City council unanimously approves Ramsey Homes rezoning

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City council unanimously approves Ramsey Homes rezoning
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

In a unanimous decision Saturday, city council approved the rezoning and master plan amendment for the Ramsey Homes site and its joint work plan with the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority. The previously proposed development special use permit for the property was deferred.

The joint work plan was approved by ARHA’s board of directors on March 10 after a joint work session with city councilors, and dictates a new timeline for redevelopment proposals for the property. In the plan, there is an expectation that ARHA staff will do further analysis on possible alternative development options at Ramsey Homes, and that ARHA and the city will work together more closely at every level.

Previously, ARHA proposed a 53-unit development for the 699 N. Patrick St. site that would have demolished the current 15 units in four buildings. The Ramsey Homes were built during World War II to house black defense workers. Also under consideration is a 49-unit so-called “hybrid” option that would have saved one of the buildings for historic preservation purposes.

The joint work plan stipulates that analysis will continue on both the 53-unit and 49-unit options, and gives staff latitude to examine other options. At the hearing, ARHA officials spoke of what they hoped would be new cooperation between the authority and the city.

“Essentially, we are open to whatever you need,” said ARHA board member Salena Zellers. “If you need it, ask for it. We’ll give it to you, and we’ve assured our staff that they need to cooperate in any way possible with city council.”

As part of that cooperation, council’s ARHA work group, which includes Vice Mayor Justin Wilson and City Councilor John Chapman alongside ARHA officials, will play a big role moving forward. Several other members of council questioned why one or two neighbors of the Ramsey Homes could not be on the work group, allowing further community engagement on the future of the site.

“I think the symbolism of having someone at the table is very different than you calling up, inviting people or sitting there listening to the conversation,” said City Councilor Paul Smedberg. “It’s just very different. … I think there’s a lot to be said for having someone actually sit at the table for these things.”

City planning director Karl Moritz agreed, noting that without greater community involvement, the project would not succeed. Moritz added that community-based charrettes might be an option to help engage more and more people in the process.

Several residents who spoke before council at the hearing spoke of the need for affordable housing in the city, something with which city councilors agreed and promised to continue to address.

“The question we must ask is how committed is the city of Alexandria to the issue of affordable housing?” asked Ingris Moran of Tenants and Workers United. “If the difficulty and sluggish pace of the Ramsey Homes agreements tell us anything, it is telling of a city that is not doing enough to address the housing issues faced by our poor, by our elderly and our communities of color.”

“It’s time for our city council and mayor to prove their previous verbal commitments to affordable housing with concrete action,” said Rev. Jo Belser of the Church of the Resurrection on North Beauregard Street.

Meanwhile, neighbors spoke of their desire to maintain a diverse neighborhood with affordable housing, especially close to amenities like the Braddock Road Metro station and the Charles Houston Recreation Center, among others.

“We want the diversity,” said Judy Noritake, president of the Braddock Metro Citizens’ Coalition. “We want people from all economic and social classes living in our neighborhood. It’s going to make us rich and better; that’s why I live there.”

But some expressed unease at the planning process, and the fact that passing the rezoning and master plan amendment without a DSUP in place could set a dangerous precedent.

“We have time,” said Heidi Ford of the West Old Town Citizens’ Association. “You can work through this, [and] come back with the full package in accordance with typical planning practice in the fall. A valid reason for deviating from the standard process has not been put forward.”

Under the work plan, analysis on possible alternatives by city and ARHA staff will continue, with updates provided every month at work group meetings that are open to the public. City council will hear an update on the project in June, with a new DSUP slated for discussion after council’s summer recess.

Mayor Allison Silberberg emphasized that private developers should not see this as an opportunity for similar treatment.

“Let’s be clear that this is not to be a precedent, that this is a one-off, and that it’s an indication in my gut of our commitment so that from a financial point of view ARHA can look at all the options and find that common ground,” she said.

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