When priorities collide rather than complement, things tend to get ugly. This is because each competing priority has advocates who are willing to go to the mat for their issue. When everyone goes to the mat, a wrestling match ensues.
A case in point is the proposed redevelopment of the Ramsey Homes property. Originally built during World War II to house black defense workers and currently owned by the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority, the Ramsey buildings are decrepit and, frankly, a blight. No person should be living in these conditions.
Despite the glaring need, city leaders have had difficulty reaching a consensus on how to fix the problem. Extremely contentious city council meetings last fall and in February produced a roiling cauldron, in which the local priorities of affordable housing, historic preservation, neighborhood livability and open space met without meshing, made more explosive because of the underlying racial history of the site.
Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, the situation brought out the worst in many. Last fall, an ARHA official publicly said those opposed to his agency’s plans were racist. In February, a few city council members took to social media to blast each other. A vote was held, and then rescinded just days later. The whole mess felt like a kindergarten Play-Doh fight. Viewed from afar, the dysfunction might have been amusing, if not for the awful living conditions of the affected families.
Fortunately, since February, emotions have been better kept in check and the issue seems well on its way to final resolution. There are three primary reasons for this improvement:
First, City Councilor Paul Smedberg changed his mind after voting against the project along with Mayor Allison Silberberg in the initial vote on the project in February. A supermajority was required so two votes scuttled the project.
His unusual maneuver to rescind the original vote three days later could have been handled more adroitly, as his motion caught some of his colleagues off guard, but in the end it enabled all sides to push the reset button.
After that reset, city and ARHA staffers have been working more closely together. They were able to generate both a plan for demolition and one that would have saved one building for historic preservation purposes. City Manager Mark Jinks and ARHA CEO Roy Priest deserve kudos for enabling this cooperation.
Finally, in an 11th-hour maneuver just prior to the June 28 meeting, Silberberg concluded it would be better to demolish all four existing structures while creating more open space, moving the structure back from Pendleton Street and turning the entrance to face Wythe Street, and led the way to a unanimous council vote in support. In the end, tearing down all of the existing Ramsey Homes was the right call.
The process isn’t finished yet, as late last month the Parker-Gray Board of Architectural Review weighed in on current design proposals. In addition, final details about the building’s appearance, materials and cost still must be agreed upon — and there’s the tricky issue of who’s going to pay for placing power lines underground to the tune of $700,000.
Still, considering the level of discourse on this topic just six months ago, the discernable progress is to be commended. Or to quote the 1960s jingle, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” We hope the collaborative spirit continues, on this and other issues.