Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Obscured behind the dust-clouded construction fence on Fairfax Dr. in Ballston is a key attribute of one of Arlington’s more sensitive, custom-designed building projects.

The assignment given the Rockville, MD-based James G. Davis Construction Corp. is to replace the century-old Central United Methodist Church with an eight-story high-rise to be dubbed Ballston Station.
Its special challenge: preserving the 18th and 19th-century Ball family graves important both to local history and to the living descendants who carry on that seminal Arlington name.

Central United Methodist, long noted for its witty public sign messages, isn’t going away. Its congregation has teamed with the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing to combine a new church sanctuary with 144 designated affordable homes, a commercial kitchen for on-site food distribution to the homeless, a meeting hall and an early childhood education facility for 90 children.

Arlington’s county board blessed the project, providing, along with Virginia Housing, $19 million in support from the Affordable Housing Investment Fund for the new units situated near public transport. “We are thrilled to partner with APAH on this project which will create much needed new affordable rental units to serve diverse families and individuals,” said the Rev. Sarah Harrison-McQueen when demolition of the aging church and construction began late last year. “This new building will also support our mission to worship God.”

Back in 2016, a dispute arose over an initial church plan to follow an archaeologist’s recommendation to move the gravestones — based in part on evidence that they had already been moved during an earlier renovation. It was blocked and the site became a historic local district. So the church came up with a creative way to expand its charitable partnerships with the Arlington Food Action Center and PathForward, which serves the homeless, while preserving this part of the Ball legacy.

I asked Davis Construction’s multi-family residential construction director Ben Apfelbaum whether the gravestones presented a logistical challenge. “No, we’ve been planning this for two and a half years,” he said. Step one was the design, “working around to protect the cemetery so the headstones are preserved.” Coordinating with county official Lorin Farris, they consulted past investigations and brought an archaeologist on site “to make sure nothing else was found.”

Then Davis hired a contractor to remove the above-ground headstones and pack them for storage off-site, where they were photographed and their fading text documented.

The below-ground graves remain on a fenced-off “peninsula” shored up by “steel cantilevered piles” that allow workers to pass underneath the protected area.

The Ball descendants as yet have no plans to update the age-marred gravestones to restore legibility. An APAH spokesman said it is a private matter for the Balls, but the nonprofit is working with their representative and the Arlington Historical Resources Department to “make sure we’re appropriately preserving the grave site in connection with the wishes of the family.” There will be signage added to explain the graves, I’m told by historian-archaeologist Patrick O’Neill.

Look for the project’s completion in January 2024, yet another high-rise packing the Ballston skyline. The enthusiasts in the United Methodist Church congregation, meanwhile, are meeting temporarily in the Arlington Forest Neighborhood, in a Henderson Rd. building shared with the First Vietnamese American United Methodist Church and the Chesterbrook Montessori School.

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Following a safety regulator’s delay, demolition crews July 8 took down the 70-year-old ranch home in my East Falls Church neighborhood. The white brick residence at 6415 N. 24th St., after repeated flooding and expensive (but only partially successful) drainage improvements nearby, was purchased by the county.
Prepped with plastic fencing since June, the now-flattened lot will become “a microforest to sequester carbon and reduce impervious area,” says Environmental Services Department spokeswoman Katie O’Brien.

Following backfilling and placement of grass seed and straw on disturbed soil areas, trees will be planted. The existing metal fence will be re-used as an enclosure. On behalf of the neighborhood, I propose adding a comfortably shaded bench or two.