Your View: This Presidents Day, take in the history that is disappearing

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By Gebe Johnson, The Queen Street Coalition (File photo)

There is a reason the upcoming Presidents’ Day parade in Alexandria includes a picturesque stretch along Queen Street in the heart of Old Town.

The colorful, neat rows of clapboard and brick 200-year-old townhouses represent one of the most important historic neighborhoods in our country. The larger Old and Historic District — the third oldest in our nation — is such a treasure that the city rightfully promotes this link to the beginnings of our nation to attract millions of visitors as part of a thriving tourist economy.

But in recent years, we have become increasingly concerned about an alarming fraying of this integral fabric of our community. There are now monuments to developers’ excesses across the historic district too numerous to detail here.

Today, there is one such project that demands immediate attention and will be considered by city council on February 25. Along the very parade route where hundreds are expected to gather this Presidents’ Day, on the 300 block of Queen Street sits one of four near-identical colonial dwellings that is slated for partial demolition and total renovation. The proposal would tear down and conceal parts of historic exterior walls and unique roof systems that make this property a valued piece of Alexandria history.

At the same time, the rear of the property at 319 Queen St., is planned to be significantly transformed in height and length into something resembling a hulking Greek Revival that would loom over neighboring homes, permanently altering the look of the block and ruining the back story of these unique buildings, which are visible from North Royal Street.

What is equally disturbing is that city board created to protect Alexandria’s unique connection to history — the board of architectural review — approved it. Only one citizen board member, Christine Roberts, voted against the out-of-context addition.

Why? Because she was the only board member to say she went to the neighborhood — a mere two streets from City Hall — to investigate and recognize the proposal’s impact on the historic neighborhood.

The BAR, as a whole, did not discuss that fact that the development would negatively impact the historic North Royal streetscape. “Historic streetscape” and increased density are both part of the city zoning ordinance and historic preservation guidelines.

Among the most enlightening comments during the BAR hearings on this project came from board member and architect John von Senden.

“Old Town is not a museum district,” von Senden said. Visit Alexandria begs to differ, as it promotes Old Town on the city’s website as “a museum without walls.’’

The Historic Alexandria Foundation thought enough of 319 Queen St.’s significance to affix a coveted plaque to its brick facade years ago. The foundation, the Old Town Civic Association and a strong coalition of neighbors have vigorously opposed this project.

And city historians, like Charles Trozzo of the historic foundation and Michael Hobbs of the OTCA, reminded the BAR that the standard should not be how much can possibly be demolished, but rather how much of our rich history can be saved.

It’s questionable whether that standard has been consistently maintained, as Alexandria’s history is gradually being replaced by fake facades of what used to be. We can end that.

Join us at City Hall and tell city council to overturn the BAR’s approval of the 319 Queen Street project.

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