Arlington Rebuilds a Community and Its Roots
Nauck is a historic black community in southern Arlington County that in recent decades had skirted the fringe of losing its identity. One of a handful of Freedmen’s communities that flourished in the region before and after the Civil War, Nauck continued through a long litany of hardships and, subsequently, a gradual loss of identity. It was the strong role of the county planners and consultants, taking their cue from community groups—including area churches —that brought both revitalization and a re-establishment of the old sense of neighborhood.
Working with community groups, Arlington County formed the Nauck Village Center plan in 2004 and—with planners and designers Rhodeside & Harwell Inc., Clark Nexsen, Development Economics, Gensler & Associates, and the Lukmire Partnership—developed and began implementing the Nauck Town Square Plan from 2006 on. The form-based master plan blended high-density and affordable housing with a community center and an adjacent school and playgrounds.
Part of the vision was to replace a 1960s 22-unit apartment building with a 94-unit complex that would include street retail, an enclosed play area, and direct connection to the still-planned town square at Shirlington and 24th roads.
A vital driver for getting the first apartment complex built (the Shelton) was AHC Inc., a private, nonprofit developer of affordable housing based in Arlington. Founded in 1975, AHC produces and preserves affordable housing, provides home ownership services, and offers residents onsite educational services. AHC worked in close cooperation with the Arlington Department of Community Planning, Housing, and Development.
Once AHC got involved with replacing the 22-unit apartment building, they learned of the Nauck plan and the county’s incentives to spur redevelopment, including tax abatements and additional density. “We realized that if we were going to have a bigger impact, we’d have to buy some adjacent parcels,” recalls AHC Multifamily Group Vice President John M. Welsh.
AHC also became familiar with the Bonder & Amanda Johnson Community Development Corporation (BAJCDC), founded in 1999 to maintain the Nauck community’s presence in the face of imminent gentrification of the area due to its prime location. The BAJCDC had been working with the Macedonia Baptist Church to acquire land for development of affordable housing, including a parcel across the street from the church.
Through conversations with the church and BAJCDC leaders, AHC found that their apartment-building vision had not gone forward but that they had already been working with architects Bonstra|Haresign. “We were looking for an architect for the Shelton, and we wanted to try somebody new,” Welsh says. Via many meetings, the county and community agreed that the development would enhance the neighborhood greatly. The developer got financial support from the county in return for both additional affordable units and community space. “We got it built and leased out very quickly,” Welsh says. “It’s been a good asset for us.”
The project that resulted from the BAJCDC plan, opened in May 2011 and also designed by Bonstra|Haresign with AHC, is the Macedonian, a 36-unit project that includes ground floor space for a community business/employment-opportunity incubator. The Macedonian is also the most energy-efficient multi-family affordable new housing building in Northern Virginia, according to the architect. It is the first such project in Arlington certified by EarthCraft, a sustainable-housing-construction body for the Southeast U.S. based in Georgia.
“The Macedonia Baptist Church certainly played a big role in this project,” says Arlington City Council Member Christopher Zimmerman. He points in particular to the strong role of area churches, including the Lomax AME Zion and Mt. Zion Baptist churches. In addition to church pastors, Zimmerman is grateful for community organizers, he says, including long-time Nauck Civic Association President Dr. Alfred O. Taylor Jr., who believes “those plans are most successful that are most based in the community.”
“The concept of The Arlington Way is that the community has to be integrally involved in what we’re planning to do,” Zimmerman explains. “The consciousness of a strong community with deep roots and strong feelings imbues the whole redevelopment process.”
“We wanted to be able to partner with someone who had a shared mission,” recalls the Rev. Leonard Hamlin Sr., pastor of the Macedonia Baptist Church. “We were already working with our architect when we began talking to several developers and saw an opportunity for a shared mission with AHC. We owned the land and brought them on board.
“It was a challenging learning process working with the developer, architects, and planners,” Hamlin adds.” When you bring that many different people to the table, you tend to have competing interests. And everyone has to play their particular role in the process, and strongly. One that we played was to advocate for the community. What most people fear is rapid gentrification; immediate transitions of certain neighborhoods. We reminded everybody what the project was really all about: benefit for people in the community and having an open door for more people to come in.”
“They were prepared to go ahead and redevelop their property, but they had no experience,” Welsh recalls. “So we set out together as their joint-venture development partner and we got that done.”
“AHC is a pretty remarkable affordable housing developer,” adds Bonstra|Haresign Principal David Haresign, FAIA. “They hired us initially because they thought that we’d make their affordable housing look market rate. And, judging from the comments we’ve received from residents and the community, we delivered.”
Welsh returns the compliment: “It’s good to find an architect who understands the business of development: the practical matters of getting approvals, what things are going to cost, what the salient design issues are, and how we resolve them.”
For the people in the county and people in the community, Welsh concludes: “There was an increase in the affordable housing and a notable public investment in infrastructure. And to have two new housing resources that were well-designed and provide good services, this development also has encouraged some people who had moved away to come back and re-establish their roots in the neighborhood.”