Nineteen months after the first hearing, Alexandria's Board of Architectural Review (BAR) has authorized the demolition of 311 Commerce St.
In stark contrast to the first emotionally packed BAR meeting dealing with the 1797 property, last Wednesday's virtually uneventful hearing on the subject had questions coming from Board members only. It was a testament to what can be accomplished when a developer and the community enter into a true and honest dialogue.
The purpose of the demolition is allow expansion of an existing, multi-story, office building at 1414 Prince Street which is occupied by Virginia Commerce Bank and other businesses. The owner of the property is Ray W. Lotto, a long-time Alexandria property owner.
At the initial hearing, Nov, 15, 2000, more than 70 residents of Commerce Street and the surrounding area opposed the demolition and proposed reuse. They were joined in opposition by the Old Town Civic Association, the Upper King Street Civic Association, and the staff of the Department of Planning and Zoning.
Opposition was based on two primary arguments: 1. The building is historically significant; and 2. Its aesthetic value to the overall architectural character of the area. The request to demolish was unanimously denied.
FOLLOWING THAT MEETING, Lotto, his architect, James Heffner, and his attorney, Tom Thomas, set out on a mission to not just garner the support of those in opposition but to offer them a real voice in how to structure the project so that it was agreeable to all. Central to this endeavor was a series of eight neighborhood meetings in which all present were afforded the opportunity for true input not just window dressing give and take.
Throughout these exchanges, Lotto and his representatives not only listened but also worked with the Commerce Street residents to bring about a consensus. As a result, the project received no audience opposition last Wednesday night and was approved by the Board on a vote of 3 to 1, with Chairman Tom Hulfish recusing himself due to a potential conflict of interest.
In making the presentation to the BAR last week, Heffner noted that, "All the neighbors and the two civic associations now support the project." Board member, Lynn Neihardt stated, "I have gotten a letter of support from the community and I am now in support."
The only opposition came from Board member Peter Smealie, who responded to Neihardt's comment with, "Residents are not responsible for preservation of historic Alexandria and shouldn't be. I am opposed to removing this structure, the same as I was a year and half ago."
ARGUMENTS FAVORING preservation rest on the building's supposed historical significance. Although, historical records indicate its birth as 1797, even the staff report notes, "by the early 1970's the house had fallen into a state of disrepair and in 1975 was cited for numerous building code violations."
It further states, "In 1976 and 1977 the house was extensively remodeled by former Board Vice Chairman Edward Luckett, prior to this area being included in the Old and Historic Alexandria District in 1984." Luckett owned the property from 1974 to 1985.
In testimony at the original hearing, Luckett emphasized, "There was only one piece of the original lumber left when I finished the restoration. Ray Lotto should have the right to do with the property what he wants."
He also stated, that during 10 years of service on the BAR, "I had many dealings with Ray Lotto, some in agreement and some not in agreement. But, I always found him to be a man of his word and very interested in historical preservation."
Referring back to that testimony of 18 months ago, Board member Arthur Keleher, stated, "Luckett bought the house in 1975. It had been condemned. Luckett said only one corner post remained from the original building. If the neighbors are in favor, I think the owner ought to be permitted to demolish it."
FOLLOWING THE VOTE to demolish came the subject of how to restructure the site. During the neighborhood meetings, a consensus had been reached to maintain the facade of a colonial townhouse on the Commerce Street side while allowing the Prince Street frontage to assume the brick commercial design of the exiting buildings stretching down the block.
Heffner had explained in those meetings, "The Commerce Street side would be limited to two stories and that they would use siding and dental moldings to achieve the proper aesthetic effect." Lotto added, "We plan to screen off the block with landscaping and a fence of the residents' choice and design to further enhance the Commerce Street side."
During the recent BAR meeting several Board members expressed reservations about the concept of creating a false colonial facade. Board Vice Chairman, Oscar Fitzgerald, summarized the Board misgivings about the proposed fake facade by stating, "There is no reason why contemporary architecture cannot be compatible with Old Town. It's better to go more contemporary than fake colonial or Victorian."
Since the presentation of the planned design was only for conceptual review, the Board voted to defer the second element of the 311 Commerce docket item. It will be reconsidered at a later meeting.
In other action, The Board reapproved the permit to demolish portions of the Old Colony Motel at 615 First St. and further design refinements for the planned residential development at that site.