By Derrick Perkins
Time is running short for residents and preservationists hoping to spare a Parker-Gray neighborhood landmark from redevelopment.
The Carver Nursery School has sat largely untouched for a little more than two years while owner William Cromley and city officials have sought a buyer for the 200 block N. Fayette St. property. Cromley bought the land in 2008 and originally hoped to demolish the structure in favor of condominiums — a plan backed by city council — but residents went to court in 2009 to block the project.
Cromley and City Hall struck a settlement agreement with opponents in November 2010. The building, erected in 1944 as a school for black children before becoming an American Legion post, was temporarily saved while preservationists pinned their hopes on a third party stepping in and buying the property.
But barring an extraordinary turn of events, the property — valued at $700,000 — will revert to Cromley’s control on February 25. Despite their multi-year efforts, preservationists and city officials have been unable to find a potential buyer.
There was interest in the property, said assistant city attorney Chris Spera, but just not in saving the building.
“Everybody that expressed an interest in the property basically talked about taking [the building] down. Nobody who came in and looked at it said, ‘OK, we’re willing to come in and buy the building and preserve the building,’” he said. “Everybody said, ‘OK, fine, but we’ve got to knock the building down,’ which didn’t fulfill the purpose of the agreement.”
Early on, residents and officials identified a few preservation groups seemingly willing to take the lead in marketing the building. But even they backed off, leaving the city to spearhead the effort, Spera said.
“City staff made a very good effort to market this property, and everyone who seemed interested didn’t want to preserve the building,” he said. “Having gone through all of those efforts, I feel pretty confident that [a buyer interested in preserving the building] doesn’t exist.”
In search of ‘an angel’
While Spera maintains the city upheld its side of the bargain, resident Boyd Walker remains skeptical that officials gave it their full effort. But the former city council candidate and co-founder of Friends of the Alexandria Waterfront draws the same conclusion as Spera — a private buyer doesn’t exist.
“In terms of finding a private buyer, we showed it was unsuccessful,” Walker said. “That doesn’t mean it should not be saved.”
Nestled between a playground and a squat office building, the partially fenced-off former nursery school doesn’t look like much. But the battered and timeworn structure elicits fond memories from members of the traditionally black community, said Audrey Davis, acting director of the city’s black history museum.
More than a school or American Legion post, the building hosted religious gatherings and community events. Neighbors went to see their children receive an award or meet a potential city council candidate.
“For many African-Americans of a certain age, it just has this very positive feel to it,” Davis said. “Unfortunately, it’s not the flashiest or most fantastic-looking building, but when you’re looking at how this building was created … it was for African-Americans, and during that time, it was designed to be functional, not beautiful.”
If money wasn’t an obstacle, Davis would love to take over the building. But the museum’s budget is tied up in keeping it’s doors open and its programs running, she said. Like Walker, Davis hopes a person or entity steps in to save the former nursery school.
“When you’ve dealt with a community that’s been part of slavery, segregation and not having access to many things for many years … you have to sort of dig deeper and see what [the building’s] role was in the past,” she said. “In Alexandria, we’ve lost so many [historical black] sites already. We’re hoping to retain the ones that we have, that we think could be rehabbed for use in the future.”
Walker believes there’s still one potential buyer left: City Hall. He is lobbying city councilors to put up the $700,000 for the property. He believes the space could go to good use for Alexandria City Public Schools or the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
“[We’ve] given two years to an effort that was negotiated by the city to try and find a buyer, and no private buyer came forward, so now it’s time to look at a public buyer,” Walker said.
While the price tag has put the property out of reach for his fellow residents-turned-preservationists, Walker said the community is ready and willing to restore and maintain the building — if City Hall scoops it up.
But Spera believes neither the will nor the dollars are there for the project.
“Given its relatively limited size and the other projects we’ve got going on, it’s just not the kind of thing we can pull the trigger on,” he said.
History versus nostalgia
If the deadline passes, there’s little left the owner needs to do before moving ahead with redevelopment, according to Spera. Cromley already received the go-ahead from city officials — including the board of architectural review and city council — to raze the former nursery school.
But Cromley has stepped away from the project in the intervening years. A former BAR member, he sees little sense in spending the time and money on planning for the future as long as the chance of an outside buyer remains.
“I have no plans for it at all,” Cromley said. “Until the deadline passes, it doesn’t make any sense for me to make any plans at all. The terms of the settlement stipulate an offer can be made up until the last day. I had plans for it many years ago but none now.”
Cromley can laugh about the project, but there’s an equal amount of frustration in his voice as he describes the property. A few residents believe it’s worth saving, he said, but if that’s true, where are all the offers?
In Cromley’s mind, it’s a question of nostalgia versus history.
“Let’s say for the sake of argument that everybody agreed that it was historic, then what happened? You’ve only got two options: One is the municipality buying, and in these times, is it a wise allocation of resources to save a moderately historical building?” Cromley asked. “And then you’ve got an angel — a nonprofit or someone who thinks the building is so special that its demolition would be a huge gash in the story of Alexandria and our history. Those people don’t exist either. It’s been out [on the market] for years and years and years now.”