Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Lack of Transparency on Bank of Alexandria Building

Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Lack of Transparency on Bank of Alexandria Building

This letter from HARC to City Council has already been sent to the City. We submit it for publication as so little was made known to the public about the process and the lack of transparency by NOVA Parks.

Dear Mayor Wilson, Members of Council, and City Manager Mark Jinks:

The Historic Alexandria Resources Commission (HARC) recently learned that the existing 40-year lease on the historic Bank of Alexandria building, located at the corner of Fairfax and Cameron streets next to Carlyle House, will expire next year, and that the owner of the building, the NOVA Parks (formerly NVRPA), has issued an RFP regarding the future of the building. The City of Alexandria, of course, is member of NOVA Parks and as a steward has an important stake in outcome of that RFP, not only in terms of historic preservation, but also to ensure that the public interest is protected. As the Bank of Alexandria building is among the most treasured and historically significant structures in our city, HARC is concerned about the process regarding the RFP itself and opportunities for public input, and for future public access. HARC also would like to offer some specific suggestions for the City to consider.

The Bank of Alexandria building dates from 1807 and was the first bank in Virginia chartered by the First and Second Bank of the United States. The bank as a financial institution played an important role in the economic development of Alexandria and the region. The building itself is one of the few bank buildings from that period remaining south of Philadelphia. The City helped protect the build when the old Mansion House Hotel (later known as the Carlyle Apartments) from 1855 was demolished as part of the restoration of Carlyle House (1752) in the early 1970s. That demolition itself was controversial as the Mansion House building had its own significance, and the bank building had been incorporated into the hotel. Fortunately, not only was the bank saved, it was restored as part of a creative adaptive use effort with NOVA Parks, to include the original bank lobby on the first floor, part of which was used as a small museum. The first tenant, bank of Virginia, had a branch office in the space and operated the museum space as a public education outreach. The terms of the lease mention both use as a bank and the museum. Subsequently, after Bank of Virginia was acquired and the branch closed, NOVA Parks permitted sublease to a financial company that informally agreed to allow the use of the restored lobby space for outside groups (primarily Carlyle House).

HARC is concerned that the RFP makes no mention of how this important restored space will be maintained or what access the public may have to it in the future. In addition, no public hearings or other opportunities for input are scheduled by the City as a member of NOVA Parks, nor by NOVA Parks itself. As NOVA Parks (and the City as a member) is authorized by the Commonwealth of Virginia as an agency with a mission to conserve and protect Northern Virginia’s natural and cultural resources, HARC would expect such hearings or at least a public process. In addition, there is no transparency in regards to the availability of the property, nor even whether a realtor has been engaged. Even NOVA’s FY 2019 budget is silent on any potential sale or lease. While NOVA’s lapse may be a matter of oversight, certainly the City can and should step up to solicit public input, and establish some tangible, transparent dialogue with the preservation community and residents at large.

HARC would also suggest to the City that we explore establishing an easement, possibly held by the City (again as we are a member of NOVA Parks), addressing continuing the preservation of the restored lobby and for limited public access to it, both for interpretation and for events, as has been enjoyed in the past to the mutual benefit of both the community and any lessee.

For these reasons, HARC suggests and asks that the City adopt a more active role in securing the future of the Bank of Alexandria building, the RFP process – with organized public input – and exploration of an easement to protect the restored lobby. HARC is not suggesting that the City acquire the building, only that it fully protect the important aspects of the site, public access to it, and continued active interpretation of it. These measures would be fully in keeping with the City’s prior role with the site, and would not create new encumbrances.

As always, HARC is available to help and support this effort in any way it can.

Elizabeth McCall

Danny Smith

Co-Chairs, Historic Alexandria Resources Commission