Unconventional project combines church, apartments

After two years of wandering during construction, a Washington, D.C.,-area Baptist congregation returned March 4 to the site where it was organized more than a century ago in a new facility designed both for outreach to a busy urban community and to reinvigorate a congregation formerly in decline.

By Robert Dilday

Rising above the original First Baptist Church of Clarendon building in Arlington, Va., is a 10-story structure topped by condominiums, most of them designated as affordable housing.

“We’ve been homeless for two years and now we once again have a stable place of ministry,” said David Perdue, interim senior pastor of the renamed Church at Clarendon. “There’s a sense that now we’ve returned home, we can move forward.”

The church is in the first two stories of the complex, which retains the original building’s steeple and pillared façade. The eight floors above it contain 116 upscale apartment units, about 60 percent of which meet Arlington County’s affordable housing designation for low and moderate income households.

Behind the tower, the church’s original education building -- not torn down but extensively remodeled -- houses offices and classrooms of the John Leland Center for Theological Studies, as well as educational space for the church.

Housing is a critical issue in Arlington, especially in its increasingly expensive Clarendon neighborhood, a popular mix of trendy shops, bars and restaurants about five miles from the White House. The church sits on a triangular piece of land in the heart of the community, a block from the Clarendon station of Washington’s Metro rapid transit system.

It’s a far cry from the small Virginia community in which the church began in 1909. Clarendon was only nine years old when the town’s First Baptist Church was organized, but was well on its way to becoming Arlington County’s “downtown.” By the end of World War II suburban growth made it popular with Washington’s commuters and by the 1980s, when Metro’s Orange Line opened, Clarendon was a densely-packed, highly-urbanized maze of apartments, condominiums and office blocks.

First Baptist struggled with that transition, said Perdue.

By 2000, the church “was in deep decline and was struggling with a vision,” he said. The building needed a major renovation, a cost the church couldn’t afford. About that time the church called Alan Stanford as interim pastor and a path forward for the congregation emerged.

“As we talked about how we could get people excited and do something meaningful for the community, the idea of affordable housing kept coming up,” said Perdue, who was hired as a staff minister during Stanford’s tenure. “Housing was seen as a way to minister to the community at large and as a way to reinvigorate our congregation.”

About 300 people attended two Sunday services March 4 -- the first to be held in Clarendon's new sanctuary. (Photo courtesy Church of Clarendon)

It also represented a significant commitment to the Clarendon neighborhood, Perdue said. “The church had other options. At one point the property was valued at $13 million. We could have moved to the suburbs. But we wanted to do something for the community.”

With limited resources, the church found a creative way to finance the project. It leased its air rights for 99 years to the Bozzuto Group, a development and real estate services firm, allowing them to build the eight-floor vPoint boutique apartments. In compensation, the Bozzuto Group constructed the first two floors for the church’s sanctuary and office and classroom space. Two levels of parking below the church are reserved for apartment residents.

Ground was broken in the fall of 2009. During the project’s more than two years’ duration Clarendon worshipped at First Baptist Church of Ballston, another Arlington community less than a mile further west. The Leland Center -- which began meeting at Clarendon in 2003 -- moved to space offered at no cost by Columbia Baptist Church in nearby Falls Church, Va., where Leland first held classes. The seminary also rented space in the Baptist World Alliance’s headquarters across the street.

Leland returned to the Clarendon location last September.

More than 300 people worshipped in Clarendon’s two Sunday services March 4 -- the first in the new building -- but a true dedication service will wait until May 20, the church’s 103rd anniversary, Perdue said.

“We wanted our grand opening to be outreach-oriented, not a building dedication,” he said. To involve the community in its celebration, the church sponsored a float in Clarendon’s annual Mardi Gras parade Feb. 22 and distributed hot cider outside the Clarendon Metro station in the days prior to the opening.