By Derrick Perkins
Mayor Bill Euille chided the Virginia Department of Transportation last week for keeping the potential sale of Hunting Towers under wraps.
The mayor, like many residents, learned VDOT had selected a possible buyer after fliers announcing apartment inspections circulated earlier this month. Richmond should have taken a more transparent route with the cluster of buildings in south Old Town, Euille said.
“Until [Hunting Towers residents] more recently started calling my office and coming and saying, ‘Can we meet and talk?’ the city didn’t know [VDOT officials] were in the stage they are,” he said. “It could have been handled better.”
Richard Bennett, state right-of-way and utilities director, said there was little information department officials could share with residents. If and when the anonymous buyer inks a deal, then the state will reach out to residents and city officials.
“When we don’t have a … contract, it’s no different from you telling me, ‘I think I’m going to sell my house in October,’ and that not really being the case until you actually put your house on the market or sign a contact to [sell] it,” Bennett said. “There’s no more information that’s available. We don’t feel it’s appropriate to talk about the purchaser when we don’t really have a contract. There’s nothing we can say.”
The flier detailing apartment inspections — part of the potential buyer’s due diligence — was not meant to announce the buildings’ sale, Bennett said. In a perfect world, the inspections would have occurred after VDOT struck a deal with the buyer, he said, but a scheduling issue pushed the walkthrough up.
Euille noted this latest incident is not the department’s first time playing fast and loose with residents and City Hall. Alexandria City Council blocked an earlier attempt by developer IDI to buy and rebuild the towers several years ago.
“We said, ‘Wait a minute, there is a process here. You should have made contact with the city, so we could have coordinated with you and meet with residents,’” Euille said. “There is a right way to approach this, and [if you do it right], you don’t get the residents bent out of shape doing what you want to do.”
The state agency bought the buildings in 2001 as part of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge construction project. Though a reluctant landlord, VDOT profited from the complex, raking in about $20 million between 2001 and 2008.
But with the bridgework finished, Richmond wants to unload the property. Department officials held a meeting with residents in April, announcing a renewed interest in putting the complex back on the market.
Richmond received 11 sealed bids on the property shortly thereafter and promptly clammed up, according to Deputy City Attorney Mark Jenks. City housing officials pestered the transportation department with questions but received little in the way of answers, he told the Times earlier this month.
City Hall still doesn’t know the identity of the prospective buyer, said Euille, but staff is working to find out. While he would not name the interested party, Bennett described the buyer as a national firm with properties across the country.
City Hall’s interest in Hunting Towers lies along affordable housing lines. The buildings along the Potomac mark one of Alexandria’s last affordable housing strongholds, and officials worry a new owner could renovate the apartments and price out residents.
Once they discover the potential buyer, city officials want to sit down with company representatives and work out a way to keep at least a portion of the buildings affordable, Euille said.