The Arlington County Board on Saturday unanimously approved spending about $27 million to buy the Thomas Building at 2020 14th St. N. in the Courthouse area, two floors of which are planned to be converted to a year-round homeless service center.
The county is expected to close on the deal Tuesday with its current owner, Toronto-based BREOF Thomas REO. It's being sold under the threat of condemnation.
The sale, too, will happen under the protest of many of the residents of the neighboring Woodbury Heights condominium building. Kenneth Robinson, president of the condo owner's association, said 20 residents have sold their units since the county announced its intention last year — double the number of units typically sold in a year. Some have been unable to sell and have resorted to renting, he said. Residents also have a list of security concerns, with one woman telling the board Saturday, "No sex offenders on my doorstep."
The Arlington Street People's Assistance Network, which operates the county's existing emergency winter shelter, has not had a sex offender at the shelter in at least three years, according to Jan-Michael Sacharko, A-SPAN's development director.
"This county does not turn a deaf ear to residents' concerns about safety in their neighborhoods or their own homes," board Chairwoman Mary Hynes said.
Beginning Of A Process
Along those lines, the county will hold three meetings in December and January to gather and attempt to mitigate community concerns. At least two hearings are expected to be held before the homeless service center opens — currently slated for 2014.
Eighteen people spoke on the matter Saturday. Many of the comments were reiterations of the discussion last year that preceded the county's decision to buy or take through condemnation the Thomas Building in the first place.
Advocates of ending homelessness praised the move. Joseph Putty, an A-SPAN client, talked about his own struggle with homelessness and the help he received in finding a job and a place to live.
"It would give individuals like myself the chance they need to get on their feet and get on with their life," Putty said.
Woodbury Heights residents spoke about their frustration with the county, the process used to reach the decision to acquire the Thomas Building and the amount of money being spent on the project. Several said they felt their concerns about security had been brushed aside.
"You promised to be a good neighbor to us," resident January Holt told the board. "I'm just enraged by this whole process. You have not done what you promised. I'm disgusted. I don't even know what else to say. This is just wrong."
Robinson declared the new center would be the "only homeless shelter in the country with a bar in the basement." Ragtime restaurant and the two other ground-level retail outlets are planning to stay in the building.
One attempt by residents to acquire documents under the Freedom of Information Act resulted in a price tag of thousands of dollars, which led to a lengthy tangental discussion by board members on the FOIA process but nothing on what the county could do to make that process better.
Because the new center would operate 24/7, the county anticipates little to no "street activity" outside its doors, unlike the milling about outside the existing shelter, which is only open for certain hours during certain months, County Manager Barbara Donnellan said.
Deputy County Manager Marsha Allgeier said she felt certain security matters would come up in the first community meeting, which is slated for Dec. 5 at Key Elementary School.
"We definitely care about being a good neighbor," Sacharko told Patch in a phone interview. A-SPAN is in line to operate the year-round center.
Board member Libby Garvey asked the county to prepare summaries of best practices and what it was looking to do at the homeless service center to distribute to the community in advance of the meetings so that everyone would be on the same page.
The county initially offered $25.5 million for the building; the owner wanted $3 million more. Through negotiations, the sale price of $27,125,000 was eventually reached.
Because of that, Arlington never filed a petition for condemnation, County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac said.
Overall, plans call for spending $42.6 million over five years on acquisition and renovation.
Arlington wants to use the seven-story building for office space, storage and two floors for the comprehensive year-round homeless service center. The center will offer mental health and substance abuse counseling, job placement and other services.
Board member Chris Zimmerman said it wouldn't make financial sense for the county to renovate the building that houses the existing emergency winter shelter or the nearby Court Square West building, which houses county offices.
The existing shelter seems to "break down every week," board Vice Chairman Walter Tejada said. Parts to service the elevator are no longer even being made, Donnellan said.
Aside from the retail tenants, which will stay, the businesses housed in the Thomas Building will be forced to move. The county will provide financial assistance to those on floors that require them to move immediately.