To the Editor:
Public entities like the Alexandria Redevelopment Housing Authority (ARHA) must be held to the same, if not to a higher standard, than the general public. On Sept. 12, City Council will consider ARHA’s appeal of the Parker Gray Board of Architecture Review unanimous decision to deny ARHA’s request to demolish the historic Ramsey Home to replace it with apartment buildings. City Council’s decision will tell us once and for all whether there is one set of rules for privileged entities and another set of rules for the rest of us.
In April, the Parker Gray BAR unanimously determined that Ramsey Homes met four out of six criteria identified in the Zoning Code as indicative of historical significance and hence meriting preservation. Ramsey Homes is located in the Parker Gray Historic District and was built as housing for African American defense workers during the early 1940s; it is one of the last remaining examples of wartime housing in Alexandria. The fact that the city highlighted Ramsey Homes as a contributing resource in its now-approved Uptown/Parker Gray National Register Historic District nomination is a clear indication of city acknowledgement of the historical and architectural significance of the site.
During a July public meeting, ARHA displayed slides showcasing the poor condition of the units, which clearly need substantial renovation. The units suffer from peeling paint, closets and pantries without doors, birds nesting in the attic, and inadequate electrical. The question must be asked, however, as to why the units are in such poor condition? ARHA has owned this property decades. Are we to believe that in the last 50 years ARHA could not find the funds to put doors on the closets, to seal up crevices to prevent birds from nesting in the attics, to perhaps do something as simple as upgrading the electrical? These are routine maintenance and upgrades that anyone who lives in a historic home is familiar with. The almost willful neglect of such routine home upgrades should not be an excuse for demolition of historically significant buildings. City regulations underscore this point — the condition of a building does not justify demolition.
Because ARHA has neglected upkeep on Ramsey Homes it now argues it is not financially prudent to renovate the buildings. However, city regulations specify that financial matters, master plan requirements, what might replace an existing building, cannot be considered in demolition requests. Yet, this is exactly the argument that ARHA is making. Private homeowners in the historic districts are routinely required by the City to use more expensive materials on their homes — wood instead of hardiplank, wood windows instead of vinyl. If private homeowners are expected to fund such routine maintenance and upgrades, and to do so with more expensive historically appropriate materials, why should the same not be expected of ARHA?
For many of us in the Parker Gray historic district, the financial value of our homes is in the land. The houses are old and upkeep is expensive. If City Council accepts ARHA’s argument that its land values and the expense of maintaining its historic buildings is justification for demolition, then City Council must treat private homeowners equally. Either the BAR and historic district requirements apply to all or they must apply to none.