Upper King Street is a hodgepodge of eclectic buildings. Victorian townhouses mingle with Art Deco office buildings and postmodern structures in a unique jumble of architectural styles and motifs. Some of the buildings enjoy the protection of being in a historic district while others do not. In some cases, buildings on one side of the street are considered historic while buildings on the other side of the street are not.
That’s how 1514 King St. and 1516 King St. were torn down last year.
“We didn’t feel that these buildings were historic,” said Jonathan Rak, a lawyer with McGuireWoods who represents the property owner, DSF Long. “It wasn’t on the city’s list of historic buildings and it wasn’t listed in the National Register of Historic Places.”
Built in 1913, the two addresses were part of a duplex that was originally constructed for the Parker brothers, who owned a grocery store in the 1700 block of King Street. According to record on file in the real-estate assessor’s office, DSF Long purchased the properties for $5 million on Jan. 6, 2004. A few months later, it presented a plan to City Council that would demolish 1514 King St. and 1516 King St. in an effort to radically redesign the block. Councilman Andrew Macdonald was the only member of council to oppose the plan, voicing a strong objection to the proposed demolition.
“The consensus was that we should agree to the demolition to improve the economic vitality of the city,” Macdonald said. “But I disagreed with that because I think these are the kind of buildings we need to save for the economic vitality of the city.”
THE BUILDINGS WERE doomed for two reasons: They were not 100 years old and they were not included in the Old Town Historic District. It will be another seven years before they would have been protected by the 100-year rule. But if the demolition permit had been requested just a few months later, they would have been protected by their new status in the Old Town Historic District.
On Saturday, the City Council will vote to include the 1500 block in the Old Town Historic District — joining its neighbors across the street that were already included in the protected district. Even if the designation had come a few months earlier, the historic designation would not have necessarily prevented the December demolition. But it would have provided more public oversight into the process by requiring an approval by the Board of Architectural Review — a decision that could have theoretically been appealed to the City Council, which would have brought more public attention to the demolition before it happened.
“I feel very disappointed that almost no one saw the value in saving these old buildings,” said Boyd Walker, a historic preservation advocate who fought to save the buildings. “These are pieces of the past that we will never get back.”
Walker spent months opposing DSF Long’s plans, railing against the proposed demolition at public hearings and creating a new group of activists that he called the “Upper King Street Preservation Group.” Walker sought an injunction to prevent the demolition, but an Alexandria judge denied the request. He also brought a lawsuit against the city to prevent a partial demolition that DSF Long requested in an adjacent building.
“This was clearly done in the wrong order, and the historic designation should have come before the demolition,” Walker said. “But I’m glad that this will protect the buildings that are still there.”
MACDONALD SAID that the Upper King Street Preservation Group’s advocacy brought public attention to the matter — forging the way to expand the historic district and putting pressure on the city’s elected leaders to work against development pressures that would demolish local landmarks.
“I don’t think that there’s any question that if the historic preservation advocates hadn’t made such a stink that the next block would have been torn down also,” Macdonald said. “This marks a watershed moment in how we look at retaining the economic vitality of the historic district.”
Although he said that expanding the historic district is a good idea, Macdonald said that more needs to be done. He said that City Council should add Parker Gray to the National Register so that homeowners who live there can get tax credits. He would also suggest that the 100-year rule be reduced to 50 years — with all buildings older than 50 years subjected to a more strenuous process for getting a demolition permit.
“This building that was demolished was part of the railroad history of this town, and it had a lot of significant historical character,” Macdonald said. “We already think about the colonial buildings as being historic, but we need to start thinking about these other buildings as historic or we will lose more of them.”