Hunting Towers deferred

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After years of legal wrangling, the Virginia Department of Transportation has told the IDI Group Companies that consideration of their proposed $30 million purchase of Hunting Towers along the Potomac would be delayed until at least 2012, once construction of the $2.5 billion Woodrow Wilson Project is completed.

Arlington-based IDI, one of the largest builders in Alexandrias history, and the citys largest builder of workforce housing, went before the Alexandria Planning Commission on June 3 with their proposition of 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. That action too, was deferred, and placed on the docket for their October meeting.

IDI officials have been calling their proposal an extraordinary contribution of affordable workforce housing to the city since it converted Parkfairfax and ParcEast back 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, VDOT, over what that actual price should be.

The matter is now in litigation, with IDI wielding appraisals in the $30 million range, and VDOT reportedly holding out for an acquisition price somewhere north of $70 million.

IDI Chairman Giueseppe Cecchi, in a speech May 13 to the Alexandria Rotary Club, said that to reduce the fair market value price to a level that would allow the preservation of all apartment units as workforce housing, he would need a substantial subsidy in the range of $20 million.

To generate the subsidy, IDI has proposed that the city allow it additional height and density on part of the Hunting Terrace site. If this proposal is not approved, the opportunity to build affordable workforce housing for the citys first responders, its teachers and its muncipal workers would be lost forever, Cecchi said.

Across the street, 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 massive project have long contended that the towers are too big for Old Town, and dont mesh with its mostly low-rise office buildings and historic homes. But Carlos Cecchi, the project manager for the site who lives in Old Town, calls the area quite distinct from the rest of Old Towns historic character even though its officially part of Old Town.

Concerns voiced

Residents of the Hunting Towers and Hunting Terrace apartments say they want as little uncertainty as possible as plans are made to tear down the Terrace structure. Several members of the Hunting Towers Tenants Association have voiced concerns over the prospects for elderly residents who may not be able to buy the apartments when they convert to condos.

Under IDIs proposal, many of the long-term residents renting at Hunting Towers could not afford to remain in their homes, resident Shirlee Friedenberg said in a letter to the Times. Since several hundred residents have already been uprooted from the buildings torn down at Hunting Towers and Hunting Terrace, would not the ideal solution be to retain Hunting Towers as truly affordable housing for the current residents?  This could be a win-win situation both for the tenants and for a new owner, since VDOT has already made millions from Hunting Towers as a rental property.  

IDIs proposed acquisition of Hunting Towers is in litigation, as VDOT and IDI have not yet come to terms on the appraised price. IDI initially offered $42 million, but VDOT wanted twice that, or $84 million. With the drop in housing demand, both offers have dropped about $12 million and $14 million, respectively, according to insiders familiar with the negotiations.

An agreement does not seem to be forthcoming, Carlos Cecchi said Wednesday. We thought we were close to a deal and weve been working diligently to get VDOT back to the table. Were still hopeful well be able to reach a Fair Market Value price, or well ask the court to determine the price.

The Cecchis had been gearing up for a final vote by the planning commission at its meeting last week, but several members of the commission objected and requested that the whole case be tabled until the October meeting.

In 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 IDI purchased the 12-acre plot for $26 million and is tentatively planning a streetscape defined by an 80-foot setback, a colonnade of trees and gateway landscaping. 

Cecchi has 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.

Over the past 15 years, the Cecchis contend that only 137 units of workforce housing has been created for Alexandria, and over the past decade the city has lost 40,000 affordable homes, which represents 90 percent of the citys workforce housing stock, primarily through the rapid escalation of housing prices.

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