Merging Alexandria BARs?

Merging Alexandria BARs?

City considers combining boards.

“I’m concerned about the mechanics of the merger. There’s 14 people who’ve expressed a concern for their city and a desire to contribute, and they’re being taken out of the mix.” —Yvonne Weight Callahan, President, Old Town Civic Association

When the Parker-Gray District Board of Architectural Review (BAR) does meet, which is already with decreasing regularity, it’s rarely for more than an hour. The board’s last meeting on July 18, which ran for 53 minutes, consisted of two case approvals with very little discussion, a new set of policies for administrative approval, and a unanimously approved selection of officers for the board. Old and Historic District BAR meetings aren’t much more drawn out either. So after having separate BARs since 1986, the city is looking at merging Old Town and Parker-Gray into one BAR.

The process started on April 10 with a proposal from Vice Mayor Justin Wilson and Councilmember Paul Smedberg, which originated from the respective boards, to merge the two. The City Council voted to initiate a text amendment for consolidation of the two BARs over protests from Mayor Allison Silberberg that several people integral to the group’s founding hadn’t been consulted before the proposal was brought forward.

Both historic districts would remain separate, with their own rules and regulations, but approval for new developments and modifications for both districts would go through the same board. Alexandria is the only jurisdiction in Virginia with more than one BAR. Most major cities, even those with around 30 historic districts, still only have one BAR. But the merger of the two is still making some Alexandrians wary.

A meeting on July 30 in City Hall considering the consolidation of the two BARs drew a full crowd. Reception to the merger was mixed. Yvonne Weight Callahan, president of the Old Town Civic Association, said she wanted to make sure the citizens who’ve taken the time to serve on both boards aren’t cut out of the administration when the boards are merged into a new seven-member board.

“I want to keep an open mind,” said Callahan. “I’m concerned about the mechanics of the merger. There’s 14 people who’ve expressed a concern for their city and a desire to contribute, and they’re being taken out of the mix.”

The Parker-Gray Historic District was created in 1984, the BAR was created two years later. For some residents in attendance, there was a concern that a merged BAR could lose the unique community protections that had been a part of its creation.

“I think what’s most important is that we focus on the objective of preservation,” said Elizabeth McCall. “I want to make sure all voices are heard. There is a great vulnerability here. We’ve had experiences in this city where those voices are not heard. We need to make sure the people affected [by the consolidation] are consulted.”

“I am very concerned about the appearance of marginalization of the African-American community,” said Danny Smith. “The Parker-Gray [BAR] was created because that community felt culturally distinct [from Old Town], and I’m not sure that has changed.”

But Al Cox, the historic preservation manager for Alexandria, said the BAR of today may not be the same as many residents remember.

“When I came here, as long as you were replacing wood siding with wood siding, no one ever said ‘This siding is from 1792, you can’t replace it,’” said Cox. “Our desire to have authentic historic materials is 100 fold more than it was 30 years ago. It was operating like a homeowner’s association. People with friends on board got approved. That has changed, it’s gotten far more professional. About 50 percent of the old and historic district has been built since the district established [in 1946] and many of them nationally prominent examples of what it means to be a BAR. We paved the way here for what people are doing all over the country. I don’t see any desire from either board to preserve historic materials any less.”

Silberberg, who initially opposed the initiation of the consideration of consolidation for a lack of outreach, said some of those problems still remain and need to be addressed before the proposal goes to City Council.

“There was a good turnout tonight,” said Silberberg, “but a lot of people are out of town, not to mention there’s a bad rain storm. For some people it’s better to have a summer meeting, while the kids are at camp, but for others it’s more difficult. I think there still needs to be more outreach and all of that feedback needs to be taken into account.”

Silberberg encouraged residents to come out to another meeting on the consolidation to be held on Sept. 17.