Following nearly a year of negotiations, Arlington County is poised to acquire the seven-story Thomas Building and turn two floors of it into a comprehensive year-round homeless service center.
The Arlington County Board on Saturday will consider a recommendation to buy the building at 2020 14th St. N. in the Courthouse community for about $27 million and begin renovations. Over the next five years, the project is expected to cost $42.6 million, which includes financial assistance to some of the building's business tenants, who will be forced to relocate.
Much of the building eventually will be used for county office space, but it’s the homeless center proposition that has drawn outrage from neighbors concerned about its proximity to residential buildings. Proponents argue that the county's existing emergency winter shelter is already in the neighborhood — about a block away on 15th Street — and moving it would place it next door to the police department.
Many residents in the nearby Woodbury Heights condominium building opposed the measure when it first entered the public spotlight just before Thanksgiving last year. The county has a series of community dialogue meetings planned to address neighborhood concerns starting next month — though officials plan to close on the property by Tuesday.
"Here we are again," said January Holt, a Woodbury Heights resident. "We're at the holiday time, and they're trying to shove this down everyone's throat."
Holt said some Woodbury Heights residents have sold their units since the county announced its intentions last year. She and condo owner association President Kenneth Robinson are among those who have security concerns for themselves and for children, who use a nearby bus stop. People in the neighborhood also worry their property values will decrease.
Residents feel as though the county has shrugged off their concerns, particularly about crime, which Holt called "naive on their part, not being truthful to the community that's paying the bill."
"It's just very presumptuous," she said. "They're going to make this happen whether we like it or not. People are saying it's only one block. Well, it's one block in a commercial zone versus one block in a residential zone."
Give And Take
The Thomas Building, which houses Ragtime restaurant, is situated on the corner of 14th Street and Courthouse Road.
The county has maintained that acquiring the site would help with its immediate space needs, and homeless advocates have said that the current facilities for the county's homeless are inadequate.
In December 2011, the Arlington County Board voted unanimously to authorize a $25.5 million offer on the building — and, if an agreement couldn't be reached with the owner, to acquire the building using eminent domain.
The owner, Toronto-based BREOF Thomas REO wanted $3 million more than Arlington offered, according to a county staff report. Through subsequent negotiations, the sale price of $27,125,000 was reached, and the owner agreed to sell under threat of condemnation, the report states.
The 70,000-square-foot space is being sold “as-is,” according to a draft contract between the county and the building's owner.
The Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network, or A-SPAN, runs the existing Emergency Winter Shelter at 2049 15th St. N. and has supported the county's plans for a year-round comprehensive homeless service center.
“What I can say is that they’ve been living next to us for 20 years and there have been no safety issues,” said Kathleen Sibert, A-SPAN executive director. “What is the building that faces us in that new location? It’s the police department.”
The current Emergency Winter Shelter is only open from November to March. Homeless people sometimes congregate in the tiny park across the street from it waiting for it to open or after it closes.
“There would be a place that people could go to for 12 months of the year,” Sibert said of the planned comprehensive service center. “Currently, there is no other option for them, and they have to sleep on the streets.”
In January, A-SPAN counted 451 homeless people in a 24-hour window. Of those, about half live on the streets, Sibert said.
The new center would also provide the homeless with help finding jobs, mental health counseling and substance abuse counseling, among other services.
“The comprehensive homeless center is just a step to get these people housed quicker,” Sibert said. “That’s how you make a difference, and that’s how you end homelessness.”
The Arlington County Board will begin hearing public comment at 8:30 a.m. Saturday on the third floor of the county administration building at 2100 Clarendon Blvd. The purchase of the Thomas Building is a regular hearing item and will be heard after 9 a.m.
Many of the residents who oppose the measure have tried to do so by empathizing with the problem of homelessness and emphasizing their concerns are legitimate — not just a case of NIMBY, or not in my back yard.
"We're trying to fight the good fight," Holt said. "We'll see what happens. I hope people wake up."
Arlington Eyes Acquisition of Building for Courthouse Square Redevelopment
To read the full county agenda and documents related to the proposed project, visit the Arlington County website.