An unsigned notice from the landlord sparked widespread anger from the tenants this week. Late Sunday afternoon, residents of Hunting Terrace received a notice slipped under their doors from the Virginia Department of Transportation, informing them they will be given 48 hours notice to vacate their homes for a period of four to five days while ceiling repairs are undertaken. There was no advance warning, public meeting or apparent consideration for their careers or personal commitments, just the notice signed "Grady Management," with no signature.
The rationale stated in the letter was, "a thorough structural assessment of terrace apartments ... has identified a serious construction deficiency in the ceiling of the terrace units that requires expeditious attention... this deficiency was "built-in" during the original construction ... and has been a recurring problem for several years."
It went on to elaborate, "Specifically, the ceilings are constructed of plaster on top of standard sheet rock and therefore are heavier then a standard ceiling...the ceilings were attached to joist [sic] with un-grooved 1 1/2 inch nails, which do not meet current construction standards. Over time, several of the nails have slipped and essentially lost their grip ... creating a potentially dangerous situation. The problem has manifested itself in partial ceiling collapses over the past several years."
When the accusation that partial ceiling collapses have occurred over the past several years was brought to the attention of Alexandria's Code Enforcement director, Arthur Dahlberg, he responded, "Those ceiling have stood the test of time before the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project."
He also pointed out that beginning in the 1980's the city initiated a program of inspecting rental properties on an annual basis. "At least 10 percent of the units in every rental project are inspected every year on a rotating basis. Staff has no indication of any structural problems [at Hunting Terrace] since those inspections started on rental properties," Dahlberg said.
"Unfortunately, they are state property now and out of our jurisdiction," he explained. VDOT acquired both Hunting Towers and Hunting Terrace at the commencement of the bridge project. Their intent is to resell them upon completion of the project.
Exacerbating the situation, tenants were told that not only they and their pets, if they had them, were being evicted, but also their furnishing and personal items would be removed and placed in storage containers located outside the buildings. But they were assured, "a security guard will be hired between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., seven days a week to ensure the safety of your belongings."
Fiona Simpkins, vice president, Hunting Terrace Tenants Association, in an urgent e-mail to Alexandria Mayor William Euille and City Council Monday pointed out, "We were not provided any means for recourse prior to office hours on Monday, March 22, nor were we provided a specific contact person to address questions."
She stressed, "Residents were not told who would be moving their contents, if they were bonded, what insurance was provided, or what happens if items are broken or stolen." Simpkins also emphasized there was no consideration given to residents "who are out of town" or who have travel plans pending.
HER LETTER WAS accompanied by one from Ardith C. Dentzer, president of the association, also to the mayor and Council. She stressed, "Once again the residents of Hunting Towers and Hunting Terrace are being subjected to the whims and misplaced fiscal concerns of VDOT... We are calling on the Mayor and City Council to intervene in this process and provide our tenants with equitable representation."
Eullie was incensed about VDOT's tactics. "Putting the notices under the doors is just plain arrogant. I plan to have a meeting with VDOT ASAP and tell them I want this to be the last time they do something like this before we (City leadership) are fully informed.
"What really irks me is that just 10 days ago we had a meeting with the entire coordinating committee and no one raised this problem at that meeting. If the pile driving is causing this they need to stop until the situation is assessed. They need to get their permits from us for pile driving and we need to be satisfied."
When all of this was brought to the attention of John R. Undeland, public affairs director, Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project, his first response was, "We're not talking about plumbing problems here. We're talking about the possibility of serious injuries if these ceiling collapse. That's why we had to move quickly."
He also noted, "Parts of two ceilings fell two Saturdays ago in units being used as VDOT offices. That's what brought about the inspections."
However, he also admitted, "VDOT officials should have met with residents and explained the situation on a more personal basis. But we didn't feel there was time for our usual meetings."
AS THE DAY progressed Monday that assessment began to change. By 6 p.m. Monday, residents Jennifer Cooper and Joe Guinan had received a second notice. It stated, "Nick Nicholson and Brian O'Sullivan [VDOT reps] will be available to respond to questions on Tuesday at 7 p.m. A representative of Grady Management will also be in attendance."
The notice, trying to quell the firestorm, said, "This meeting... will be limited specifically to matters concerning the Terrace ceilings and pile driving testing." It was also signed "Grady Management" with no personal signature, according to Cooper.
Further exacerbating the situation was VDOT's requirement that residents in Terrace buildings immediately adjacent to the construction would be required to vacate their homes all day Wednesday while pile driving tests were being conducted. The fear being the concussion could cause ceilings to collapse.
As a peace offering, VDOT stated, "We would like to provide you with prepaid round trip bus fare to Old Town, a prepaid movie ticket at the local theater and a lunch voucher at the Chart House restaurant..." They also offered to house any pets "on site or in a nearby kennel for the day."
Residents viewed both offers with disdain. As pointed out by Dentzer, the movie theater "no longer exists." At least not for movies on a regular basis at this time. Cooper insisted her cats had never been boarded and she was not about to start now.
The urgency, which triggered the confrontation, had also been modified by Monday evening. "We have 115 units to do. That's probably going to take us two to three months," Undeland explained. "At any given time, 10 to 12 units need to be vacated. We will be working wing by wing."
He further assured, "Throughout the process an equal number of furnished vacant apartments will be available in the complex. Some will be in the towers and some in the terrace.
"For those who would rather go to a hotel they have their choice between the Best Western Old Colony or the Executive Club Suites. Executive Suites will take pets. Old Colony won't." VDOT will also provide a $30 per diem while residents are living elsewhere, according to Undeland.
As for concerns expressed about furniture and personal items, Undeland stressed, "The people doing this work [structural repairs] also do the moving. They do this all the time. They are used to doing this and they are insured. Everything of the tenants will be covered. We have budgeted $600,000 for this project."
THE EXTENDED time frame bothered Councilman Andrew Macdonald, who also serves as co-chair of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Neighborhood Task Force along with Euille. "If this is so urgent and threatening, why is it going to take two to three months," he inquired. "They should delay any further pile driving until they have a more comprehensive plan."
Macdonald stressed, "The people need to get taken care of first. Safety should be the major concern." It has been suggested by some of the tenants the entire exercise is being driven by the construction schedule which is moving more rapidly than projected.
The structural soundness of the buildings, both at the towers and the terrace, might also be of a long-range concern to the city. Both Euille and Macdonald see the site as a possible location for affordable housing when VDOT is ready to sell.
"The city should consider purchasing this as affordable housing. It's another area we should not lose to high priced development," Macdonald emphasized.
Although prime responsibility for city liaison with the bridge project rests with the Transportation & Environment Services Administration, Richard Baier, director, when alerted to the situation, said, "We made the decision early on in the project that matters impacting the tenants of Hunting Towers and Terrace would be the responsibility of the Office of Housing. It's more a tenant situation."
When contacted Monday, Mildrilyn Davis, director, Office of Housing Administration, was unaware of the events but promised to look into the matter immediately. When Tuesday's meeting with the residents was scheduled later that day a representative of her office assured they would be in attendance.
Regardless of the outcome on this problem, Dentzer notified the mayor and Council in her letter "we are filing rent escrow with the General District Court of the City of Alexandria in the months to come." Their reason for this action is "the lack of concern for our lives and welfare that has been shown by VDOT all throughout this process of rebuilding the Woodrow Wilson Bridge."