My View / Townsend Van Fleet – Adhering to our citys historic principles

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The Old Town Civic Association is an essential partner in the civic oversight process to ensure that all the basic principles of historic preservation are adhered to in the Old and Historic District.

We have been performing this function for over 50 years. Working to preserve the third oldest historic district in the country, OTCA takes great pride in ensuring that Old Town remains an exemplar of historic conservation and that our historic fabric will be maintained over the years.

Recently, however, the process to ensure our towns unique historic character has come under assault.

In the Associations opinion, the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) has made several highly questionable decisions which endanger not only our historic preservation but also have produced long lasting, deleterious effects to our collective reputations for vigilantly protecting our historic heritage. We can point out numerous examples, but will concentrate on the worst of the worst.

Just take a look at the Hotel Monaco on the 400 block of King Street. The facade has at least four paint schemes. The eastern portion of the building is painted a cream color; the western portion of the building is painted battleship grey and in between the hotel frontage is painted fuchsia and a brassy orange: a ridiculous range of colors for one structure.

The hotel frontage also includes a rusted metal overhang, a metal sign spelling out Jackson 20, that apparently advertises the hotels restaurant, and recessed white neon lights around the Monaco sign. When this development was first brought before the BAR, the Office of Historic Alexandria (OHA) objected to this frontage on the grounds that it projected an art deco faade which is not consistent with this Colonial structure. OHAs comments were essentially invisible as they appeared at the end of the staff report and were not even addressed in the staff analysis within the basic document. A ruse at best!

Although BAR members were given drawings showing these color schemes, the citizens were not provided the same drawings. Therefore citizens had to rely on the plain pre-sketched vu-graphs shown in Council chambers. A lack of fully colored drawings put the citizens at a distinct disadvantage during the discussion and comment period.  After seeing the frontage in person, the president of OTCA asked the city manager to present our case. He directed us to the director of Planning and Zoning, whose only reply after hearing our complaints was that the BAR had approved this development, therefore there was nothing she could do. In all fairness, city staff have since replaced the old black and white projector in the Council chamber with a new system that is fully color capable and that is tied into the flat-screen displays on either side of the chamber. However, the historic ambiance on one of the citys most prominent blocks of King Street has been seriously compromised. Now well match the glory of National Harbor!

The Small Mall on the 100 block of King Street is the perfect example of BAR decision making which calls into question their consideration of the basic principles of historic preservation. Through a series of developer misrepresentations, unlawful demolition, and lack of oversight by both the BAR and Council, another prominent block in the heart of Old Town now contains a building incompatible with neighboring historic buildings on a major block in the heart of Old Town. In a city nationally known for its dedication to historic preservation, one wonders how these actions could have happened.

The Saul Center on the 600 block of North Washington is of questionable architectural value. The design totally violates the Washington Street Standards, and in fact the poor design was the catalyst for revising the Washington Street Standards in 2001. With its overwhelming massive scale and height, the building is incompatible with the other historic buildings on Washington Street. The Saul Center and the nearby Jefferson Building are blights on the area where the George Washington Memorial Parkway enters the City.

Almost across the street from the Saul Building at 802 North Washington is a historic building that has been boarded up for many years. In fact, the side porch of this structure, along Madison Street, has been enclosed with chicken wire. How did the BAR allow the owner to install chicken wire on a historic building along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, and why isnt the City classifying this structure as blighted property?

The chairman of the BAR repeatedly excuses such grievous decisions by rationalizing that the Guidelines for Historic Preservation in the Old and Historic District are just guidelines. He belittles the witnesses who come before the BAR with that message.

What he should say is that the guidelines were written to guide the BAR in making rational decisions regarding developments in the Old and Historic District. In addition, he should add that there is some flexibility built into the guidelines but in essence they are our bible along with the Washington Street Standards. If the guidelines are meaningless then why do we ask everyone who wants to erect or modify a structure in the Old and Historic District to follow them?

Anyone taking office on the BAR ought to have to agree that they will uphold the guidelines along with the Washington Street Standards. Persistent or flagrant disregard of the guidelines or the Washington Street Standards by a BAR Member should result in the members removal from the Board.

In addition, we currently have another member of the BAR who takes great pride in openly opposing the Washington Street Standards. We cant recall the number of times we have been exposed to the BARs staff reports wherein they will list a number of guidelines for denying demolition of a structure having been met, but then turn around and recommend approval of the demolition. Subsequently, the BAR will blindly approve the demolition.

The city manager and the director of Planning and Zoning have been asked on a number of occasions to have the BAR Dockets distributed to the public at least a week prior to each BAR hearing. As it stands now the dockets are put out at about 6 p.m. on the Friday prior to the BAR hearing on the next Wednesday. This is totally unfair to the citizens, the Old Town Civic Association and other historic preservation organizations.

This results in only five days to read all of the docket items, visit and examine the site, discuss any questions with staff, develop a position on any matter of concern and then prepare remarks to be rendered during the hearing. An extremely short time, especially for a large number of the citizens who have other sources of employmentto say nothing of the BAR members themselves, who are expected to reach intelligent and rational decisions based on such wholly inadequate notice and preparation.

Occasionally no sketches are attached to those reports. In fact, on March 19, at the start of the BARs meeting the OTCA president objected that no sketches or pictures were attached so that we could not study what each docket item truly reflected. He reiterated this as he spoke about each individual item; however his comments were totally ignored. The chairman should have deferred the entire docket. A similar scenario occurred at the following meeting on April 2.

In recent months a number of After the Fact applications have come before the BAR. However, the BAR has not set up a fines schedule; therefore each of these hearings is quite contentious. One of the after the fact requests that was appealed to Council involved an ice house on Commerce Street.

The BAR wanted to fine the owner $25,000; however it was reduced to $6,000 by Council. The most recent after the fact application was for the unlawful painting of a brick structure located at 900 Prince Street. The owner admitted making a mistake, however the BAR voted 3-3 on whether or not to make the owner take the paint off the building and/or pay a fine. The staff stated tha
t it would have cost the owner $108,000 to take the paint off or they recommended he pay a fine of $100,000. With a 3-3 tie the owner skated without doing either, as the BAR chose not to reopen the case; therefore, it was summarily approved.

All ties should be deferred for future consideration by the full BAR, rather than being automatically approved after 14 days. The real stickler in this case was that one member of the BAR stated that he didnt like the green paint on the bricks and that the owner should repaint the structure a different color. This case will be appealed but that doesnt change the fact that the BAR again voted wrong.
There are other examples that could be cited; however the purpose of the associations letter is to call attention to our suggested remedies.

The beauty and value of our city deserves our constant attention, citizen input, and consistency in application of historic guidelines and principles.

Townsend A Van Van Fleet is president of the Old Town Civic Association.

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