Your Views – Safe Havens rooftop deck


In last weeks My View column, Greta Swinnen Crais makes reference to a recent article in the Alexandria Times noting that Rooftop decks are hip and then concludes that this was the reason for including a rooftop deck in the design of the Safe Haven at 115 N. Patrick Street. (Safe Haven will provide permanent supported living apartments for twelve men and women with serious mental illness who are currently living on the streets.)

The reason the Community Services Board (CSB) included the roof deck in the Safe Haven design is to provide additional open space for the buildings residents. A small patio in the back of the building will provide outdoor open space for only a small number of residents of the first floor apartments. The city is working hard to preserve open space throughout the city and roof decks are recognized as an effective mechanism for adding open space within urban areas. While Ms. Crais expresses concerns about the cost of the roof deck, in our view, the investment at this time, when the building is undergoing renovation, will pay off in the long run by offering residents a place to enjoy the outdoors for many years to come. 

Ms. Crais also expresses concern about the safety of the roof deck, given the residents mental health disabilities. In the design of the Safe Haven, John Savage, the Project Architect, was responsive to numerous concerns expressed by the neighbors, including those related to the safety of the roof deck. His design includes a sunken deck that is surrounded by high parapet walls, set back from the building edge and bordered with a railing.

The CSB has been operating residential programs in Alexandria for more than 25 years with no significant community incidents. We currently operate 63 residential sites (173 beds) across the city. Our staff is highly-experienced and has served this population for many years. 

While Ms. Crais states that she cannot help but wonder how a rooftop deck can be built … so that it does not interfere with the historic roof line, Mr. Savages design does, in fact, respond to this concern. From the street, there will be no visible alteration to the roofline. At the public hearing on Safe Haven before the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) of the Old & Historic District, BAR member Dr. Oscar Fitzgerald noted, The changes that are proposed are very minimal and most of them, if not all of them, are a big improvement to that historic building. It really, truly will be a better looking building. Every other BAR member also provided positive comments on the architects design (e.g., minimal intervention to the historic building, This is an improvement, and very sensitive to the building). 

Ms. Crais implies that the Route 1 location is not the best site for the Safe Haven; however, the literature on successful Safe Haven models notes the importance of the site being in an integrated community setting (e.g., near other residences, as well as social services, library, transportation, etc.) and the N. Patrick Street location meets these criteria. It is also important to note that the CSBs housing policy requires that our board disperse its special needs housing programs throughout the City. Our analysis has shown that the area with the lowest density of special needs housing is the Old Town area. The 115 N. Patrick Street building, owned by the city and used by the CSB for more than 20 years to house a day program for persons with mental health disabilities, proved to be not only an ideal location, but the most cost-effective option within the Old Town area.

While some have suggested that homes for persons with mental health disabilities should not be permitted in Old Town, federal Fair Housing law prohibits a jurisdiction from developing policies or taking actions that have the effect of foreclosing special needs residences from locating in entire neighborhoods or areas of the city.

Mary Riley is Chair, Alexandria Community Services Board