BAR examines new Ramsey Homes design

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BAR examines new Ramsey Homes design
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

The Parker-Gray District Board of Architectural Review took a look at the design concept of the new Ramsey Homes late last month and suggested several changes to the plan, including the building’s entrance and some of the materials to be used for construction.

In June, city council unanimously approved a plan that would demolish all four of the current buildings at the site — containing 15 affordable housing units — at 699 N. Patrick St.

Previously, councilors had expressed a desire to keep at least one of the buildings for historic preservation. The Ramsey Homes were built during World War II to house black defense workers, and now are owned by the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

Under the plan advanced by council, the current structures will be demolished and replaced by one building that contains 52 affordable units. As part of council’s approval, the building will move north at the site and provide nearly 7,500 square feet of open space facing Pendleton Street.

The July 27 work session was focused largely on the design of the new building, since council largely confirmed its scale and mass with the March approval of a master plan amendment and rezoning of the site to allow increased density.

One aspect that drew concerns from multiple board members was the building’s en- trance on Wythe Street, which
will face the Charles Houston Recreation Center, albeit set back from the sidewalk. Several felt the current design did not serve as an effective enough welcome to the build- ing, and should be given more prominence or moved entirely.

“For such a large building, it seems kind of underwhelming that the entrance is tucked away and it’s only a pair of double doors,” said board member James Spencer. “I know cost is an issue, but if you can do something to enhance the entrance, that would be nice.”

“The entrance should be something that’s not just a door,” said board member Bill Conkey. “It’s part of the whole building. It’s the focal point to the whole building.”

Senior project manager Patricia Mao Booker of architectural design and planning firm KTGY said her firm would re-examine the entrance to make it more prominent. She said it likely would have a bigger canopy and feature planters near- by to define the space, all to make it feel more “celebrated.” With the design phase still ongoing, she noted it is still very much a work in progress.

Board members also raised concerns about the materials used for the proposed new building. Largely dominated by blond and brown brick, the design currently includes some wood accents, and several members suggested revisiting those materials and maybe including some metal, since it requires less maintenance over time.

“We are in a historic district, and I think that whatever we build in a historic district, I feel like it should be built with the thought in mind that in 50 years, that building will now be historic,” said BAR vice chairwoman Purvi Irwin.

“This design seems — underdeveloped I guess is the first thing that comes to my mind,” said Conkey. “It’s one-dimensional, maybe two- dimensional. My first thought was it’s designed from a plan, there’s no forms really to it, there’s no composition to it.”

On several occasions, land-use attorney Duncan Blair, who represents ARHA, said the organization must continually balance the architecture and other building features with the need to stay competitive for tax credits. ARHA has said at previous meetings it hopes the Ramsey Homes can be competitive for low income housing tax credits from the Virginia Housing Authority, while also complying with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.

The district is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and under Section 106, officials must engage in a rigorous historic preservation process. A meeting with Thunderbird Archeology of natural and cultural resources consulting firm Wetland Studies and Solutions, Inc. is slated for mid-September.

Blair said the Virginia Housing Corporation has numerous rules on cost containment for affordable housing redevelopment projects.

Board chairwoman Theresa del Ninno raised concerns that the new building might overshadow several of the civic buildings in the Park- er-Gray neighborhood. The Charles Houston Recreation Center, the Alexandria Black History Museum and its Watson Reading Room next door all sit near the Ramsey Homes property. She suggested pushing the building back an additional 15 feet, slightly reducing the amount of open space on the south side but giving the civic buildings nearby more prominence.

At the end of the work session, Blair said he appreciated the feedback from board members, whose suggestions and comments will be sent to the planning commission and city council. Once a final design is chosen, the project’s development special use permit will require approval by both bodies, which also look at impacts on parking and traffic, the use of the building, trash collection and other factors. If approved, the project would return to the BAR for a certificate of appropriateness before construction may begin.

Officials emphasized their desire to design a building that is architecturally acceptable and fits in with the area.

“We’re not just trying to put lipstick on it,” said the city’s historic preservation manager Al Cox. “We’re trying to make a genuinely attractive building that you all directed staff and the applicant to go away and make something the city can be proud of.”

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