After more than two hours of testimony, some deeply personal and revealing, from 35 speakers, the Alexandria Planning Commission Tuesday night unanimously recommended approval of a Special Use Permit (SUP) for a congregate housing facility at 115 N. Patrick St. creating the City's first Safe Haven.
The proposed reuse of what was once known as The Club House, has been the subject of a court battle that pitted neighbors against neighbors and the City in questioning the appropriateness of establishing a residence for 12 homeless Alexandrians at that location. The site is in the heart of a mixed use Old Town area surrounded by residential, office and commercial buildings.
Originally built between 1896 and 1902 as a fire station, the two story building has been the site of a series of public uses including the City's Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. During its span as the City's Clubhouse, a day program for those recovering from mental illness, it served more than 100, run by the City's Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation.
Central to arguments on both sides of issue is the makeup of those who would be served by the applicant for the SUP, the Alexandria Community Services Board (ACSB). As described in the application they are "unaccompanied adults, 18 years or older, homeless individuals who also have a serious mental illness and/or substance use disorder."
ASCB HAS IDENTIFIED approximately 35 such individuals "who could benefit from a Safe Haven type of housing program." These programs, "embrace a housing first approach to treating individuals, offering a permanent home as a first priority, and a means to engage residents and assist them organize their lives in order to make additional mental health treatment services available and accessible," according to the staff report. Several potential residents were among speakers seeking the Commission's approval for the SUP.
Both Arlington and Fairfax County presently operate Safe Haven residences located in mixed use neighborhoods. The success of those programs was brought forth by the testimony of Pamela L. Michell, executive director, New Hope Housing Inc., Fairfax County.
"We opened our first Safe Haven in February 1999. Today, eight years later, they (the residents) have developed their own community. It has become a home not a house," she told the Commission.
Those in opposition to the proposal zeroed in on its location not the concept. They emphasized what they viewed it as having a detrimental impact on neighborhood property values, personal safety issues, and the tourism industry in Old Town. They also maintained the location was in juxtaposition to the aims and goals of the King Street Retail Study.
"This program has never been tried here in Alexandria. It only has to misfire once to affect the entire tourism and retail business of Old Town," said Craig Miller, nearby resident to the Safe Haven site, leader of the opposition, and plaintiff to the recent law suit to halt the project.
"If this were a restaurant the Commission would ask how this would impact the neighborhood. Why shouldn't that same question be asked of Safe Haven?" he said.
"I have had three clinical psychologists tell me this is not a good location. It is too active an area and the proposed roof top deck invites problems. Why take the risk? Having a building that may cause harm to the residents is not in the best interests of anyone," Miller testified.
HIS OPPOSITION WAS buttressed by Andy Kunz, another nearby property owner. "This project has widespread opposition along King Street, mostly among businesses. They are not here to testify tonight because of fear of retribution from the City," he said.
"If you approve this all the programs on King Street and throughout Old Town will be set back 20 years," Kunz said in citing the King Street Retail Strategy. "This project goes against all this work that you (the Commission) have approved."
Kunz's accusation of City intimidation brought forth a response from Commission Chairman Eric Wagner. "I object to your reference that the City would resort to intimidation tactics. I have personally never seen any evidence of this in my 14 years of public service and I am sure that City Manager Jim Hartmann would not tolerate it," Wagner said following Kunz's testimony.
ONE OF THE PRIMARY OBJECTIONS centered on the perceived drop in nearby property values if the Safe Haven was approved. As noted by attorney Mary Catherine Gibbs, representing the applicant, that factor had been explored by a real estate appraisal analysis
conducted by Oakleigh J. Thorne of Thorne Consultants, Inc., Real Estate Counseling specialists.
His conclusion was stated in a letter to City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa dated November 16, 2006. "We found nothing unique about the neighborhood of the proposed Safe Haven facility. As a result, based on extrapolation from our analogue study of housing prices near supported housing programs operated by the public sector or not-for-profit entities, we concluded that conversion of the building at 115 North Patrick Street to a Safe haven facility will have no discernable or measurable impact on housing prices in the neighborhood," he wrote and reiterated at Tuesday night's meeting.
Gibbs also noted that the Commissioners had each received more than 95 letters and emails in support of the proposal. "It's the right use, in the right location, for the right reasons," she said.
MANY OF THOSE who testified in support referred to their own problems with drugs, alcohol, criminal records, psychiatric illness, and other adversities they had encountered in their lives that lead to their homelessness and how entities such as Safe Haven have helped them. One of the best examples was that of Minister Robert Woods, program manager, at nearby Susan's Place.
"Fifteen years ago my address was between two tractor trailers in the District. Through the help I received by group's like Safe Haven today I have a home, two degrees and am working on a Master's degree," he said.
When it came time for the Commission to offer their comments each noted how impressed they had been by the correspondence they received and testimony offered at the meeting. As stated by Vice Chairman John Komoroske, "The measure of a society is how it treats those worst off in that society. I don't see that there will be anything but improvement by Safe Haven."
He also challenged the reference to the proposal being in opposition to plans for King Street retail development. "I don't see any conflict between this and the King Street Retail Strategy. I was on the King Street Retail Strategy Advisory Committee," he said.
"I believe there has been a full and detailed discussion. There is no basis for denying this on a personal level. I think this is a wonderful project," said Commissioner H.Stewart Dunn, Jr.
Referring to the potential future residents of the Safe Haven, Wagner said, "All these people are our neighbors because we chose to live in a city. The location is perfectly appropriate for this use."
However, he did agree with the argument offered by the opposition
pertaining to allowing smoking material on the rooftop deck as posing a potential hazard to neighbors. A new condition was added to restrict that use. The application also provides for parking within 300 feet of the facility.
In other action, the Commission reelected Wagner and Komoroske as chairman and vice chairman for another year. Prior to commencing the public hearing, Wagner recognized the recent death of Richard Leibach, a 20 year member of the Commission and former vice chairman.