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Opposing ‘Safe Haven’

BAR meets to discuss architecture changes, but hears concerns about homeless.

Is it a safe haven or a threat to the neighborhood?

The Board of Architectural Review, Old and Historic District, heard questions from concerned residents on the city's Safe Haven project at their meeting on Dec 7.

The object of the controversy was 115 North Patrick St., former home of the City of Alexandria Community Services Board's Clubhouse.

With the Clubhouse, relocated to the new Health Department headquarters, the North Patrick property will be renovated into a group home for 12 people.

The renovation plan, coupled with what nearby residents perceive as a lack of community input to the decision making process, brought forth an unusual turnout to last week's BAR meeting.

"We were forced to speak only on the architectural aspects of converting the building not on the intended use," said James Canavan, who lives near the proposed group home.

Since the basic use of the building is not changing, no special use permit is required and the matter does not have to go to the planning commission.

Because BAR does not deal in land use, only in structural questions.

"WE ARE NOT against this building being used for the less fortunate, but these tenants will be people who cannot go into a normal shelter because of their mental history," Canavan said. "When we first heard of this proposed use we were told the property was going to be used as offices. When it was the Clubhouse it was used only during the day. Now it will be a 24/7 residence."

David Hudgins, an attorney for the neighbors said they wre not happy with the way CSB has proceeded.

"The Safe Haven project was conceived by the Board several years ago. They applied to HUD (U.S.Department of Housing and Urban Development) for a grant and the neighbors were never told of the intent," Hudgins said.

In fact the Board had notified the neighbors after considerable study of the site. "Once it was determined that the site could be adapted for Safe Haven use … the CSB notified 63 properties surrounding the building on all four sides of the Safe Haven program," according to the CSB website.

They also established an "occupant" mailing to inform those building owners that are off-site. This brought the number of letters in each informational mailing to 88, the CSB says.

CSB also maintains that they have been in constant contact with the presidents of the Upper King Street Civic Association, the Inner City Association, and the area business association known as Kizmet.

"What they [the opposition] means by no notification is that they weren't given the chance to vote up or down on this," said Michael Gilmore, executive director, CSB.

Craig Miller, a resident who spearheaded the opposition, said once they found out about an application for architectural changes and subsequent use, they were angry.

"WE WERE TOLD it was a done deal and that we had no voice in the matter," Miller said.

Under the board's proposal the building will be converted to 10 single-person apartments and one double occupancy apartment.

"The original plan was for 12 single occupancy apartments," said Michael Gilmore executive director for the CSB. "The primary objective is to provide a 24 hour program. We will have two staff on duty in the building around the clock."

Gilmore said the CSB operates 10 group homes and 53 supervised apartments throughout the city.

"People don't understand the Federal Fair Housing Act. We have to spread these facilities throughout the city so they are not overly concentrated in any one area," he said.

Though residents voiced concern about the plan for the property, BAR Chairman Thomas Hulfish, III, said, "Most of the problems of the community residents had to do with use and that's not before the BAR."

What was before the BAR was an application for a certificate of appropriateness to make alterations to the building, which was constructed between 1896 and 1902. The major alteration involves removal of a section of the roof for a sunken roof promenade and the construction of a connecting corridor linking the main building and secondary building on the second level.

SINCE ITS ORIGINAL CONSTRUCTION, the building has gone through several uses including a Fire Department Engine House, a Juvenile and Domestic Relation Court, and finally a community mental health facility.

BAR voted unanimously to approve the proposed architectural changes. Their recommendation will go before City Council

The issue of the proposed use was reviewed by City Council in 2004 when considering the CSB application for the HUD grant funds. At that time the site was proposed for the new Safe Haven project.

The CSB intends for the program to provide permanent supportive housing, not emergency shelter, for 12 homeless men and women, who were unable to use the existing shelter system because of mental illness or substance abuse disorders.

The Safe Haven would provide intensive, 24-hour, overnight coverage with professional mental health staffing, but none of that satisfies opponents.

They maintain that the board has kept their plans under the radar to specifically "exclude the neighborhood residents."

"If this is such a good idea why are they [the board] being so secretive?" asked Dr. Walter Grace, another resident. "How has this gotten this far with no public input? This project is causing more harm than help."

Hudgins and Miller said they are considering legal action to stop the project. They also intend to appeal the BAR decision to council.

"We have 14 days to appeal and we are going to do just that," Hudgins said. "It's become known as the Safe Haven Stealth Project."