to becoming a church that was very welcoming to LGBTQ people,” she said, adding that the church subsequently opened its door for LGBTQ community events, some of which were organized by gay church member James Fisher. Among those using the church now is IMPACTO LGBT, a Spanish-speaking LGBT church that holds its worship services at Clarendon Presbyterian Church.

“This is how we are living out our faith in the world,” Tewell said. “We worked out what does God’s embodied love look like for the world? And how do we embody God’s grace, justice, and love? And we really feel that it is through housing for seniors that is welcoming to LGBTQ+ people,” she added. “And to transform our church space so it’s better equipped to welcome the community.”

Washington Blade courtesy of the National LGBTQ Media Association.


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