It’s distressing when cherished policies or principles clash. At the national level in recent years, the right to religious liberty has conflicted with non-discrimination laws. Similarly, the right to privacy has jutted against national security interests. Sometimes such situations pit one interest group against another. Other times, individuals feel torn because they support both sides.
We are facing such a collision in Alexandria between the issues of historic preservation and affordable housing — both stated priorities of our city and its officials. The vehicle for this collision is the 15-unit Ramsey Homes property.
Built during World War II to house black defense workers, Ramsey lies in the Parker-Gray Historic District near other historically significant buildings. It has been allowed to fall into disrepair by its owner, the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which now wants to raze the homes in favor of a 53-unit building that would be dedicated to affordable housing.
The Parker-Gray Board of Architectural Review voted unanimously to deny ARHA’s application to demolish Ramsey, citing its historic importance, but that decision was overturned last Saturday by city council in a 5-2 vote. Council remarkably voted to allow demolition despite ARHA’s questionable conduct during the process and notwithstanding the lack of a concrete site plan.
We think ARHA’s behavior has been inexcusable and find council’s to be questionable.
At the council meeting, ARHA CEO Roy Priest incredibly used his organization’s own failing — Ramsey’s dilapidation — as an argument for demolition. ARHA’s board chairman Merrick Malone resorted to juvenile name-calling when councilors spoke against demolition. In a remarkable exhibition of illogic, Malone argued that those who sought to preserve Ramsey because of its historic significance to the black community were displaying “racism and classism.”
Council’s final action was hardly better. Why do boards and commissions exist in Alexandria, given that their votes and recommendations are so frequently disregarded by city council? It should mean something when a board votes unanimously for or against something, as the Parker-Gray BAR did in its united vote against Ramsey demolition.
We also find it surprising that council approved Ramsey’s demolition with such a sketchy forward plan, given ARHA’s poor performance to date on this project. Why didn’t it instead send ARHA back to the drawing board with instructions to develop a compromise plan that both historic preservationists and affordable housing advocates could live with?
Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg was correct in calling the imperative to choose between affordable housing and historic preservation a “false choice.” And city councilors Tim Lovain and Del Pepper were on the right track in telling ARHA to develop a site plan that preserves half of the historic buildings in the redevelopment process. Before council voted to approve demolition, ARHA did agree to delay the tear down until after the site plan is approved by the BAR, the planning commission and city council.
Let’s hope that ARHA can come up with an acceptable site plan that enables the architectural and cultural significance of the Ramsey homes to remain a part of Alexandria’s history, while also adding greatly needed affordable housing units to the city’s stock. Hopefully this either/or situation turns into a win/win outcome.