By Chris Teale (File photo)
City council agreed unanimously Tuesday night to a plan for the future of the Ramsey Homes that would demolish all four of the current buildings on the site, a reversal from councilors’ previous desire to keep at least one for historic preservation purposes.
Councilors were presented with two options formulated by city planning staff and the joint work group between the city and the Alexandria Re- development and Housing Authority, which owns the property. The original concept proposed 53 units in two three-story buildings, while an alternative proposed 52 units in one four-story building and between two and four additional units in one renovated existing building.
The unanimous vote came in favor of the latter, with amendments to explore demolishing the preserved building, removing rooftop open space and exploring the feasibility of moving the four-story building north to face Wythe Street, with additional open space facing Pendleton Street.
The move was a departure from previous rhetoric by some councilors about the need to preserve at least one building through which to re- member the city’s history. The Ramsey Homes were built during World War II by the federal government to temporarily house black defense workers, while white workers were housed elsewhere.
“A lot of us felt very strongly about preserving the one building, and it’s a hard decision to make,” said Mayor Allison Silberberg.
Vice Mayor Justin Wilson said there appeared to be trade-offs between open space, historic preservation and affordable housing, and that it did not appear possible to satisfy all three camps. City Councilor Willie Bailey bemoaned the loss of affordable units if one building was preserved and how historic preservation appeared to take precedence under that proposal, especially considering the buildings’ role in segregation.
“If you did a survey of all the African Americans in the city, I don’t think they would care about getting rid of something that reminds them of their past,” he said. “…I don’t need anything to remind me of what went on there. I just wish we had more affordable housing in that location.”
The 15-unit Ramsey Homes development at 699 N. Patrick St. has been a major source of contention as ARHA sought to redevelop the site. Its permit to demolish the current property was rejected by the Parker-Gray Board of Architectural Review in April 2015 but then overturned by council in September.
ARHA presented a plan that would have amended the Braddock East Master Plan, rezoned the property from a townhouse zone to mixed-use and built 53 units in two multi-family buildings.
In February, the planning commission rejected the plan and council failed to approve the rezoning and master plan amendment following a protest petition from neighbors requiring a supermajority for approval. Council rescinded its decision days later.
In light of that, council and ARHA approved a joint work group and joint work plan in March to foster greater cooperation at all levels, including between staff.
But at times, Tuesday’s meeting grew contentious as some councilors became frustrated at an anticipated $700,000 request from ARHA to place utility wires underground, which is required for all new developments but not for renovations. City housing director Helen McIlvaine said ARHA would likely be prevented from paying for it itself as its tax credits from the federal government would not cover the cost.
“Financially, realistically, it’s not going to happen,” said City Councilor Paul Smedberg, referring to the city footing the bill instead. “With all the other infrastructure projects we’ve got going on in the city, for you [ARHA] to come forward and ask for $700,000 to underground half a block of wires? I mean, come on. It’s not going to happen.”
“We do require this of every other developer,” agreed City Councilor Del Pepper. “I don’t think we can look at this and say, ‘Oh, but not us.’ I think we need to keep that in the back of our minds.”
In a presentation, planning director Karl Moritz said city staff favored preserving one building, while McIlvaine noted that the city could do the renovation work in-house using the city’s home rehabilitation program that helps revamp low-income housing in Alexandria. She said the program would be used in con- junction with the Community Development Block Grant Program the city receives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and that all work would be done at cost price by contractors on a fixed rate.
But councilors were not convinced by the renovation proposal, because of the possibility of increasing costs and concerns it could create a feeling of inferiority for those residents in the renovated building just yards from the new property. McIlvaine and Moritz said the renovation would bring the units up to standard with the new units being built, but council demurred.
Council’s decision to proceed with a new concept may raise additional questions, as the joint work group said both of the previously prepared options were appropriate, while the ARHA board said it would support the proposed alternate option if council recommended it and appropriated funds accordingly.
Moritz said the changes will likely need further study, with a view to work on the de- sign and architecture starting soon, including at the Parker-Gray Board of Architectural Review. A development special use permit is expected to be debated in December.