Planning commission approves Ramsey Homes redevelopment

Planning commission approves Ramsey Homes redevelopment
A Ramsey Homes rendering from 2016 (File photo)

By Chris Teale (Image/City of Alexandria)

The city planning commission unanimously recommend- ed approval of the redevelopment of the Ramsey Homes at its meeting Tuesday night. City council will take up the plan at its November 12 public hearing.

Under the plan submitted by the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority, the four buildings that currently house 15 affordable units at 699 N. Patrick St. would be demolished and replaced by one four-story building that contains 52 mixed-income units.

And after past meetings on the project that were littered with controversy and vitriol, commissioners were pleased with how things look now.

“It’s just great to see where we’ve wound up,” said commission vice chairman Nathan Macek.

Previously, city councilors and commissioners had spoken of their desire to preserve at least one of the existing Ramsey Homes buildings due to the site’s history as temporary homes for black defense workers built during World War II.

But in June, city council approved a plan to demolish all four of the buildings and replace them with one, which would be moved to the north side of the property to accommodate ground-level open space at the corner of Pendleton and North Patrick streets.

Under the plan by ARHA, 15 of the units would be available to residents whose income is 30 percent of area median income, with the other 37 available to those making between 30 and 60 percent of area median income.

The commitment to preserving and increasing the city’s affordable housing stock after the loss of thousands of units over recent years drew praise from local residents who testified in support of the project.

“Making this project happen — and making it happen in a timely manner — gives us as members of the community a sense of ownership of our community, a sense of likeness of what’s happening in the community,” said Charkenia Walker, a current Ramsey Homes resident.

“It took some time and effort for us to get to where we are with this plan,” said current Ramsey Homes resident Marian Mealing. “It reassures me as a resident that this city is invested in affordable housing.”

The property’s open space on the south side is intended to be available for public use, but Nathan Imm, an urban planner in the city’s department of planning and zoning, said it will be fenced off for safety reasons. Commissioner David Brown asked if the fence would deter people from entering the open space, and Imm said signage would indicate its availability.

“I say congratulations to the true achievement of open space on the ground,” Brown said, referring to the fact that previous proposals for the site had more rooftop open space than at the ground level.

As for the potential design of the open space and the amenities available in it, resident Judy Noritake said ARHA and its stakeholders should be given broad scope, and that others should “wait to be surprised” by what they come up with.

But the question of how the site’s history will be commemorated remains up for discussion. City staff said in its report on the project that a consultant will be hired to provide interpretive elements both on and off the site, and those recommendations will be reviewed by planning staff and the Office of Historic Alexandria.

In a letter, the executive board of the West Old Town Citizens Association said part of the facade of one of the original buildings could be incorporated into the new building, serving as a hub for historical commemoration.

ARHA will apply for low income housing tax credits from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help fund the project, in addition to a $1.1 million city loan to help pay for infrastructure costs like underground utilities among others. A previous plan that would have demolished the four existing structures and replaced them with 53 units in two buildings was deemed very competitive for tax credits by ARHA staff earlier this year.

And while she said she thought this new proposal falls slightly short of the original plan, ARHA’s chief operating officer Connie Staudinger said she was confident of some tax relief.

“It’s not as competitive as the last application was, but we still think we’re within range,” she said. “Maybe with a few tweaks we’ll make it between now and then.”

Commissioners and community members alike praised the level of public engagement on the project, which had first come before city staff and boards in April 2015. After the formation of a joint work group including ARHA, city council and the planning commission, there was a greater sense of cooperation, attendees said.

“There have not always been agreements, but in general I would say the proposal that has been reached has been thoroughly vetted and has been received by a number of segments of the community,” said neighborhood resident Joe Valenti.

The project is set for a public hearing before city council on November 12. If approved, the Parker-Gray Board of Architectural Review then will refine the project’s architecture, with a view to granting a certificate of appropriateness to allow it to proceed.

ARHA development attorney Duncan Blair said that assuming ARHA is approved for tax credits and signs for them in November 2017, construction will move quickly. He said that under the terms of the tax credits, the units must be open and liv- able two years after work begins.