Your View: City must respect its historic districts

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By Ninette Sadusky, Alexandria

To the editor:
Do Alexandria’s historic districts mean anything? That is the question that city councilors will answer September 12 when they decide either to uphold or to overturn the Parker-Gray Board of Architectural Review’s unanimous decision to reject the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s request to demolish Ramsey Homes on the 600 block of N. Patrick St. Not only was the BAR’s decision unanimous, they also agreed that Ramsey Homes met four of the six established criteria to merit preservation.

The 15-unit garden-style Ramsey Homes development was built in 1942 under the Lanham Act to provide permanent housing for defense workers during World War II, specifically African-Americans. The homes were the first public housing to be built in Parker-Gray and remain today an example that small-scale scattered-site public housing works.

The City of Alexandria specifically designated Ramsey Homes as a contributing resource to the Uptown/Parker-Gray National Register Historic District whose period of significance runs through 1959. The city’s nomination form highlights that the Ramsey Homes “present an attractive appearance and represent stylish trends of the 1930s and 1940s, modestly detailed but reflecting the Craftsman and Prairie-style characteristics.”

Today, the Ramsey Homes is the only extant public housing of the modest International Modernist style in Parker-Gray. So how can the city on the one hand affirm the architectural and historic importance of Ramsey Homes, and on the other hand, authorize its destruction?

The Braddock Metro Small Area Plan warns, “There is a sense that this vital neighborhood, with its rich history and charming residential streets will become just an anonymous part of Alexandria’s urban expanse and an afterthought to Old Town, unless steps are taken to affirm its individual character.” It is scattered sites like Ramsey Homes that differentiate Parker-Gray from other parts of Old Town. The placement and architecture of Ramsey Homes is unique, as are the wide expanses of green space and the reason for their construction; together these features constitute an important chapter in the story of the Parker-Gray neighborhood.

If city council approves ARHA’s appeal and permits the demolition of a unique site that the city continually describes as a contributing resource to the Parker-Gray historic district, then how can the city ever deny future requests to demolish any structure in the historic districts? If meeting four of six criteria for preservation isn’t sufficient, then what is? We are on the precipice of a very slippery slope.

ARHA has not maintained the units, nor does it appear the organization has undertaken the typical upgrades that single-family homeowners routinely make to their historic properties. Now, ARHA is arguing that it is more cost effective to tear down the units rather than rehabilitate them. If expense and convenience are justifiable reasons for destroying historic properties, then we might as well say goodbye to our historic districts and the fabric of our historic neighborhoods.

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