Architectural review must balance past with present

Architectural review must balance past with present
A home in the Parker-Gray Historic District. (File Photo)

In a city as old as Alexandria, there is inherent tension between preserving the historic and embracing the contemporary. There was a time in our city when historic treasures were bulldozed in the name of progress, with little or no thought to what was lost. But then the notion of preservation took hold, and we embraced – and protected – our neighborhoods.

And as often happens, once preservation became a priority, the pendulum swung too far. Alexandria gained a reputation for being rigidly protective of all things old, even at the expense of homeowners’ property rights.

That’s why the city’s responsiveness to homeowner concerns in the Parker-Gray Historic District is so encouraging. Last year, relations between the board of architectural review and Parker-Gray residents reached their nadir when Bradley King received a $250 fine for tearing down a rusty, old chain-link fence. Alexandria became the target of ridicule when the BAR issued a nine-page report extolling the important historic nature of the demolished eyesore.

To their credit, city officials responded to resident outrage by forming an ad hoc committee consisting of BAR members and Parker-Gray activists to review the district’s regulations with an eye to recommending changes. The committee’s proposals are a welcome move toward common sense. Among the proposed changes for Parker-Gray:

• Rather than requiring a formal BAR hearing, board staff can approve all fences.

• No BAR review for new or replacement light fixtures.

• No BAR review for nonstreet facing doors.

• No BAR review for nonstreet facing chimneys and flues, with staff review only for street-facing ones.

The majority of recommended changes reverse design guidelines and BAR policies adopted in 2010 and 2011. Thus, the proposed tweaking is not changing what has been protected for decades, but only loosening what was recently made too restrictive. They would primarily exempt projects in back and side yards from BAR review. The workgroup will continue meeting in advance of the BAR meeting October 24, when the recommendations are slated for review and possible adoption.

The concept of a work group created to review BAR policies is not just a good idea for Parker-Gray right now. It also is a good idea for all parts of the city. The Old and Historic Alexandria District would certainly benefit from such a work group convening every few years.

The world we live in is changing rapidly, which makes preserving our history all the more important. But the reality is that new technologies are transforming the way we live. A periodic review of architectural policies in all parts of the city is the only way to fairly balance the past with the present.