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Votes

High Density, Higher Return

Developers are exerting a transformative influence in Parker Gray.

The six-story tower that is now rising at the corner of North Henry and Pendleton streets is a sign of the times — a new kind of dense development that is changing the face of Alexandria’s historically black community that once revolved around the Parker Gray High School. The old school is long gone, demolished under the rubble of a neighborhood now beset by abandoned warehouses and unused rail car tracks.

Ironically, the site of the old school falls outside of the Parker Gray District, an architecturally protected zone carved out by city leaders in 1984. Now, 13 years after creating a blank canvas for future development, the neighborhood is in the midst of dramatic change with a handful of developers building six-story condominiums across the street from two-story townhouses.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a big building next to a smaller building,” said Bud Hart, a prominent land-use attorney who is representing four developers with plans for the neighborhood. “These buildings are designed to maintain the charm of the neighborhood.”

Developers like Diamond Properties make a point of advocating the kind of high-density that maximizes profit margins, hiring well-connected law firms like Hart, Calley, Gibbs & Karp and pledging money to city leaders like Mayor Bill Euille. Last year, as the city election approached, Diamond Properties donated thousands of dollars in several installments to Euille, who was running unopposed campaign for reelection. When the May 5 Election Day arrived, campaign-finance records show, Diamond Properties had given Euille $3,555 — the largest monetary donation to the mayor’s campaign although the amount was a small fraction of his total $115,000 pre-election war chest.

“To be honest, I’m not even sure how much money Diamond contributed to my campaign. They were one of 500 or 600 individuals who donated money,” said Euille when asked about the contributions. “Those of us on City Council make decisions about what’s best for the Alexandria regardless of what the campaign contributions are.”

Taking campaign money from developers is not illegal for City Council members or the mayor, and many of the city’s other elected leaders take money from parties who have had projects that have already been approved or are in the process of obtaining the necessary permits. Yet some say the practice of elected leaders taking money from parties with business interests at City Hall has certain drawbacks.

“Campaign gifts tend to create an era of good feelings and an alliance between the donor and the recipient,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “They are on the same side in their own minds, and this makes the governmental official more open to helping the individual. Even if this isn't true, the money gives reasonable people the appearance that this is true.”

<b>ON THE OTHER SIDE</b> of the developers are hundreds of neighborhood residents who have signed a petition to preserve one area of open space a few blocks from the Monarch’s construction site. Known as Braddock Place, the parcel of land at 1261 Madison St. has become the center of a disagreement between neighbors who oppose more large-scale developments and city leaders in the midst of a long-term planning process about the future of the community. The parcel is owned by Arthur Walters, who is represented by Bud Hart — the same land-use attorney who helped shepherd Diamond Properties through the permitting process back in 2004.

“The owner is going to get just compensation,” said Hart, who donated $550 to the mayor’s campaign. “And that’s the fair-market value.”

City land records show that the land was assessed at $3.9 million in January, although its fair-market value is widely expected to be much more than that. In Hart’s conference room, a 19th-century townhouse on North Washington Street, the attorney who is reshaping Parker Gray said that a fair-market value is almost never the same as the assessed value — a judgment that was ratified recently during a public hearing at City Hall. When Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald suggested during a Feb. 24 meeting that the city should consider the possibility of using the city’s power of eminent domain to acquire 1261 Madison St., Parks and Recreation Director Kirk Kincannon explained that City Council members would have to be willing to shell out more than $3. 9 million to buy it.

“We have had contact with the property owners,” Kincannon said during the February meeting. “The price range they are looking at is very significant in relation to the location of the property and the amount of property, and the commercial value is significantly higher than $3.9 million.”

Councilman Rob Krupicka inquired about the cost that the city government would have to bear if it were to be purchased as part of the city’s open-space property acquisition program. After the vice mayor’s suggestion that eminent domain shouldn’t be taken off the table, Krupicka wanted to know what the financial ramifications of such action might be.

“Many of us recognize that the property would be a wonderful opportunity for open-space but we also recognize that its zoned for high-density development,” said Krupicka during the public hearing. “I’ve heard people say that the assessment may be under the real market value of that property. It could be three times the assessment. I’m curious if staff could provide a little bit of feedback about that.”

“I’m going to rule that not take place here today,” interrupted Mayor Euille. “Simply because when we start talking about price of parcels that we are desiring to look at considering purchasing — it’s not a good discussion to have in a public session.”

<b>PUBLIC RECORDS SHOW</b> that increased density in Parker Gray has supporters and detractors. The Inner-City Civic Association has consistently supported increased density in the neighborhood, yet other residents say that the high-density buildings are ruining the charm of the neighborhood and clogging its already congested streets. Hundreds of residents have signed a petition presented to City Council members last month by Parker-Gray resident Steve Carman. According to the language of the petition, its signers “support preserving the green space at Braddock Metro locally known as the PBS Plaza Pocket Park from development."

“This is the only green space anywhere close to this area without having to go to the river and King Street,” wrote Braddock Place resident Brent Searing next to his signature on the petition. “Please do the classy thing and keep this small space green and fix it up even nicer to reflect the elegant and relaxed atmosphere of Old Town.”

Like the city’s experience with Diamond Properties and its Monarch project, a final decision on the matter will probably result in some kind of windfall for city leaders who rely on property-tax revenue to operate the city and campaign contributions to fuel their reelection efforts. Unlike the wealthy developers and their lawyers who exert a great deal of influence at City Hall, residents who oppose development interests in Parker Gray may soon have to face the realities of a planning process that is tilted in favor of increased density. In the end, development pressures may be more powerful than the opportunity costs associated with exerting the city’s power of eminent domain to acquire the property at 1261 Madison St.

“I understand that people don’t want to live next to monstrosities,” said Hart. “But we are maintaining the charm of the area.”

<b>HIGH-DENSITY DEVELOPMENT</b> is a concept that many people say should be at the center of the Braddock Metro Neighborhood Plan, a small-area planning process that is now being forged in community forums and town-hall meetings. The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing to discuss it on May 1, then the City Council will hold a public hearing on the plan during on May 12.

One of the issues that will be an important feature of the discussion is floor-area ratio, which developers often try to increase during the permitting process. For example, Diamond Properties was granted permission to increase floor-area ratio from 1.5, which the area is zoned for, to 2.33 — essentially adding thousands of square feet to the plans. City Council allowed K. Hovanian Homes to more than double their floor-area ratio from 1.0 to 2.5 for its Payne Street Condominiums project.

"We're not creating Manhattan," said Inner City Civic Association President Patricia Shubert, who has supported increased density near the Metro station. "I think the design of these buildings was done in a way that preserves the integrity of the Parker Gray neighborhood."

Shubert said that many of the neighbors she talks to agree that high density is a way to encourage public transportation, redevelop abandoned warehouses and fight persistent crime in the Inner City. During the approval process for Payne Street Condominiums, another development project represented by Hart, Amy Harris-White explained her support for high-density development as a way to recreate the neighborhood.

“My husband and I have long been concerned with the many dark corners and unpopulated sections of the Inner City,” she wrote in a letter supporting of the 146-unit development approved in February with support from all City Council members except Vice Mayor Macdonald. “This is an opportunity for an old warehouse to be transformed into a vital addition to our neighborhood, as opposed to a run down, unkempt warehouse that closes its doors in the evening and where everyone goes home.”

<b>EXPLAINING HIS OBJECTION</b> to the Payne Street Condominiums, Macdonald said that the size and scale of the project were wrong for the historically black neighborhood. Although Macdonald admitted to voting for the Monarch back in 2004, the vice mayor now says that project does not have the proper transition between a six-story condominium and a two-story townhouse that stands directly across the street.

“I think the Monarch is really awful,” Macdonald said, pointing to a model of the project in City Council chambers last month. “Just awful.”

With his dissenting vote on the Payne Street Condominium project, Macdonald has placed himself in the center of an ongoing feud between some residents who are eager to preserve their neighborhood and development interests that want to maximize profit margins near the Metro station. A few days after the public hearing, the same architectural model he derided sat in Hart’s conference room on North Washington Street. With the same amount of passion in his voice that Macdonald used in February, Hart pointed to the model in a similar fashion yet expressed a diametrically opposed opinion.

“Look at it,” demanded the land-use attorney. “It’s a damn fine project. Damn fine."