Our View: ARHA missed a golden opportunity for compromise

Our View: ARHA missed a golden opportunity for compromise

(File photo)

When the Times’ editorial board last visited the issue of how to provide 53 units of affordable housing at the site of the Ramsey Homes in the Parker-Gray neighborhood, the best word to describe the discussion was “frustration.”

Neighbors were frustrated by the proposal to tear down the historic buildings, built during World War II by the federal government to house black defense employees. Residents of the current buildings were frustrated by their poor state of repair. And officials were frustrated with an approval process that City Councilor Justin Wilson described as “absolutely absurd.”

Last September, city council approved demolition of the 15 current units at Ramsey Homes, contingent upon the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which owns the property, returning to officials for approval of a site plan before beginning any work. And some city councilors urged ARHA to explore preserving and renovating at least some of the original structures.

But in the last five months, not much has changed. The project will head back to city council Saturday, again proposing to demolish all of the original buildings. It again is weighed down by a denial recommendation from a city advisory board, this time from the planning commission. And the study of alternative options remains hazy at best.

City staff studied two other options that would allow for some preservation of current buildings, which would have resulted in totals of 29 and 39 units, respectively. But according to the staff report on the proposal provided to the planning commission, “after some productive initial collaboration, ARHA’s board directed its staff not to participate further in exploring and creating the various development options and instead elected to proceed with the three-story, 53-unit proposal previously provided for concept review.”

The result of ARHA backing out of this discussion is that we don’t know how much more expensive it would be to pursue those options, except to take them at their word that they would be unfeasible.

To put it bluntly, this is unacceptable.

Affordable housing is sorely needed in Alexandria, and having only 15 dilapidated units at the site of the Ramsey Homes surely is an ineffective use of space and is unfair to the residents who live there. But the property is a historic landmark, and neighbors and historic preservation advocates need a seat in the discussions too.

For ARHA to pull its staff from discussions with city officials who are working to find a compromise between these competing interests isn’t just a show of bad faith. It’s the equivalent of a child taking away their ball and going home.

City council should refuse to approve any plans regarding how to move forward with Ramsey Homes until ARHA comes back to the table with city staff. They must work together to examine the alternatives so staff, officials and residents can see a full accounting of the costs associated with those proposals.

Once that is done, leaders may reach the conclusion that it is, indeed, not cost effective to preserve any of the current structures. But that decision needs to be done openly, not quietly by only one of the interested parties.

To do any less would be, to borrow from Wilson again, “decision-making that’s unworthy” of Alexandria.