By Chris Teale (Image/City of Alexandria)
The frustration was palpable Saturday as city council failed to approve the rezoning to allow the redevelopment of Ramsey Homes. The five-hour hearing was fraught with arguments, accusations and ultimately ended with uncertainty about whether the project would ever be revisited.
The acrimony and uncertainty continued at Tuesday night’s legislative meeting as council voted unanimously to rescind its decisions on the property and docket it for its March 12 public hearing. City Councilor Paul Smedberg made the motion to rescind after he said he gave it many hours of thought and sought advice from city attorney James Banks.
“We can all take a deep breath, we can all reset, but it is not my intention to simply give in to [the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority],” Smedberg said. “They’ve got to step up to the table and be good partners in this. If we’re to proceed with all these other projects, this has got to set the tone and it’s got to be done right.”
Mayor Allison Silberberg said that while she appreciated the spirit of the motion to rescind, she was uneasy at the fact that Smedberg had not given his colleagues warning that it was coming. She also criticized Banks for not sharing the information with councilors, which brought a stinging response from Vice Mayor Justin Wilson.
“Everyone on this body should have the decency, and I believe the accountability, that if we have a criticism of staff, we address that at the appropriate time and place,” he said. “This is not the appropriate time and place to do that.”
A supermajority of councilors — six “yes” votes — was required for approval on Saturday, following a petition from neighbors of the property at 699 N. Patrick St. protesting the planning commission’s February 4 approval of the rezoning, but the measure fell short, 5-2. Silberberg and Smedberg voted against the rezoning.
ARHA had requested rezoning the property from a townhouse zone to mixed use to allow for increased density.
The protest petition was certified by city staff on February 18, and a day later, ARHA submitted a letter requesting deferral of the Development Special Use Permit for the new iteration of the property. ARHA officials and attorney Duncan Blair said the deferral request was to allow them do more analysis on alternatives for the site and was an act of good faith.
Council approved an amendment to the Braddock East Master Plan by a 6-1 margin, with Smedberg casting the lone dissenting vote. City Councilor Tim Lovain and Silberberg said the vote was a compromise to show councilors are serious about having affordable housing on the site, which Wilson described as “nonsensical.”
It capped a frustrating hearing for councilors. City Councilor John Chapman earlier took exception to a meeting Silberberg had with ARHA CEO Roy Priest without council’s ARHA task force or staff. Silberberg said it was a conversation to try and move things forward, and was her prerogative as mayor.
“It’s not about you working with Roy,” Chapman said, his voice raising. “It’s about you working with us, to work with staff, to work with commissioners, to work with ARHA as a whole, to work with the community. This is a joint-run government… I would only submit that with any of us, the ability of us to pull others into it makes us that much stronger.”
In response, Silberberg said Chapman’s anger was “misplaced and unfortunate,” especially as the meeting brought further analysis on other options for the site. ARHA’s proposal is to demolish the current 15 units and replace them with 53 units of mixed-income housing, but possible alternatives include saving one or more of the buildings for historic preservation purposes.
Previously, ARHA officials said only the 53-unit option would be competitive to receive low income housing tax credits from the Virginia Housing Authority this year. But a memo from city housing director Helen McIlvaine on February 18 said that after review by tax credit consultant Ryne Johnson of Astoria LLC, the 49-unit option that would save one current building could be just as competitive with some improvements.
The Ramsey Homes were built between 1941 and 1942 by the federal government to house black defense workers, and Chapman said that that preserving at least one building as a residence was an inappropriate reminder of segregation. He said it might also make people living there feel like second-class citizens, especially as new units go up next door.
“If we preserve it and then put somebody in that building, that then sends another tone that not only do we want to preserve this building as a symbol of segregation, we want somebody to experience that, because they don’t have the same type of living qualities as the project that’s going to be next to them,” Chapman said.
Several members of the public spoke again about their desire to preserve history, while other residents argued the need for affordable housing superseded that. Canek Aguirre, a board member at Tenants and Workers United, questioned where historic preservationists were when the former Parker-Gray High School was demolished. Ingris Moran, also from TWU, said things must be kept in perspective when it comes to housing affordability.
“We should not be fooled by the seemingly benign calls for preservation of history and impeding affordable housing,” she said. “While some worry about the dollar value of their homes, thousands of families in Alexandria are struggling to survive.”
City Councilor Willie Bailey, himself a product of public and affordable housing in Alexandria, shared his frustration at the lack of progress given the loss of thousands of affordable units in the past decade.
“I understand the historic value that they have, but I have only heard one person — Mr. Priest — speak about putting warm bodies in those homes,” Bailey said. “We’re sitting here talking about 38 [new] units. If we’re having a hard time trying to build 38 units, we’re never going to reach that number we’re trying to reach.”
“We wanted to be a model for the country,” he said later. “But as it relates to affordable housing, we’re not even a local model. I think we need to get our priorities straight.”
The decision by council means the fate of the project is still uncertain. It will return on March 12 for another public hearing before city council. If it is denied again, ARHA can return in six months to apply for a project using different zoning or 12 months using the same zone.