Two Board of Architectural Review appeals to the City Council questioned whether historic merit justified demolition. Despite two different and controversial discussions, the end results were the same: Ramsey Homes and 226 The Strand are coming down.
At the City Council meeting on Sept. 12, the chambers were crowded with advocates and opponents of the two buildings’ demolition. The first discussion centered on 226 The Strand, a building on the Waterfront near the Robinson Terminal South and Indigo Hotel developments. The building is currently in disuse and disrepair. Following a 3-2 vote by BAR in favor of demolition, local residents filed an appeal to have the BAR’s decision overturned.
Catherine Miliaras, an urban planner, represented the preservation section of Planning and Zoning during both discussions.
“The Waterfront Plan noted that the building had lost its cultural significance,” said Miliaras. “The current building is from 1940s and ‘50s. Very small interior portions contain 19th century brick. Much of that brick has been reused and stuccoed. The BAR conditioned approval on requirement of developer to dismantle the building to be placed in City Facility.”
Whereas past developments were largely opposed by a vocal group of Waterfront residents, reaction towards the demolition of 226 The Strand was more mixed. Even among the building’s defenders, it was acknowledged that the current building isn’t the most beautiful structure in Old Town. Mark Mueller, who spoke regarding both 226 The Strand and Ramsey Homes, urged the City Council to look beyond the building’s current condition and see its potential.
“It’s an ugly building now, but take off that stucco and there’s brick behind it,” said Mueller. “We can celebrate Alexandria’s maritime history. Think of that as a potential maritime museum. I’m not advocating preserving it in its existing condition, but let's get creative. With this and with Ramsey homes, there’s a double standard where you hold the residents to one standard and the developers to another, and that’s just wrong.”
Many of the building’s defenders argued that the building represented an “authentic” link to the city’s maritime history, some directly contrasting it with recent EYA development plans for Robinson Terminal South. But for other Old Town residents, it was precisely the same comparison that drew concern. Amy Houten, a local resident, said that she believed the defense of 226 The Strand was primarily rooted in an attempt to stall construction on other nearby developments, like Robinson Terminal South.
“We can preserve the character of Alexandria in numerous ways, I don’t think we need to do it with a building that sits in a floodplain that has studies documenting that it needs mitigation, particularly if the historic material of the building we are talking about is on the bottom portion of the building,” said Amy Houten. “I understand that you want to preserve history and the historic character, I do too, it’s one of the reasons I moved here, but that building is not one of the reasons I stay here.”
Even among some of the area’s past vocal opponents of the Robinson Terminal South development plans, there was some uncertainty.
“We have to pick our battles here,” said Dino Drudi. “The waterfront has been one enormous battle … there has been an enormous polarization. Some folks are fighting every step of the way, tooth and nail, and it’s quite understandable that they’re doing so. But I don’t think this is the right one to fight over. I agree with the BAR and that there are a variety of viewpoints, but I don’t see anything so earth-shattering about this building that it needs to stay.”
With little discussion, the City Council voted unanimously to uphold the BAR’s decision.
THE DISCUSSION of 226 The Strand was a prelude for the battle of Ramsey Homes. The Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA) was denied an application to demolish the homes by the Parker-Gray BAR in April of 2015 in a unanimous vote. ARHA appealed the decision to City Council, hoping to tear down the existing buildings to construct new affordable housing units. Discussion of the Ramsey Homes development, though similar in some ways to the 226 The Strand development, elicited a much higher level of emotion and controversy.
The discussion centered around questions of the buildings architectural and cultural significance to the surrounding area. The four, two-story buildings were originally built in 1941 as housing for African-American defense workers. It was purchased by the city in 1953 and was part of the establishment of the Parker-Gray District in 1984. The establishment of the Parker-Gray neighborhood as an official district of the city was intended to preserve the residential and low-scale character of the area in the face of increasing development pressure driven by the nearby Braddock and King Street metro stops. In their research of the buildings, Miliaras said that city staff found the buildings to have cultural significance but not architectural significance. Anna Moss from Thunderbird Archeology, however, noted that the buildings had undergone substantial changes since the 1960s and that the current structures did not reflect the original architectural designs. Duncan Blair, an attorney representing ARHA, acknowledged that the buildings bear cultural significance, but said that this history could be memorialized elsewhere. The more pressing issue, ARHA CEO Roy Priest said, is that even with substantial rehabilitation, the buildings can not meet current accessibility codes, which puts ARHA at risk of losing its housing subsidies.
“The board concluded that the only viable and sustainable option is demolition and redevelopment,” said Priest.
But the conversation turned back towards ARHA, with some on the council questioning the organization’s role in allowing the buildings to degrade to the conditions described.
“You opened your comment by saying that sanitary conditions and conditions overall would not meet HUD standards, so that begs the question: why has ARHA allowed these properties to get to that level of condition anyway?” asked Councilman Paul Smedberg, which was met with applause by the audience.
“We have continued to invest money far in excess of the monies we receive from our rents from our tenants,” said Priest. “We expend more money for our capital investment. ARHA receives one allocation of capital funding each year that we must use to allocate to all 23 of the properties that are designated as public housing.”
While ARHA spends 4 percent of its funding on Ramsey, Priest noted that the buildings only contain 2 percent of ARHA residents. Simply put: maintaining the buildings is not financially feasible. On further questioning by the council regarding allegations of mismanagement, Priest countered that space constraints at the location do not allow ARHA to install amenities like washing machines and air conditioning units. However, while questions of ARHA’s management would continue throughout the afternoon, Councilman John Chapman steered the conversation back towards the basis of the BAR’s decision.
“We’re here to discuss historical significance today,” said Chapman. “These are questions and conversations that do need to be had, I think everyone knows that, but the focus of this appeal … Why is this something we should keep or let be demolished? Let’s focus on that.”
Despite the fact that the BAR and council decision cannot focus on what type of building would go in a potential-demolition’s place, much of the discussion from the public centered around the question of whether current and future affordable housing needs merited the destruction of a piece of Alexandria’s past.
Robert Eiffert from Alexandria’s Commission on Aging and Joseph Valenti from the Economic Opportunities Commission both voiced their organizations’ support for the demolition, motivated primarily by the need to secure more affordable housing for the city.
“Fiscally, it makes no sense to expect continued maintenance of units that failed to meet city codes a decade ago,” said Valenti.
Shaquana Walker, a resident of Ramsey Homes, spoke out in favor of their redevelopment.
“I’ve lived there for 10 years,” said Walker. “The structures of these buildings have lived their useful life. In the 1940s, these buildings were built with the purpose that they served: housing the working class. In 2015, they still serve working families. … It’s hard to think that the idea of historical relevance outweighs the idea of a standard of living in 2015.”
But for other local residents, the potential demolition of Ramsey Homes represented exactly why the Parker Grey Historic District was established in the first place.
“The Parker Grey Historic District was specifically designed to protect housing against pressures of development,” said Heidi Ford, secretary and a past-president of the West Old Town Citizen’s Association.
The Parker Grey District BAR was represented by Phillip Moffat, who said he understood the tough decision the council faced.
“I’m sure it feels like you’re having to decide between affordable public housing and historic preservation, but the decision is not ultimately about that,” said Moffat. “It is simply about whether a proposal that has been offered by one body meets six criteria [for preservation].”
Ultimately, Moffat said the buildings meet the conditions that make it historically and culturally significant to the area.
“We think this series of structures helps us understand and interpret public housing in the United States … we think it also helps explain the history of African Americans participating in the wartime effort despite laboring under segregation. The condition of a building does not justify demolition.”
Like Chapman, Moffat tried to steer the conversation back towards the core of the discussion.
“It’s not just about public housing, it’s about Parker Grey,” said Moffat in defense of the BAR decision. “We have lost most of the civic buildings that are part of that community … We took the same criteria and we weighed historic and cultural significance much less [than other communities]. That’s the way we treated these buildings for 20 or 30 years, it’s why we have so few of them right now.”
Moffat asked if a plaque was enough of a substitute for cultural significance to merit the demolition of the buildings in question, and followed up with a proposal that only two of the neighborhood’s four buildings be demolished if the appeal was granted. The compromise was popular on the City Council, though there was some question of whether they would be able to enforce this compromise once the council granted an appeal to the demolition permit.
“I know what it means to not be able to see the home you grew up in,” said Chapman, who grew up in the area, “but I also understand the real history of public housing. Public housing is not meant for generational housing, it is temporary housing so people can get back on their feet. In this country, we have always had turnover of housing to improve [conditions]... The main factor in public housing is not the building, it is the people. It is the people who pass through the doors, the people that raise their families there. Being tied to buildings does not work for public housing… I do think we have let other things get in the way of what our one question was, what our one decision was.”
The City Council told staff to continue to work with ARHA on the development plan and a potential hybrid arrangement, ultimately overturning the BAR decision in a 5-2 vote.