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Votes

Gunston Hall Apartments To Be Demolished

Out with the old in Old Town.

Overriding recommendations of Planning and Zoning Department staff and pleas of citizens, the Alexandria Board of Architectural Review (BAR) at its Aug. 18 meeting voted to support the demolition of Gunston Hall Apartments.

Only board member Lori Quill, of those present, voted no.

The proposal by developers Basheer & Edgemoore to replace the 1930's square block apartment complex with a combination of luxury condominiums and individual townhouses has faced opposition from a variety of individuals and groups since first proposed. Most of the preservation arguments centered on Gunston Hall's history and the fact that demolition is irreversible.

"Although we find much that is commendable in the concept, Old Town Civic Association can not support demolition because of what the loss of the buildings would represent. Old Town history is not confined to just plaqued houses," said Michael Hobbs, president, Old Town Civic Association.

"Rental housing for people of moderate income is in short supply. If you [BAR] approve demolition, any chance of preservation would be lost," he said.

In juxtaposition to Hobbs' testimony and, in direct conflict to OTCA's position, was that of Carolyn Merck, OTCA immediate past president, who had spoken in her previous status at the May 14 BAR hearing on the same subject. This time she said, "I am speaking on behalf of myself."

According to Merck's analysis, the board had two choices, historic preservation or economic feasibility. "Are these buildings worthy of historic preservation," she asked rhetorically.

"These buildings are not historically significant enough to be preserved. The arguments made by the architectural professionals are stronger than the arguments made by staff. I would urge you to approve demolition," she said.

COUNTERING HER APPEAL was that of Greg May, speaking for the Historic Alexandria Foundation. He said, "The real question is whether Gunston Hall Apartments are worthy of preserving. We feel they are.

"It's equally worth emphasizing that what you decide here is going to have an impact on other blocks in this part of town. Ordinary people have been an essential part of Alexandria since the days it was a seaport."

In making their case for demolition, developers Basheer & Edgemoore, cited a study they had prepared by architectural historian, Anne H. Adams, Shaw Pittman, LLP. In it she characterized the apartment complex, which consumes the square block area bounded by the western side of the 900 block of South Washington Street, Green Street, Church Street and Columbus Street, as "common."

Ellen Pickering said, "That commonness does not make it not historical. The commonness of the Gunston Hall structure makes it worthy of preservation. It is definitely considered in our Historic District. Gunston Hall is a gem of design of buildings of the late 1930s and early '40s. Gunston Hall meets every one of the Washington Street standards."

Pickering noted that the National Capital Planning Commission had approved Gunston Hall Apartments as a part of the Washington Street standards. Development on Washington Street is also subject to approval by the National Park Service because it is considered a portion of the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

"The National Park Service is not in favor of this [demolition]," Julie Crenshaw said. "Developers coming in here and taking down these buildings are not doing us any favors."

She also said, "Not one letter to the board has been written in favor of this demolition."

In one of those letters, Mary A. Lyons, a Gunston Hall Apartments resident, said, "Apparently, the BAR did not choose to seek out other developers who have taken on similar restoration projects ... Well, I did. I spoke with the President and CEO of ID Industries, Mr. Giuseppe Cecchi ... who has done restoration for resale. Two that I am sure you are aware of are Parkfairfax and Belleview."

Lyons further said, "He (Cecchi) has not only preserved the older structures in the area, but also made it possible for the average working person to own their own homes ... So in reality, in spite of the many issues that face Gunston Hall, it can be done."

A LETTER TO THE BAR from Jill McClure said, "I fear that if the board ... allows for Gunston Hall to be demolished several unfortunate results will occur." The three primary ones she cited were:

* "Redevelopment on the site will undoubtedly cause great

stress upon the root system of the old trees and they will eventually die.

* "A precedent of demolition will be established and other garden apartments in Old Town will also be bulldozed for development.

* "I question the developer's proposed design for townhouses and condominiums. The decorative, neoclassical design style facades are not indicative of the simple but handsome architectural characteristics of Old Town." She also questioned the size of the new structures and predicted they would "overwhelm the neighboring properties" and "create a fortress wall at the southern end of Washington Street."

The majority of those speaking during the meeting's public hearing portion buttressed staff recommendations to deny demolition based on the following reasons:

* Gunston Hall Apartments are part of the district's historical heritage.

* Demolition of Gunston Hall could set a precedent in this area of the City.

* The buildings are typical of other garden apartments found on South Washington Street.

HOWEVER, STAFF DID admit, "The applicant's (economic feasibility) study demonstrates that renovation by the contract owner is not economically feasible under the fair market value assumption used in the study," which was approximately $11.5 million. That number was "based on the assessed value of the Liberty Row property" under construction at 625 First Street, previously known as the Old Colony property.

Following the public hearing, four of the five board members present, including chairman, Thomas Hulfish, III, expressed their support for demolition. The only negative coming from Quill. "We are going to have asbestos issues with demolition. I am against demolition," she said.

Addressing the economic issues, board member Arthur Keleher raised doubts about performing "major renovations" while maintaining viable rents. "That would skyrocket costs and rents would have to be raised significantly. These buildings are not particularly significant. I feel demolition is appropriate and I would vote for demolition," he said

"Until now nobody has had anything good to say about '30's, '40's and '50's buildings. Now, all of a sudden, people are concerned about these buildings. We've had neighbors testify [at the May 19 hearing] in favor of demolition because it's [Gunston Hall] is an eye sore," board member Oscar Fitzgerald said.

"We want a nice entrance to the City. It's not like it's a unique property. The bottom line for me is the buildings on the North end of town. There we have a beautiful entrance to the City. It's hard for me to oppose demolition," he said.

The most vocal board member in favor of the planned development was Peter Smeallie. "I have been in favor of this development from the start. I think it's probably one of the best I've ever seen," he said.

"I believe Gunston Hall is not contributing to the Old and Historic District. Old Town will not lose significant buildings if Gunston Hall is demolished. I support demolition," Smeallie said. He then made the motion to approve demolition.

John Rust, president, Rust, Orling & Neale, project architects, explained the concept of the proposed development which will encompass 48 condominium units, located along Washington, Green and Church streets, and 12 townhouses fronting on Columbus Street.

"The principle behind the design is based on a by-right concept. And, it calls for the preservation of all existing large trees on the site," he said.

ALL PARKING FOR the condos will be underground. The townhouses will have individual garages separated from the homes by individual backyards, according to Rust. "Access to the parking for both the condo and townhouses will be through alleys within the property," Rust said. This negates the need for a Special Use Permit seeking reduced parking requirements.

One of the major concerns has been the impact the development's demolition and construction will have on South Washington Street traffic when combined with construction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project. The Gunston Hall site is immediately across Church Street from the proposed Freeman's Cemetery Memorial site and adjacent to Urban Deck construction crossing the Beltway.

Traffic at the site is now alternated daily between one and two lanes on the Gunston Hall side of South Washington Street approaching bridge/beltway construction. Additional construction has also been approved for the 800 block of South Washington Street and on Church Street during the same time frame.

"Our project won't impact Washington Street traffic that much because we are keeping all the big trees and that will limit our work in that area. We don't expect it to be that bad," said Loren Pope, land acquisition analyst, Basheer & Edgemoore.

Approval of the conceptual plan for the proposed development was deferred. As stated in the staff report, "Any redevelopment of this site will establish a precedent for other buildings on Washington Street. Therefore, it is essential that the mass, scale and building elements be well designed and of a scale compatible with the historic character of Washington Street ...."

Following approval by the BAR, the project will go before the Alexandria Planning Commission. But, as pointed out by Rust, "Since this is a by-right development and we are not seeking a Special Use Permit we don't need their approval. We are going to the Planning Commission merely to brief them on the project."