Your view: Public housing at Parker-Gray must be saved from demolition

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By Morgan D. Delaney, president, Historic Alexandria Foundation

To the editor:

The Historic Alexandria Foundation, established in 1954, undertakes to help protect the historic and architectural character of the city’s historic buildings, streetscapes and districts.

HAF understands and appreciates that the ARHA mission to provide affordable housing is in the public interest. But this proposal does not even acknowledge the public interest in historic preservation that is reflected in the fact that Ramsey Homes has been designated a contributing resource to the Uptown/Parker-Gray National Register Historic District and is located in the city’s Parker-Gray Historic District, which was established in 1984.

Under the city’s preservation ordinance there is a presumption against demolition of historic structures, but this proposal takes demolition as a given. There is no indication that alternatives to demolition have been considered, or any attempt to minimize or mitigate the potential demolition.

The National Register Nomination for the Parker-Gray District states:

“The Ramsey Homes public housing is very different in style and character from the [Samuel Madden and James Bland] units just north of it.  The units…. were constructed with 3-4 units clustered together back-to-back so that they form four-unit symmetrical and cubic buildings with hipped roofs.  They have stuccoed walls and are detailed to resemble Prairie-style houses.”

Constructed in 1942 to provide housing for African-American workers in the war effort, they were the first public housing to be constructed in the Uptown/Parker Gray neighborhood area.

It is quite disappointing, therefore, to find that the staff report states (p.5) that Ramsey Homes does not contribute to the integrity of the Uptown/Parker-Gray NRHD, when in fact they provide a significant contribution to the integrity both historically and as a unique example of architectural design of public housing in the district.

The staff report also states that the Ramsey Homes do not have individual architectural merit that distinguishes them through uncommon design, material or craftsmanship.  This is in direct opposition to the point made in the NR nomination:  that this complex is detailed to resemble Prairie-style houses.  The use of precast-concrete for the floors, walls, and roof was also unusual and an innovation.

To address, then, the six criteria to be considered for a permit to demolish we find that the Ramsey Homes meet four of the criteria, and therefore alternatives should be sought to demolition.

– The buildings are of architectural and historical interest, as an example of the use of the Prairie style in public housing, I am not aware of any other examples in Alexandria; furthermore, they are representative of the federal government’s effort to provide housing for African-American war workers.

– Retention of the buildings would preserve and protect an historic area of interest in the city. These buildings are unique, and their open space and setting provide value to their residents, and to the community.

– While ARHA has a goal of “tearing down obsolete housing”, who is to say that if these buildings were renovated, they would not maintain and increase real estate values, given they are so close to a Metrorail station.  They certainly stand to educate citizens about American culture and heritage, and make the city a more attractive and desirable place to live. Consider what has happened with James Bland, where now Old Town Commons, already an eyesore, will be obsolete and undesirable real estate within 20 years or so.

– There is no question that retention of the buildings would help maintain the scale and character of the neighborhood.

In summary:  the BAR should ask for an exploration of the alternatives to demolition. If the buildings were renovated, how many units could be provided? Is there a way to put a compatibly designed addition to any of the buildings? For instance, the three-unit building, could be filled in, and possibly a third story could be added to the filled in area.

Turning to the applicant’s development proposal, there are two other significant issues: the height of this proposed complex and the significant loss of open space:

The Braddock Road East Plan states that the Ramsey Homes site should be rehabilitated as part of the overall redevelopment program for the area, with some potential for infill. It states further, that if redeveloped, it should be redeveloped with townhouse scale buildings.  As can be seen by the photographs and modeling, the surrounding area consists of two story buildings, so therefore the new proposal is a real anomaly, (except for OTC).

Second, the BREP emphasizes: the importance of appropriate scale and massing.  It specifically states that the character of development on the site should be “compatible with the scale and height of the adjacent townhomes.” This proposal is not compatible.

We also need to point out that what is tragically happening in all these development projects is the significant loss of open space.  The staff report notes that one of the site features is “the unusually generous amount of open space, more typical of garden apartment complexes constructed during and after WWII.”  It would be more than “unfortunate” to quote the staff, if such open space is lost.  Staff states that this amount of open space is an anomaly and atypical of development of the historic district over time…  That is not an argument for removing the open space.

We note that the open space calculations have not been provided.

Finally, we think it is premature to consider any demolition without a thorough historic structure report and consideration of alternatives. We also request clarification of the role of federal funding or oversight of this project to determine whether consultation under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act should be initiated.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. “The buildings are of architectural and historical interest, as an example of the use of the Prairie style in public housing,”

    So there are lots of real prairie style houses, and some neo prairie style, but these are the only neo prairie style that were public housing? I do not see how the tenure impacts the architectural history. Do we need examples that are market rate rentals, that were built as consos, etc?

    “– While ARHA has a goal of “tearing down obsolete housing”, who is to say that if these buildings were renovated, they would not maintain and increase real estate values,”

    LOL!

    ” Consider what has happened with James Bland, where now Old Town Commons, already an eyesore”

    Er, no.

    ,” will be obsolete and undesirable real estate within 20 years or so.”

    Well in that case they will actually be affordable to middle class people right? But I would not count on them losing value.

  2. Preserve everything everywhere because anything old is good and anything new is bad. Old Town Commons is a fine addition to the city, and in 20 years nobody will miss the slums they replaced. Likewise with Ramsey. Leaving out the debate as to the value of “open space” and what that is code for, there is a significant difference in the quality of some spaces vs. others. To the extent these properties have “open space” that space is wasted. The yards are the “in between” size, to small to do anything useful with, but large enough so as to require maintenance. They are fenced in and not of any use to the public. A better scheme would be to demolish the obsolete structures and replace them with townhouse or multifamily structures that are more in keeping with the character of the street grid and building patterns of a historic city. The existing buildings are essentially garden apartments, a suburban form that are thankfully being demolished in the suburbs as well. Additionally, please explain the “tragic loss of open space” in lieu of the fact that one entire block of land one block away is slated to become a city park and a portion of that land has already been constructed and programmed as such. I understand that some people desire large yards and grass, but it is not the job of the taxpayer to provide that to public housing residents, and residents who do not live there should understand that not all land has equal value and function, nor is any old structure “historic.” If being surrounding by empty “open” space with grass merely existing as placeholders from preventing change is desirable, I would offer that there are many underwater mortgages and unbuilt subdivisions out in the hinterlands that I’m sure could be had for a cut-rate price.

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