After almost a decade as a reluctant landlord, the Virginia Department of Transportation is getting out of the property rental game. It was never much of a fit in the first place, forged by a need for state transportation officials to manage and oversee construction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Now that the bridge has been completed, VDOT is planning to put two residential mid-rise apartment buildings on the open market. That means the hundreds of market-rate affordable housing units there may be jeopardized if the new owner decides to renovate and increase rents.
The stakes are high because the fate of more than 500 units are at stake.
“It’s potentially one of the biggest workforce housing opportunities we’ve ever seen,” said Councilman Rob Krupicka. “But we don’t have the cash resources to play a significant part in that discussion.”
The towers are assessed at $61 million, much more than the city could pay to preserve 530 affordable housing units. Back when the towers were sold to VDOT, Councilwoman Del Pepper suggested that the contract include a provision that allowed the city to purchase the buildings for $1 when the agency no longer needed them to construct the bridge. The $1 idea never received much traction, although Mayor Bill Euille has suggested that VDOT could simply donate them to Alexandria in an effort to preserve workforce housing.
“Such a donation would be the way to ensure that Hunting Towers could serve an affordable housing role in perpetuity,” Euille wrote to VDOT in January. “We do not understand from a budgetary basis VDOT does not want to donate the property, as Hunting Towers sale revenues were budgeted as a resource to pay for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project.”
VDOT officials say they have no intention of donating the towers, citing legal constraints. Meanwhile, the agency is accepting “expressions of interest,” nonbinding offers that will be used to calculate a real-market value when the buildings go on the open market later this year. When that happens, city officials say, the free market system could evict hundreds of residents who would be pushed out of Alexandria.
“If we take a laissez-faire approach, I’ll tell you what will happen,” said Vice Mayor Kerry Donley. “We will lose those units forever.”
“We can’t go out and spend $80 million to save 530 units,” said Coucilman Frank Fannon. “We have to realize that every time we subsidize something, a taxpayer is paying for it.”
THE AREA WHERE the towers is now located was once known as Broomilawn Point, a favorite spot for picnics and barbecues. In 1794, part of the site was leased to Robert Hooe, Alexandria’s first mayor. By 1800, he had constructed a tavern on Broomilawn Point. In the 1850s, the Manassas Gap Railroad constructed a cut separating the point from St. Mary’s Cemetery, which later became the location of the Capital Beltway. A brick works was constructed on the site in 1884 and remained in operation until it was destroyed by fire in 1919.
In 1950, three identical towers known as Hunting Towers were constructed with a brick exterior and a reinforced concrete interior laid out in a cruciform shape. One was later demolished to make way for the southern span of the new bridge, leaving the twin towers some of the last remaining market-rate affordable housing units in Old Town. The buildings were constructed in such as way that prevents internal walls from being demolished, city officials say, which may help the city’s efforts to prevent them from becoming luxury condominiums.
“You can’t put more bathrooms. You can’t do washers and dryers. You cannot do central air. They have wall units,” said Deputy City Manager Mark Jinks. “It provides great housing for the people who are there, but it’s very limited as far as making it class A.”
The site is currently zoned RC, High Density Apartment, permitting up to 54.45 dwelling units per acre and a floor area ratio of 1.25. Over the years, VDOT has heard from developers who have expressed an interest in converting the apartments to condominiums, although the market for that kind of conversion is not as strong as it was before the global financial meltdown. Unless a developer is able to triple the density, city officials say, it’s unlikely that an investment trust would be interested in the project because it would be difficult to provide a yield.
“We are not going to upzone this property for any additional density,” Vice Mayor Kerry Donley said.
In the last decade, Alexandria has lost more than 10,000 units of affordable housing. That’s one of the reasons why city leaders are so hopeful that a nonprofit might step in to work with the city to preserve the units at Hunting Towers.