Preserving citys historic character comes to a head


While it may be easier to please some of your constituents some of the time, pleasing all of them all of the time often proves challenging in Alexandrias intensely-protective Historic District.

This came to a head last week after the outgoing chair of the Alexandria Civic Association, Townsend A. “Van” Fleet, forwarded a letter to The Alexandria Times crafted by him and the ACA Board, and sent to the Mayor, City Council and longtime Board of Architectural Review Chair Tom Hulfish. The letter was published in its opinion pages. Van Fleet, who has lived in Old Town for decades, charged the BAR with wrong decisions and failure to safeguard the historic character of the city.

Hulfish, a seventh generation Old Towner, criticized Van Fleets letter as overly contentious, making local issues personal.

Calling Van Fleet an angry civic activist, Hulfish called it difficult to satisfy everybody all of the time in sometimes subjective opinions on smart growth for the city.  He goes a little overboard in some of his advocacies, inciting some parts of the citys residents long after a projects design has been implemented,  Hulfish told the Times.

Hulfish defended the BARs decisions to date as being pretty good, overall, and stressed how important it is for citizens to participate in the citys growth, and speak up if they disagree with proposals before the review board.

Responding to Van Fleets criticism of the new Hotel Monacos colorful exterior and design, Hulfish said that as far as he was concerned, anything you did to the [former] Holiday Inn would be an improvement.

However, Old Town being Old Town, the two powerful civic leaders plan for a rapproachment this week, with Hulfish vowing to have lunch with Van Fleet at the Old Dominion Boat Club at the bottom of King Street. Hulfish said they plan to see if some consensus can be reached on a smoother public discourse over proposed alterations to the citys historic fabric. Van Fleet said the June 30 meeting was scheduled to discuss the city’s proposed Van Alstine sclupture.

The process involved in altering an historic property is transparent, Hulfish said, incorporating the consensus-building nature of how the town works.

For residents anticipating alterations to an historic residence, an application must be filed with the review board for permission to do so.  This applies not just to homeowners, but to any historic building of which 25 square feet or more is to be demolished.  Applicants must notify their neighbors on either side of the subject structure of the public hearing at least ten days prior to the actual date, so that they may respond to the proposed changes.

Upon approval, the BAR issues a Certificate of Appropriateness.  The citys guidelines call for review board approval before undertaking any new construction or exterior alteration that is visible from the public street, way, place or the Potomac River.

Review board hearings are set about 30 days after receiving a full application, which includes copies of notifications to interested parties.  Once approved, the certification is good for 12 months.  If the construction takes longer, the BAR must be consulted for an extension.  The homeowner or their representative must attend the hearing and submit to questions from neighbors or interested parties at that time, in defending their plans.

The remedy for those who do not submit to the process is simple:  they may not receive a Certificate of Occupancy to inhabit the structure they have altered or modified.

Hearings are usually televised on Comcast cables city public access channel, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday evenings. Meetings are held in the City Council Chambers on the second floor of City Hall.   The review board is currently on a summer schedule and planning only one hearing in July and one in August, and returning to a full-schedule in September, Hulfish said.

The determination of the city to defend its historical standing is a stance both admired and loathed. Hulfish said he invites interested parties to contact the BAR early in the renovation process for guidance on their plans.  If that does not provide sufficient collaboration to reach an agreed architectural decision, appeals on denials are ruled on by the City Council, and must be filed within 14 days of a BAR decision.

In a dust-up last year, Michael W. Zarlenga, the owner of Old Towns iconic Trophy Room said he spent $325,000 buying out leases and hiring architects, lawyers and historic consultants to gain the necessary city permits for a needed facelift. The old brick building was constructed in 1805 and the last renovations had taken place in 1980. The building needed serious structural improvements, Zarlenga said, who said that he met with the citys Board of Architectural Review and Board of Zoning Appeals, which he felt gave him wide latitude for any changes needed to gain approval.

 While the BZA approved Zarlengas variances, the BAR denied his permit to demolish or encapsulate 25 feet of material, which included removing old shutters, restoring the buildings facade, raising the roof and back of the building by seven feet, adding an elevator and replacing old electrical and plumbing systems.  We just wanted to modernize a 200 year-old building while fully maintaining its historical aspects, Zarlenga said.

In September, City Council voted to deny Zarlengas appeal, citing historic preservationists who argued that the buildings flounder style was characteristic of the citys rich history and that changing it would damage the historic streetscape. Its called flounder-style because it looks like the profile of a fish, but Zarlenga said historians he hired failed to identify the design in the historic flounder style. We just wanted to raise the roof and we pledged to use all of the old materials, he said.

But opponents said the back of the building, with its angled roof and one window, would be irreparably harmed if altered. Zarlenga asked Council to reconsider the BARs June denial, but members voted 6-1 against it. We met with him multiple times and tried to work with him on modifying his plans, Hulfish argued at the time.

Alternatively, appeals to an approval or denial on a project can be brought before the City Council by petition representing a citizen group, with the signature of at least 25 property owners in the Historic District.