Council approves 319 Queen St. renovations

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By James Cullum (Photo/James Cullum)

City councilors voted 5-2 last weekend to approve a proposal to partially demolish and renovate the nearly 200-year-old property at 319 Queen Street.

It took more than four hours of deliberation in a public hearing to come to the decision, and homeowner Ken Reith characterized the final verdict as a compromise.

“If Thomas Jefferson was alive today he’d probably be renovating Monticello as well,” Reith said after the hearing. “I can’t complain because the plans we have are very workable, and I think it will be lovely. … A lot of people are moving into Old Town and downsizing so that they can live in a walkable community. The new generation of millennials want new floor plans that exist in current housing.”

Last December, the Board of Architectural Review for the Old and Historic District approved the plan, and found that the project was in line with the city’s historic standards and design guidelines. But a group of neighbors appealed that decision to city council.

The plan calls for the demolition of a two-story rear porch added in 1959, the encapsulation of the historic first floor and the construction of a second story extension. The compromise reached by council, which Reith characterized as arbitrary, cuts off three feet of the proposed 18-foot rear extension and replaces the planned new siding with historic brick.

The home is part of a series of four neighboring townhomes that were built in 1818 by James McGuire, the first commander of Alexandria’s Friendship Fire Company and superintendent of police.

Vice Mayor Justin Wilson acknowledged that council’s decision to push back the extension was an effort to appease neighbors.

“It was arbitrary,” Wilson said. “It doesn’t accommodate all of their concerns, but in the end I think it will be a good product.”

Old Town resident Charles Trozzo, who served on the Alexandria historic restoration and preservation commission for nearly two decades, decried the BAR’s initial decision.

“Destroying the basic architectural forms of our historic properties can only accelerate the deterioration of the character of the Old Town historic district,” he said at the hearing.

Local developer and architect Bill Cromley, who worked on the proposal, said that the compromise of replacing siding with historic brick on the extension would make it appear bigger and more ugly.

Reith and his wife, Jill, bought the home last August for $650,000, and said he is willing to invest a significant amount of money to get the property into a livable condition.

“There was an elderly woman living in there. The bed was in the dining room and she had put a bathroom downstairs because she couldn’t go upstairs,” Reith said. “She wasn’t even living in the home anymore, but in a nursing home. The place was reeking of cat feces.”

Andrea Barlow lives next door and opposed the development, arguing it would negatively impact her quality of life.

“The proposed plans not only ruin a historic property, they completely ruin any enjoyment I have in my backyard, and devalue my own property,” she wrote in an email to Jill Reith that was read at the hearing.

“Millennials don’t want Old Town houses,” Reith responded. “I’m building a house that will be what millennials will buy; therefore my house won’t devalue your property. To keep the house the same would devalue your property.”

Mayor Allison Silberberg and City Councilor John Chapman cast the two dissenting votes. Silberberg, after long discussions with the homeowner and neighbors, wanted to defer the decision.

“I appreciate Mr. Cromley’s architecture and his eye for detail. I’ve been a long time fan of your work, and I have told that to staff privately,” Silberberg said. “Based on where we are I have strong reservations.”

Chapman said he could not support the proposal because of the 15-foot addition.

“I’m very concerned it would be more appropriate to keep [the rear of the house] at its current length,” he said.

But City Councilor Tim Lovain argued that more meetings on the issue would likely be unproductive, and the rest of council ultimately agreed.

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