Historic preservation comes to the forefront


On the side of the Christmas Attic building on South Union Street stands an ad for fertilizer from another era, when the building was a warehouse and the ad was aimed at ship captains as they pulled into the Alexandria port.

Years of sun and storms have taken their toll on the ad and the city has no means to preserve it because it is private property; but if someone doesnt act, it may be lost forever. Preserving historical features in the city such as this billboard-type ad was just one focus of the first Alexandria Historic Preservation Conference and Town Meeting, held May 4-5.

City archeologist Pam Cressey called the ad a little clue to the past, but noted that it may just fade away in the years to come if steps arent taken to preserve it. Its one of those things that goes undone because its in the private sector, she said.

The conference focused on the history of preservation in Alexandria, preservation tools, design concepts, expanding a preservation coalition and current opportunities and challenges. As a result of this conference, city officials hoped to get a greater understanding of present challenges and reach a balance of growth and development, said Ellen Stanton, Chair at the Historic Alexandria Resources Commission.

Development is continuing in Alexandria and the purpose of the conference was not to stop the encroaching tide, but to seek a middle ground of co-existing. The recent focus on the waterfront area and the National Harbor project going up across the river in Maryland was part of the discussion.

Reaching a balance is really essential, said Alexandria Mayor William Euille, who addressed the audience on Friday night at St. Pauls Episcopal Church.

The following day included several breakout sessions, addressing particular needs before the group was reassembled to hear Donovan Rypkemas lunchtime lecture titled, The Economics of Preservation. Rypkema is principal of PlaceEconomics, a Washington, D.C.-based real estate and economic development consulting firm, and is considered an industry leader in the economics of preserving historic structures. He showed that it was more cost effective, as well as an employment generator, to preserve the historical buildings instead of tearing them down and starting from scratch. Preservation has become a means of downtown revitalization, Rypkema said. In addition, heritage tourism, where people are attracted because of historical significance, generates 2.5 times as much spending as non-heritage tourism, he said.

City Councilman K. Rob Krupicka recently presented a bill in Richmond to the Virginia General Assembly to preserve historic buildings, but the General Assembly said no way, Krupicka said, adding that there are challenges, in the future with preservation. He even suggested a reward system for residents who practice good conservation efforts.

Also in attendance was William Polak, an official with the Potomac Riverboat Company, highlighting the National Harbor project. His company will run a regular ferry service across the river as early as next April, introducing more tourism to the city.

Charleston Principles
In 1931, Charleston, SC, adopted the first historic district zoning ordinance in the country, establishing a list of the Charleston Principles, as a blueprint for historic preservation. In the years following, Alexandria formed the third National Historic District behind Charleston, and New Orleans. Officials in Alexandria are looking toward those principles as a guideline.

In April 2006, the city invited the mayor of Charleston to come and speak about those principles as city officials and preservationists looked for a solution. He had some very good ideas, said Barbara Magid, a volunteer with Alexandrias archeological museum, located in the Torpedo Factory.

Currently, four areas in Alexandria are on National Historic Districts, including the Old Town and Historic Alexandria District surrounding King Street and Washington Street, Rosemont, Town of Potomac, ParkFairfax and Fairlington. The Parker Gray Historic District along N. Patrick and N. Alfred streets is currently on the Alexandria Historic District list but not the national list.

Morgan Delaney, president of the Historic Alexandria Foundation, spoke about the Charleston Principles, citing the State House in Philadelphia as an example of a famous structure that almost became a victim to the bulldozers. The American preservation movement is almost as old as the country itself, he said.

Arlington representative Michael Leventhal said that citizen participation is a big part of the historical preservation efforts in Arlington. Preservation effects everyone; be involved, Leventhal said, recommending to spread the word from the bottom up. Dont wait for it to trickle down, he said.

The original city historic zoning district was established in 1946 by the City Council, but the zone boundaries have been redrawn several times since. In 1992, the citys Master Plan contained a section for historic preservation, emphasizing that the big picture of the historic aura the city instills is dependent in some part to each of the individual projects. A successful historic preservation program in Alexandria will depend on the cooperation of the city and individual citizens who, through education, are encouraged to properly rehabilitate and maintain the citys built environment, the Master Plan states.

Residential response
Patricia Knoll, a resident in North Old Town, became involved with the development and preservation issue after seeing many empty store fronts along King Street and new buildings in the Carlyle and Braddock Road areas. In the last five years, I have noticed increased pressure on Old Town towards increased development, she said.

Another homeowner, Kate Murphy, is concerned about the intentions of residents moving into her neighborhood just outside of the Old and Historic Alexandria District. Murphy lives in a house on the citys 100-year-old building list, but sees others who dont seem to care about the historic integrity of their houses.

People with more education, more wealth; its causing less preservation, she said. How do you make really young people want to preserve? she said.
Educating people on the value of historic preservation was one action item conference organizers hope to present to the mayor and City Council sometime in the coming weeks. Their list also included marketing the citys historical value, visual prompters, such as videos and signs, and coming up with a historic inventory to categorize buildings.

The whole conference was videotaped and will be available on the Historic Alexandria Foundation website in the future, and a comment section will be open on the site. Next year, organizers hope to hold another similar meeting with the hope of increasing the conference attendance.