Not everyone at Ragtime was in the best of spirits Thursday night.
The Courthouse-area restaurant is a popular hangout for the people who work above it in the Thomas Building at 2020 14th St. North. Some businesses in the building use restaurant space for their quarterly meetings, or to conduct job interviews.
Now, though, they’re trying to come to grips with the county government’s desire to take their building – through purchase or condemnation – to use for a year-round homeless shelter and office space. About 15 gathered Thursday night to share information and discuss some of the alternatives that, to them, everyone but Arlington County seems to be talking about.
“It was pretty dire,” said Jeremy Hicks, practice operations manager for Navigant, one of the Thomas Building tenants.
Business owners and nearby residents have voiced sharp criticism of Arlington’s plans, usually process-heavy and full of public participation. In this case, though, many are convinced the county’s intentions are a done deal and the process is being fast-tracked to avoid too much public scrutiny.
“When you look at it, a month ago, this building was full of businesses planning out their future – and now they just have a question mark,” Hicks said.
“And a termination date.”
The county announced its intentions in a press release two days before Thanksgiving.
The local government, which has had the Thomas Building appraised at $25.5 million, plans to either buy the building or take it using eminent domain. The building sold just five years ago to its current owner for $16.5 million, according to tax records. A spokesman for the Toronto-based Brookfield Real Estate Opportunity Fund, which currently owns the building, declined comment.
The acquisition would allow Arlington to develop the Courthouse community into a town square, officials said, and use two of the seven floors in the Thomas Building for a year-round, low-barrier homeless shelter.
Most county board members late last month indicated or outright said they supported the move. They talked about the “flexibility” it would give the government. They referred to the building as a “strategic acquisition.” And they talked glowingly about how the move was the first step in the long-term redevelopment of Courthouse Square, including consolidating functions from two other nearby county-owned buildings, which can be demolished or sold.
"This opens up that possibility like nothing else could have," Board member Jay Fisette said then.
The county hopes to retain the three ground-level tenants of the Thomas Building – Ragtime, the Courthouse Deli and a shoe repair shop – and the rent that would come with that.
The board will vote Tuesday on whether to allow the county manager to make an offer on the property and, if that fails, to acquire it using eminent domain.
Some residents and business owners wonder if the county is trying to rush through eminent domain proceedings before an anticipated constitutional amendment hits ballots next year – a move that, if approved, could limit the power of the local government.
Though Arlington County opposes the ballot measure, Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman told Patch that wasn’t related to what's going on with the Thomas Building, calling this process a “vanilla” use of eminent domain.
County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac could not be reached for comment this week.
Organizing for Arlington
Residents of the neighboring Woodbury Heights building have mobilized in opposition. They’ve been distributing fliers at farmers markets and on the corner of 14th Street North and Courthouse Road to “keep our block safe.”
“We’ve been organizing,” said January Holt, a Woodbury Heights resident for seven years. “We have to do what we have to do. We’re not just going to concede to the county. We want due diligence on their part. Other locations need to be explored. We want numbers. We want stats. There’s not any other locations considered. We want to know why.”
Holt and about 50 others met with county staffers Tuesday night in what has been described as contentious at best.
“They were indifferent, non-sympathetic and non-negotiable,” Holt said.
Residents said county officials were unable to answer basic questions about the anticipated transaction, including its specific impact on crime, property values, the businesses in the area, trash removal, deliveries, parking, lighting and traffic flow. They want to know why the county hasn’t studied whether it would be more cost effective to demolish and rebuild the building that currently houses its emergency winter shelter, which is just one street over.
The residents are worried in part because the likely entrance to the proposed homeless shelter – which will be separate from the building’s main entrance – is near a school bus stop.
They estimate at least 2,400 people live in the apartments and condominiums near the Thomas Building, and many funnel down 14th Street North to get to the Metro station.
“No government puts the homeless in a residential neighborhood – for a very good reason. It generates a lot of hostility toward homeless people. It generates a lot of criticism toward social programs. So, you try to avoid that friction,” said Ken Robinson, president of the Woodbury Heights Condominium Association.
“I've seen it happen in other cities. But I never thought that Arlington County would pull this off. Arlington has a lot of process. They have hearings, they have this, they have that. In this case, it was all done very secretly and very quickly with every effort to avoid any kind of public scrutiny. They clearly knew they were going to end up with a lot of problems.”
Arlington ‘declaring war’
Jeff Miller, a Woodbury Heights resident of 19 years, can’t square how Arlington, which prides itself on having an abundance of public input meetings, is giving people only one chance to speak out against the purchase or condemnation of the Thomas Building.
“It’s not like they’re bucking up against any deadline. It’s clearly a calculated effort on their part to put it out at the time of year that is least amenable to citizen participation, and then to ram it through,” Miller said.
Deputy County Manager Marsha Allgeier said that wasn't the case.
"We got to the point where we were ready to move forward, so we moved forward," she said. "Frankly, what’s a good date? And, we didn’t do it right before Christmas, and there are a lot of people gone at that point."
The county prepared a presentation that labels the current shelter, on nearby 15th Street North, as having been in a “temporary” location for 20 years. Woodbury Heights residents shake their head trying to understand how the county had 20 years to come up with something better and ended up giving them three week’s notice during the holidays.
“We asked if they’d be open to suggestions to alternatives, and they flat out said no. They are not willing to listen,” Miller said.
“Our theory is they figure it’s a high-rise community and those people don’t care. (The shelter) is an important governmental service. But the government owns land and property, and if they’re redeveloping it, they can easily incorporate it into one of the parcels they’re redeveloping – they don’t have to push it into a residential neighborhood.”
Didi Nikolov, who saved money for 10 years before buying a unit in Woodbury Heights, said many residents moved to the area knowing that a homeless shelter was nearby. They recognize that as a necessary community service.
But Nikolov’s impression of Tuesday’s meeting was that the county was trying to pit the residents against the shelter. Question after question on a variety of topics was answered with the county assuring them they would be safe, she said, though no one could produce statistics on public drunkenness, noise, petty theft or other minor crimes that were potential issues.
Nikolov said that beyond safety, quality of life was a concern.
“We’re working professionals,” she said. “We spent a little more to live in prime real estate. We want the safety. But we also want the peace and quiet. There’s a certain personality that goes with buying in this location. They’re just making it a safety issue when it’s more than that.”
The county did not keep audio notes of Tuesday’s meeting. Patch requested any staff notes – handwritten or otherwise – and was provided only with a PowerPoint presentation extolling the benefits of the acquisition.
Robinson kept detailed notes. According to those, one resident likened the process to Arlington “declaring war” on the community.
Allgeier said Arlington County has looked at various locations to use around the Courthouse community for years.
She said she understood that residents were upset, and pointed to past cases of homeless shelters, detox centers and group homes going into residential areas that were controversial at the time but have succeeded thanks to tight management and adequate staffing.
And while some residents are upset, she said, the broader community has indicated support for this type of move.
“One of the reasons we’ve been working so hard on this for several years is because the community out there said we needed to do something about our emergency winter shelter,” Allgeier said.
“It’s always a matter of balancing. We have a need here. We need to do something about the shelter. We need to give better services. We need to do more to move people off the street and into housing. So we all have to balance that against any particular action or location. And I really do understand why people are upset about it.”
The county has received 40 letters and emails against moving a homeless shelter into 2020 14th St. North, and about 15 supporting it. More letters are expected between now and Tuesday.
‘A death sentence’
At Ragtime, business owners said they hoped their concerns don’t get lost in the fray. The financial hit caused by moving could be devastating, they said.
“The community’s opinion really wasn’t all that important,” said a small business owner in the Thomas Building who spoke to Patch on the condition of anonymity.
“We’re fair-minded,” he said. “We’re not trying to extract anything. This isn’t an opportunity. This is a tremendous burden on taxpaying businesses without any offer for remedy. This isn’t a charity case. This is about protecting businesses in the jurisdiction where elected officials are supposed to be representing us – not just as citizens, but businesses as well. We’re employers. We’re taxpayers – and they charge a lot. It would be nice to know we were getting something for our money – particularly not a death sentence.”