(Updated at 11:25 a.m.) At its meeting on Saturday, Nov. 17, the County Board unanimously approved the controversial acquisition of an office building (2020 14th Street N.) in Courthouse that will house county offices and a homeless shelter.
The shelter, which will occupy two of the building’s seven floors, will be open year-round and will replace the current emergency winter shelter, located about two blocks away. Like the winter shelter, it will be operated by the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network (A-SPAN).
“Arlington is making good on its declaration that in this county, every person is important” said County Manager Barbara Donnellan. “It’s not enough to merely provide beds in an inadequate emergency winter shelter during the coldest months of the year. It is not enough just to keep the homeless alive. We want to give them an opportunity to rebuild their lives.”
County staff recommended the Board approve the deal, because they found that particular building to be most suitable for county offices and storage. Staff members also said they found a portion of the building adequate for renovating into a homeless shelter, to replace the emergency winter shelter located at 2049 15th Street N.
County staff had been working to reach a purchase agreement with the property owner since November 2010, and last year the County Manager was authorized to acquire the property for $25.5 million by purchase or eminent domain. The price finalized at the Board meeting on Saturday was more than $27 million. Staff said although the cost is greater than the county’s appraisal, it’s less than the seller’s appraisal.
More than a dozen people took turns speaking to the Board about the controversial issue, both in favor of and against the building purchase.
Kip Laramie, who owned Santa Fe Cafe (1500 Wilson Blvd) in Rosslyn, said he hasn’t had trouble with homeless people at any of his businesses in Arlington throughout the years. He likes the idea of helping homeless people and giving them a place to go.
“The homeless population was much lower when the emergency winter shelter is open than when it’s closed,” Laramie said. “It would be nice to have that year round lower level of people on the streets.”
Safety was a concern of many residents who live near the shelter.
“I don’t care if my property values go down, what I care about are people outside of my building threatening the safety of my wife and my daughter,” said Nathan Kleekam. Supporters of the homeless shelter argued that the shelter’s location — directly across from Arlington police headquarters — will actually improve safety. Also, they say, A-SPAN has done a good job of addressing safety concerns with the existing shelter.
Another topic of concern was the financial impact of the county purchasing the property.
“I’m not necessarily against the homeless shelter. I do think $25 million in order to build the homeless shelter is quite a lot of money, considering that Arlington County is having a very difficult time building enough schools to educate its children,” Kleekam said.
One common theme that emerged was that neighbors did not feel the county had taken adequate steps to work with them throughout the entire process. Some residents said the county did not do a good job of notifying them about meetings regarding the building purchase.
“You promised to be a good neighbor to us and you have not been,” said January Holt. “Here we are at Thanksgiving time, and the holiday season, and you’re shoving this down the throat. I’m just enraged by this whole process. You have not done what you have promised, and I’m disgusted.”
Some neighbors say they’ve been trying to meet with Board members to get answers to questions, but the Board has not been responsive.
“Every attempt by my neighbors and I to get answers on this project, meaningful answers on this project, have been met with a brick wall,” said Asieh Kehyari. “Why aren’t you renovating the existing building? What other areas have you looked at? Why aren’t they suitable? Why is this the only location? And why are you spending millions and millions in purchasing this building for renovations?”
Joseph Putty spoke as someone who has used A-SPAN’s services and is in favor of the building purchase. He explained that he fell into a deep depression following the death of his daughter several years ago and lost his job and home. He sought out help, and believes the homeless shelter would help others in similar situations to his own.
“I believe the comprehensive center will be beneficial because it would give individuals like myself a chance to get on their feet and become stably housed while receiving the support that’s needed to succeed in life,” said Putty.
As far as the current tenants in the building, the county plans to offer new leases to those on floors five, six and seven. Those on floors two, three and four will have to relocate. They will be offered financial and advisory assistance for relocation.
The retail currently in the building — Ragtime, Courthouse Deli and Highland Shoe Repair — all want to stay and will be offered new leases with the county as the landlord.
The County anticipates closing on the deal will happen tomorrow (Tuesday).
There are three meetings planned to address public concerns about the building and the homeless shelter. They will be held at Key School and include a listening session on December 5, a workshop on December 17 and the presentation of renovation plans on January 14. There will also be a public hearing on a necessary use permit for operating a dormitory, which is expected around March.
In addition to the homeless shelter, the county plans to use the property “as a base for facility maintenance operations, and for vehicle fleet and computer storage.” The county expects renovations to the building and the cost of tenant relocations to total about $15 million.