Hunting Towers debated

Hunting Towers debated

Next month, one of the largest builders in Alexandrias history will go before the Alexandria Planning Commission and City Council with a unique proposition.

Arlington-based IDI Group Companies will propose rehabilitating and preserving all 530 existing units at Hunting Towers as affordable workforce condominiums, in exchange for the right to develop a luxury condominium on the Hunting Terrace site across the street.

IDI officials say the offer is an extraordinary commitment, representing the largest contribution of affordable workforce housing to the city of Alexandria since IDI converted Parkfairfax and ParcEast in the 1970s. The acquisition price of the towers is set by Virginia law at Fair Market Value, and for the last two years IDI officials have been negotiating with the towers owner, the Virginia Department of Transportation, over what that actual price should be.

In order to reduce the fair market value price to a level that would allow the preservation of all apartment units as workforce housing, IDI officials say they need a substantial subsidy in the range of $20 million  To generate the subsidy, IDI has requested the city to allow additional height and density on part of the Hunting Terrace site.

IDI has proposed building a luxury condominium community, Hunting Creek Plaza, which would consist of 361 units that include two five-story buildings fronting S. Washington Street by the Wilson Bridge, and two buildings stepping up to 8 to 14 stories at the back of the site next to Hunting Creek.

Opponents of the project say the towers are too big for Old Town, and dont mesh with Old Town’s mostly low-rise office buildings and historic homes. The area is quite distinct from Old Town even though it’s officially part of Old Town, said Carlos Cecchi, the project manager for the site who lives in Old Town. Weve been criticized for saying it’s not really part of Old Town, but our contention has always been that it does not share Old Towns street grid, historic structures and is separated geographically from Old Town.

Residents of the Hunting Towers and Hunting Terrace apartments, in the 1200 blocks of South Washington and South Alfred streets, say they want as little uncertainty as possible as plans are made to tear down the Terrace structure.  We just want to reduce as much of the uncertainty as possible, said Michelle LHeureux, an organizer of Hunting Terrace residents. We now know that the Terraces will be torn down.

Giuseppi Cecchi, of IDI, has partnered with former Hunting Towers and Hunting Terrace owner Jack Kay to negotiate the purchase of the property from the Virginia Department of Transportation. Kay owned the property when VDOT bought it to facilitate construction of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

While Kay had the first right of refusal to re-acquire the property when VDOT no longer wished to own it, in 2005 he exercised that option, acquiring Hunting Terrace. The separate acquisition of Hunting Towers is in litigation, as VDOT and IDI have not yet come to terms on the appraised price. IDI has offered $42 million, but VDOT wants twice that, or $84 million.

We are working diligently to get VDOT back to the table, Cecchi said. Were hopeful well be able to reach a Fair Market Value price, or the court will determine the price.

The Terraces will be torn down and replaced with luxury high-rises, to be known as Hunting Towers. Cecchi said the difference between the two structures across the street from each other is more than two football fields, and that the widening of I-495 and the addition of an urban deck crossing the Beltway served to make the area distinct from Old Town street grid and historic character. With water on three sides, it looks more like an island, Cecchi said. Its a unique place in Old Town.

In October, 2005 the city adopted a small area plan to improve and beautify the area as a southern gateway to the city, if arriving by the George Washington Memorial Parkway from the south. Five months later it purchased the 12-acres plot for $26 million and is tentatively planning a streetscape defined by an 80-foot setback, a colonnade of trees and gateway landscaping which creates a sense of arrival in Old Town, Cecchi said. 

As for the other property, Cecchi said IDI plans to create a condominium regime for the two buildings at Hunting Towers, after extensive renovations. We will offer the renovated condominium units first to their occupants, the existing tenants of Hunting Towers, Cecchi said, and second to the existing tenants of Hunting Terrace.

Cecchi added there are enough vacancies in the Towers to offer condo units to all the tenants of both properties who wish to buy.

IDIs plan is to preserve the two existing buildings at Hunting Towers, built back in the 1950s. The structure of the buildings is sound, and we plan to perform only the necessary repairs and restoration to the building systems and to the units in order to bring them to a good level of maintenance and livability, said Giuseppe Cecchi.

But in order to keep prices of the units affordable, Cecchi would not make structural changes to the units. It will be up to the residents to invest in additional improvements of their homes if they so desire and can afford it, the elder Cecchi said.

Cecchi has also notified residents that the Towers units will be offered to the existing tenants at substantial discounts, in order to make it possible for them to become homeowners at a monthly cost comparable to the market rent for your unit. Therefore, there will be no significant difference between cost of ownership and cost of renting, he said.

The only significant difference, he said is that the rent payment goes entirely to the landlord, while a portion of the mortgage payment goes to build up equity in the residential unit. He added that to the extent the units appreciate in value, as condos any gain would benefit their occupants rather than a rental landlord.

Concerns voiced
Ardith Dentser, the president of the Hunting Towers Tenants Association, has voiced concerns over the prospects for elderly residents who may not be able to buy the apartments when they convert to condos.

Some of these people cant afford to purchase their units, but just want to live here until they die, she said. What will happen to them?

The elder Cecchi said he has assured residents that provisions will be made for these people. We will work with tenants with disabilities and who are elderly, to try and ensure that they can remain in their units, he said. In other jurisdictions, we have sold some units to housing development corporations, who have then rented them to residents. And in some cases we have sold units to investors, who have rented them back to the current residents.

Elizabeth Boniface, one of the Terrace residents, said of the owners plan, I think it sounds pretty good. He has told us as much as he knows at this time.

Shrinking workforce housing
Over the past 15 years, only 137 units of workforce housing has been created for Alexandria, and over the past decade the city has lost 40,000 homes, which represents 90 percent of the city’s workforce housing stock, primarily through the rapid increase of housing prices.

“So preserving 530 units is really extraordinary,” Jon Cecchi of IDI said. “People have been priced out of the market: Policemen, firefighters, nurses…None of them can afford to live in the city. Only 10 percent of the city’s employees can even afford to live here. After a few years of commuting it’s not in the best interest of the city to have 90 percent of its first responders living outside of Alexandria.”

The Planning Commission is expected to vote on the proposal on Feb 5, with a City Council vote to take place Feb. 23.

Cecchi said the project would generate an additional $19 million of spending within the city limits. “In general the concept has been well-received,” he said. “We’ve come up with a project w
e think is a real win-win for the city and its workforce.”