Editorial: Lessons for preservationists

Editorial: Lessons for preservationists
The former Carver Nursery School. (File Photo)

With the sale of the former Carver Nursery School, we can close the book on one of Alexandria’s many land-use controversies. But let’s not let it go to waste.

No, let’s see what we can learn from this years-long squabble for a historic landmark — or example of community blight, depending on your point of view — in the Parker-Gray neighborhood.

For those who haven’t followed the story, developer William Cromley bought the property about five years ago. But his plans to replace the building with an environmentally friendly piece of modern architecture quickly ran afoul of neighborhood preservationists.

They sued and successfully forced Cromley — and the city — to spend two years looking for a buyer who might save or repurpose the building, which served black children during segregation. When the two-year mark passed in February, though, not a single person or organization had stepped forward.

The fate of the one-time nursery school was back in Cromley’s hands.

But the developer had moved on to other projects. Giving up on his plans for the property, he successfully found a buyer who will expand and repurpose the ramshackle structure.

It’s a story with a happy ending. But we see a few lessons that the community can draw from it, so Alexandria can hopefully avoid years of strife when another landmark is put on the chopping block.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to be proactive. Alexandrians care about preserving their past but, as we saw with the former nursery school, the Old Town Theater and even with the waterfront redevelopment plan, too often wait until the last moment to leap into action. Going forward, neighborhood preservationists (all good people with good intentions) must identify the things and places worth saving before they get slated for redevelopment.

After important landmarks are selected as worthy of preservation, plans for raising money — whether it comes from grants, deep-pocketed donors or crowdfunding — must be drawn up. And this fiscal roadmap must consist of more than, say, petitioning City Hall to hand over taxpayer dollars.

Lastly, we must embrace compromise. Yes, in a perfect world the former Carver Nursery School would serve the neighborhood as a museum, community center or even educational facility as grassroots preservationists had wished instead of a dental office. But, at the end of the day, the building has been saved.

Preservation sounds nice, but it requires work. In this case, Cromley ended up doing most of the heavy lifting. It was a generous gesture. We can’t count on other developers being so community-spirited.