City council and ARHA move towards greater cooperation

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By Chris Teale (File photo)

After some testy meetings and hearings in recent weeks, the mood was lighter Tuesday at City Hall as city councilors and Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority board members moved towards better cooperation on redeveloping the Ramsey Homes.

In a joint work session, ARHA CEO Roy Priest, board chair Merrick Malone and board members Daniel Bauman, Carter Flemming and Salena Zellers joined all seven city councilors to discuss a joint work plan to direct the redevelopment proposal for the site. The ARHA board adopted a resolution approving the plan after the meeting.

The 15-unit Ramsey Homes development at 699 N. Patrick St. has been a major source of contention as ARHA looks to redevelop the site and add more affordable units. Its permit to demolish the current property was rejected by the Parker-Gray Board of Architectural Review in April but then overturned by council in September.

ARHA presented a plan that would amend the Braddock East Master Plan, rezone the property from a townhouse zone to a mixed use zone and build 53 multifamily units in two buildings. Last month, the planning commission rejected the plan and council failed to approve the rezoning and master plan amendment following a protest petition from neighbors requiring a supermajority for approval. Council rescinded its decision days later.

Public hearings on the topic have been acrimonious, as some councilors criticized a lack of communication between city and ARHA staff and ARHA’s decision to abandon analysis on options that would have saved at least one of the buildings for historic preservation purposes. The homes were built during World War II to house black defense workers.

The work plan puts in place a general agreement between the two sides if council approves the master plan amendment and rezoning at its Saturday public hearing, when it will be discussed again. And while the mood of the work session was generally positive, City Councilor Paul Smedberg bemoaned the state of affairs that led to the joint document.

“We shouldn’t need an agreement to be communicating between the two staffs,” he said. “That’s what’s so utterly frustrating about this.”

With that in mind, the work plan outlines an agreement of how to move forward on the Ramsey Homes redevelopment, including an expectation that ARHA staff will do further analysis on the financial feasibility of an alternative plan that would save at least one building. Priest emphasized that any redevelopment must be competitive for low income tax credits from the Virginia Housing Authority.

City Councilor John Chapman said ARHA board members and council must work together more closely during the intervening months, as that will foster better relations between staff too.

“I hope and think that will enable us to have better staff-to-staff communication as we’ll have better relations starting at the top,” he said.

The timeline of analysis and approval for any redevelopment of the Ramsey Homes site would be extended noticeably under the new plan, with final discussion of a development special use permit not expected until after city council’s summer recess. ARHA and council will come together in June for an update on the progress of analysis, with monthly meetings of the ARHA work group to continue as well.

Mayor Allison Silberberg joined Smedberg in raising concerns about the precedent a decision to allow a master plan amendment and rezoning without a site plan might set, as it could encourage other developers to look for the same. City Councilor Del Pepper warned commercial developers not to expect similar treatment.

“This really has to be an exception of an exception,” she said. “…We want the word to go out that…this is a very extraordinary, not a never ever, but an extraordinary situation.”

Silberberg pushed ARHA representatives for assurances that a plan would not come back significantly altered from how it stands, given the relatively broad scope for further analysis. In the work plan, a provision is made for study of variations of other options for the site, and Silberberg expressed concerns about the increased density at the site.

“It seems like we’ve carved a path forward; this is a good step, but I need assurances that something isn’t going to come back that is significantly different,” she said.

City planning director Karl Moritz said that the rezoning and master plan placed constraints on ARHA, but board members agreed to add language to their resolution of adoption saying the site will be used for affordable and workforce housing and not be sold. Malone noted that with greater communication, any drastic changes would be flagged.

“I don’t know how we could come back with a 10-story building without everybody knowing we’re coming back with a 10-story building,” he said.

Silberberg hailed the work plan as a “reset button” on the city’s relationship with ARHA, while Vice Mayor Justin Wilson noted that the plan can be a template for future redevelopment of ARHA properties, some of which will be subject to the requests for proposals process.

“Part of the goal is that this is an agreement for how we handle Ramsey,” he said. “Coming out of this is a memorandum of understanding, an agreement, a handshake, we’re going to have an agreement on how we move forward on the RFP process…Failing in the process here is not going to be possible.”

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1 COMMENT

  1. When I was Program Administrator for ARHA (1995-1999), leading the redevelopment of Samuel Madden Homes through a HOPE VI Revitalization Grant for the undertaking, ARHA and the City of Alexandria created a working group that included then-mayor Kerry Donley, City Manager Vola Lawson, and the directors of Planning and Zoning and the Office of Housing. ARHA’s participation on this working group included ARHA’s Executive Director (there were three during my tenure), the ARHA Board Chair, and me. I’m surprised this practice has not been continued, given the significance of the potential impacts, both positive and negative, of large-scale redevelopment of ARHA’s public housing stock into new, mixed-income communities integrated into existing neighborhoods.