By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
After a five-hour public hearing last weekend at which the tension was palpable, city council approved the demolition of the 15-unit Ramsey Homes property owned by the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority in the Parker-Gray neighborhood by a 5-2 margin.
Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg and City Councilor Paul Smedberg were the two dissenting votes against ARHA’s appeal, which came after the Parker-Gray Board of Architectural Review unanimously rejected the organization’s application to demolish the homes at 699 N. Patrick St. in April. City council’s decision means ARHA can proceed with its proposal to demolish and replace the units with up to 53 units of affordable housing.
The homes were built between 1941 and 1942 by the federal government to house black defense workers. They are close to the original site of the former Parker-Gray High School and on the same block as the Robinson Library, both of which are significant in the black history of Alexandria. The homes are also close to the Alexandria Black History Museum on Wythe Street.
Councilors wrestled with whether the homes are architecturally significant enough to be saved from demolition, or whether they are culturally significant, meaning they can be memorialized by other means. ARHA itself came in for significant criticism from city councilors, with Smedberg accusing the organization of failing to engage properly with all officials and for letting the property become dilapidated, something ARHA CEO Roy Priest said justified their demolition.
“I want to make sure you’re a viable organization and we’re doing everything that we can to make sure that happens,” Smedberg said. “This is an important project — it’s your first important project — and there was no outreach. We are part of that team. I’d like to think we’re an important part of that team with you and everyone else … we should be briefed or talked to, something, anything.”
Later in the meeting, ARHA board chairman Merrick Malone took issue with those accusations. He accused city councilors and others who testified against the proposal of “racism and classism,” something for which he apologized later in the meeting after a chorus of boos.
“I take great exception to the notion that we don’t talk to you,” Malone said. “Our motives are pure as driven snow. We want to increase housing; it’s not about the money, it’s about us trying to increase affordable housing. I hope our opposition is equally pure, and that they’re not clothing something else under the guise of preservation, like racism and classism. I’ve seen it; I know what it looks like.”
Silberberg bemoaned the fact that councilors were faced with choosing between affordable housing and historic preservation, two things she said should never be pitted against one another. She called it a “false choice,” and asked councilors and ARHA to try and find a middle ground in the site planning process where some units are demolished but some are preserved for historic reasons.
“[Approving demolition] would be like walking down the aisle with a guy you haven’t even met yet, or giving approval to that,” she said. “You haven’t even seen what [ARHA] are going to do.”
The only current resident of Ramsey Homes to testify was Charkenia Walker, who spoke in favor of demolition in the interests of improving the residents’ quality of life.
“It’s hard to believe the historic significance and relevance outweighs the standard of living in 2015,” she said. “I just want neighbors to understand the construction of new units will benefit us as a whole. There are working-class citizens who cannot afford to live in the neighborhood in which they have grown, me included.”
Of the approximately 40 residents to testify, a number advocated for upholding the BAR’s decision and preventing demolition in the name of historic preservation, given the significant role Ramsey Homes played during World War II in Alexandria.
“Ramsey Homes is one of those key sites that contribute to what makes Parker-Gray unique,” said Heidi Ford, representing the West Old Town Citizens’ Association. “If the city adopts the stance that the only buildings worthy of preservation are [from the] 18th and 19th century, then what we are going to have is a city of 18th and 19th century houses and 21st century buildings. We’re basically going to lose the architectural significance of the 20th century, and for Parker-Gray that is significant.”
But others suggested that the value of the Ramsey Homes is purely cultural, and that commemoration through use of plaques or other methods would be more advisable, especially as ARHA’s proposal would allow for more affordable housing units in the future.
“The value is cultural,” said Karen Byers. “We need to do a better job of preserving that and interpreting that and making that truly meaningful and educational to the vast number of people. Walking by the Ramsey Homes structures does not, for me, bring to life the social history of the people of that period.”
After public discussion, city councilors Tim Lovain and Del Pepper pushed ARHA for assurances that half the buildings would be retained in the redevelopment process. ARHA agreed to the caveat that the organization would not demolish anything until the approval of the project’s site plan, to the chagrin of a number of vocal officials and residents.
City Councilor Justin Wilson encapsulated councilors’ frustration with the approval process in this instance.
“I think this is absolutely absurd,” Wilson said. “This is decision-making that’s unworthy of this body, to be perfectly honest. I think we have gotten to this place through a variety of problems that are on both sides and it’s inexcusable to get here. This is a mess, and this is absolutely horrible decision-making.”