A fresh start on North Columbus Street

By Derrick Perkins (Image/William Cromley)

Local developer William Cromley is headed back to the drawing board after meeting with critics of his plan for a rundown parking lot on the 300 block of N. Columbus St.

Cromley received the blessings of the board of architectural review and planning commission to transform a roughly 8,000-square-foot parking lot, which is adjacent to the Barrett Library branch, into five townhouses. But neighbors flocked to the meetings in opposition of what resident Eli Bronstein testified was a potential “monolith across the street.”

The buildings’ height — about 33.5 feet, according to documents filed with City Hall — and the lack of differentiation between the individual townhouses and massive windows comprise the bulk of neighbors’ concerns, Bronstein said after meeting with Cromley earlier this summer.

“We don’t have money in this; [Cromley] has money it. And we’re certainly not trying to make anyone lose money,” he said. “I feel that [since] we have to look at it, I hope I can have some input. I’m not the designer; I don’t want to design it. … I just wanted to tell him politely what I didn’t care for.”

Cromley agreed to sit down with residents after earning the planning commission’s approval for a project earlier this month. After talking with his neighbors — he lives near the project site — Cromley agreed to start anew on the design.

“There’s no one right design for any site. There are always alternatives to any design problems,” he said. “And luckily the issues that were important were ones that I could easily incorporate into a design that I like as well.”

But Cromley wants it made clear that he has final say on the look of the buildings.

“I’ve heard what they said, and now it’s a matter of letting creativity do its job,” he said. “You put all the pieces into the stew and start to stir. What comes out is something that hopefully incorporates their concerns but also reflects my design objective.”

Without seeing it, Bronstein is cautiously optimistic that Cromley’s redesign will alleviate his concerns. The developer hopes to present neighbors with a reworked proposal later this summer.

“He listened. He was not defensive, but the proof is in the pudding,” Bronstein said.

Cromley is no stranger to controversy in Alexandria. The developer made local headlines throughout the spring because of his plans for the former Carver Nursery School along North Fayette Street.

After getting approval years ago to demolish the one-time school for Parker-Gray’s black children — which later became an American Legion post — Cromley saw residents rise up in protest over what they saw as the impending destruction of a historic landmark. After a legal battle, the two sides partnered with City Hall for a two-year quest to find a buyer who would preserve the building.

When time expired in February, the decaying building remained vacant. Residents, including local civil rights icon Ferdinand Day, were scrambling for another solution when Cromley announced that he had abandoned demolition plans and found a likely buyer to save the building.

“If there is a win-win, I’ll take it. Just like I did with the [former Carver Nursery School], I’ll take it,” Cromley said, referring to his North Columbus Street project. “When you live in a community, that’s what you do.”

While the developer will begin again on his design, the redo will not disrupt his construction schedule. But it will require another appearance before the board of architectural review, likely in the fall.

What remains unclear is whether the redesign will nullify his neighbors’ appeal of the board of architectural review’s OK of the previous plans. Residents launched the appeal — which was scheduled to go before city council after the summer recess ends — before meeting with Cromley. Al Cox, the city’s preservationist, said his staff is working on determining what will come of that action.

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