My View/H. Alan Young – Not in my backyard

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As a 30 year resident of the 1300 block of Duke Street, the same block that the Freedom House is located, I join my neighbor Russell George (Letters to the Editor, January 21-28, 2008) in welcoming that museum.

At the same time, I concur with Mr. Georges comment that the proposed affordable senior housing to be located two buildings down from Freedom House at 1323 Duke Street owned by Shiloh Baptist Church, although a very commendable goal it could be located elsewhere.

Notwithstanding the opposition of 90 percent of the neighbors, regrettably and inexplicably, the Office of Planning and Zoning, the Planning Commission, and City Council ignored the neighbors and capitulation to the developer, Harambee Community and Economic Development Corporation, a charitable organization, given life by Shiloh Baptist Church that the elsewhere which was disclosed at the time, was the parking lot at 1401 Duke Street on the same lot of the existing Shiloh Baptist Church. 

That proposal should have disabused anyone who would have suggested that the often used acronym NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) would apply to the opponents.
Given the African American history of the property, as Mr. George eloquently recited in his letter, he and others, feel that to erect the building at 1323 Duke Street is a sacrilege.

The obduracy failure to compromise, lack of creativity and foresight by the church and the others to who previous reference has been made above, misses an opportunity for an alternative plan that had satisfied all parties involved but would have enhanced the beauty of Alexandria and increased the number of City affordable senior housing units. The City could have purchased 1323 Duke Street, and thereby create a pocket park for the use by neighbors and others in a neighborhood that is sadly lacking open space.

We constantly hear council speak of open space yet ignore that section of the Old and Historic District. And to think that two members on the Planning Commission, including its chairman were on the open space committee and showed not interest whatsoever to the proposal that would have preserved open space.

At the same time, construction of the facility on the 1400 block of Duke Street (larger parcel than 1323) would have allowed more units than the current proposed facility, and could have doubled the existing surface parking by building an underground parking facility at little additional expense given its topography.

By so doing, rare open space would have been retained and certainly improved while at the same time would have eliminated the current surface parking eyesore. The church would have received considerable income from the same of 1323 Duke Street permitting it to use the proceeds for the new facility on the 1400 block.

This is particularly significant considering that after more than three years of City Council approval 1323 has been left to decay. During that time and before, it has been an eyesore and yet not one building code citation has been issued by the City. The only activity regarding 1323 Duke Street since the project approval is City loans to date totaling over $230,000 for preconstruction costs! It is apparent that the church and Harambee, its new non profit corporation formed to operate the facility, is either still in desperate need of funds or that the church is unwilling to sell millions of dollars of property it owns in Alexandria, as the city real estate records reflect or does not have the business acumen, or both, to commence construction, let alone complete and properly manage the facility. It is apparent that the developer and its alter ego (SBC) enjoy a privileged status.

I recall with fondness the beautiful lilac bush and other shrubs that were lovingly care for by an elderly African American couple who were tenants at 1323 Duke Street and who maintained the building with equal care and pride, that is, until SBC forced them to vacate their home for church offices.

This deteriorating and formerly charming building is a daily reminder of favoritism, lack of creativity and unwillingness to compromise on the part of the church/developer and the city.

The property is a current blight on the neighborhood and causes justified concern as to whether the future facility, if every constructed, will be properly maintained.
If history is prologue, then I and my neighbors and not sanguine about the future.

H. Alan Young is an attorney who lives in Old Town.

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