To the Editor:
We are writing in regards to the recent Alexandria City Council decision to deny rezoning [editor’s note: since rescinded] for the Ramsey Homes, owned by the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA). This issue has been framed as though preservations and neighbors of the property are, respectively, obstructionists and NIMBYs. As the owners of properties surrounding Ramsey, we take great offense with this characterization and would like to dispel some of the myths. The community deserves to hear the facts of the proposal that ARHA put before City Council.
Facts of the Proposal and Timeline
The proposal would have increased the density on the property from the current just over 21 units per acre to over 74 units per acre, constructed two three-story buildings amid two-story row homes, created
29 parking spots for 53 units, exceeded the 15 - 30 recommended number of units previously called for in the city’s Master Plan, and resulted in an approximately 81 percent decline of the existing ground-level
green space. To compensate for the lack of ground-level open space, the proposal called for youth play areas on the roof, and ARHA, in a memo to City Council, implied the alley neighboring Ramsey could be used by
children to “play stickball.” The surrounding community found these project elements to be unacceptable and out of character with the surrounding historic neighborhood and with established plans.
After receiving approval to demolish the Ramsey Homes at the public hearing on Sept. 12, 2015, ARHA and its attorney assured City Council they would fully explore all hybrid options (i.e., options that would preserve one or two of the existing buildings), which were supported by many neighbors and historic preservationists. ARHA did not fulfill this promise. One month later, on Oct. 13, 2015, ARHA’s board voted to cease all consideration and evaluation of hybrid options, yet pro formas and associated analysis were not released to the public or City Staff for evaluation until Jan. 21, 2016. This release was just 14 days before the Planning Commission meeting on Feb. 4, 2016. We are not aware of any public explanation as to why the numbers were not disclosed earlier; this lack of disclosure prevented the community and City staff from fully vetting ARHA’s numbers. One hundred calendar days passed between the time ARHA stopped considering the hybrid options and the disclosure of their pro formas and analysis.
Discrepancies in the ARHA Proposal and Reason for Property Owners’ Petition
ARHA’s pro formas and analysis contained numerous discrepancies and unsupported assumptions. For example, in the pro forma for ARHA’s preferred and submitted redevelopment design, ARHA estimated 3 percent annual increases in year-over-year operating expenses (Feb. 2 memo from ARHA to Council). In contrast, ARHA’s pro formas for the hybrid options (i.e., designs the community supported but ARHA did not prefer) used 5 percent annual increases in year-over-year operating expenses. To our knowledge, no reason has been given for this discrepancy, and this variable greatly impacts the options’ financial performance. Similarly, ARHA compared two options, one containing 39 units and another with 51 units (Jan. 21 memo from ARHA to Council) yet estimated the same base operating expenses for both scenarios. We are hard pressed to understand how the cost to operate a 39-unit building is the same as a 51-unit building.
In the context of these errors and dissatisfied with the design of the proposed project, surrounding property owners submitted a protest petition, which was not intended to block the project but rather ensure the redevelopment proposal put forward was the best one possible. The petition simply required council to affirm a rezoning change by no less than a 6-1 vote, or three-fourths of council (i.e., a super-majority). A successful petition required signatures of property owners representing over 20 percent of the property within 300 feet of Ramsey, and this particular petition garnered signatures representing over 30 percent of the surrounding property mass and represented at least 75 nearby individual properties.
The supermajority rights afforded citizens in City Code is only successfully accomplished when there’s strong community support for a particular position and therefore is seldom used. Petitions for other recent projects were unsuccessful for various reasons. The threshold is high for a reason; exercise of supermajority rights should be used only when property owners feel their rights are being threatened. Furthermore, a number of neighbors attended multiple ARHA community meetings. ARHA, well aware of our unaddressed concerns, should not have been surprised by the submission of the protest petition.
ARHA’s Actions Immediately Preceding the Meeting and Implications of Saturday’s Vote
Shortly after 4 p.m. on the Friday before the council’s meeting (on Saturday), ARHA submitted a last-minute request for City Council to defer action on the DSUP (the redevelopment as proposed) and vote only on the Master Plan Amendment and Rezoning. By separating the Rezoning (which requires a supermajority) from the DSUP (which requires a simple majority), residents would lose the ability to require ARHA to perform their due diligence in fully evaluating hybrid options. Only the Rezoning required a supermajority; DSUPs are never subject to a petition-based supermajority.
It is standard practice to consider the Master Plan Amendments, Rezoning, and DSUPs collectively at the same meeting because it would be bad planning to rezone a property without considering what redevelopment
would take place on the land. Had council rezoned the property yet later denied a DSUP, any future activity allowed in a Commercial Residential Mixed Use – Medium (CRMU) density zone could have taken place without objection.
ARHA has indicated the tax credit application is due in early March; therefore, its own request to defer action on the DSUP unilaterally would have prevented ARHA from meeting this deadline. Regardless of how
council voted on Saturday, the next earliest time ARHA could submit its redevelopment tax credit proposal request would be 2017.
No one supports residents continuing to live in substandard conditions. We are collectively appalled at the current condition of the Ramsey Homes and, by ARHA CEO Roy Priest’s own admission, that ARHA has kept these homes in substandard condition for over 70 years. Additionally, at the Planning Commission meeting on Feb. 4, Mr. Priest indicated he would offer residents the chance to move out of Ramsey, regardless of council’s decision. Therefore, council’s vote should not result in residents having to continue living at Ramsey.
A vast majority of those who signed the petition are in favor of both affordable housing and increasing the number of affordable housing units on the Ramsey property. Given its rich history of defense and public housing, we believe the Ramsey Homes should continue to play a role in providing affordable housing in this great city. However, we feel it is vital any redevelopment be done responsibly and in keeping with the character of the neighborhood. In an area that lacks substantial open space and parking, any redevelopment should have plenty of both.
Many have called Saturday a sad day for our city. We agree, but ARHA put City Council and neighbors in an untenable position. ARHA, as the applicant, had a responsibility to perform the due diligence City Council requested, and they failed to uphold their promises.
We commend Mayor Silberberg and Councilman Smedberg for sharing our goal of a community-wide endorsed proposal and for voting as they did in the face of such vocal opposition. We hope Saturday’s vote will result in better decision-making and more transparency at ARHA.
We strongly urge ARHA to go back to the drawing board and submit Ramsey Homes for redevelopment as soon as possible. We also urge ARHA to work closely with all stakeholders in the community, including Ramsey neighbors and residents, historical preservationists, military and African-American historians, affordable housing advocates, and city staff to collectively create a proposal that will make our city and
The undersigned owners of property in the area of Ramsey Homes
In no particular order:
Glen Roe and Lila Lee
Mykhaylo and Irina Panarin
C L Zadlo