By Mae Hunt | [email protected]
The proposal to consolidate the city’s two boards of architectural review triggered fireworks between then Democratic primary contenders Mayor Allison Silberberg and Vice Mayor Justin Wilson when it was first proposed in April.
Four months later, opinions surrounding the proposal to consolidate the Old & Historic and Parker-Gray BARs had cooled when the proposal faced its first community meeting on Monday evening.
The meeting, hosted by city staffers Catherine Miliaris and Stephanie Sample, included a presentation about the reasons for merging the two BARs and what the merger would look like. The floor was then opened to attendees, who were able to ask questions.
Councilor Paul Smedberg, who along with Wilson proposed the consolidation, was in attendance at the event. He responded to concerns raised at the meeting about the Parker-Gray’s regulations affecting Old & Historic’s standards.
Smedberg said Old & Historic’s designation as a Certified Local Government by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources would act as insurance against the possibility of changing or weakening policies.
“There’s no intention to lessen the Old Town historic standards,” Smedberg said. “There are standards in place [for Old & Historic] that are higher than Parker-Gray’s will ever be.”
The Old & Historic and Parker-Gray BARs have operated separately for decades, reviewing cases and enforcing different architectural regulations on residents. Alexandria is the only city in the commonwealth to have two BARs – that’s not, however, without reason.
The Alexandria Old & Historic District Board of Architectural Review, or OHAD, was established with the goal of preserving the historical charm of Old Town’s oldest neighborhood.
Members of OHAD, which has always included architects and historical preservation experts, are tasked with developing and imposing regulations on buildings that fall within the area’s borders. The OHAD BAR is able to make decisions on things like which paint colors residents living in the district can use to paint their homes, and which type of glass businesses can use for their windows.
The origins of the Parker-Gray BAR are rooted in the history of Alexandria’s African American community.
The district itself dates back to the Civil War when a group of former slaves took up residence in the northern area of Old Town, then known as Uptown. As the state later imposed segregation laws on African-American-owned businesses and homes, as well as predominantly African-American schools, Uptown became the center of the black community in Old Town.
By the arrival of the mid20th century, the neighborhood, renamed Parker-Gray after two notable black educators during the segregation era, had developed a rich cultural and architectural heritage all its own.
Parker-Gray was officially designated a historic district in 1984. This caused concern among certain residents of the area, who believed that the neighborhood’s new designation could negatively affect lower-income community members. As a result, the city of Alexandria’s second BAR was established in 1986 in order to ensure that Parker-Gray’s own unique history, as well as its cultural significance as a historically African-American area, was preserved.
The need to maintain separate institutions has lessened, however, according to Wilson, Smedberg and members of city staff.
Wilson and Smedberg proposed the consolidation after being approached by members of the Parker-Gray BAR. When Wilson proposed the action, he cited the short dockets before members of Parker-Gray, which had, at times, caused them to cancel monthly meetings due to the lack of items to discuss.
“Initially, I met with members of [Parker-Gray], members of the Old & Historic board, our staff, folks in the community and determined it’s something we should look into,” Wilson said.
The primary benefit to consolidation, according to Miliaris’ presentation, is efficiency. Having one BAR instead of two would reduce the number of hearings by one-third, she said, and would result in using city resources and volunteer members’ time more productively while also streamlining the interactions between community members and BAR members.
Parker-Gray BAR members are particularly in favor of this change to increase efficiency. Chair Purvi Irwin said BAR meetings are often cancelled and rarely attended by members of the public. Irwin said the number of cases that come to Parker-Gray for consideration are small, and have decreased over the years.
“In Parker-Gray, there’s a lot more you can do without going to the board,” Sample said.
Miliaris emphasized during the meeting that the two districts would maintain separate borders, as well as the distinct policies and guidelines that govern the architectural restrictions of each district. Miliaris and Sample said creating one unified BAR would not mean imposing OHAD regulations on Parker-Gray, and vice-versa.
However, many community members are still concerned about the long-term effects the consolidation could have on both districts.
Parker-Gray’s changing culture and demographics have contributed to concerns, voiced most prominently by Mayor Allison Silberberg, that the consolidation would further isolate older members of the African American community from the historical district they helped build.
Silberberg has been one of the chief opponents of the proposal from the beginning and repeatedly clashed with Wilson about it throughout the primary season. The argument came to a head when at the last debate before the June 12 Primary, Silberberg called his proposal insensitive to members of the African American community who had instituted the Parker-Gray district.
Silberberg said that the concerns she voiced during the debate still stand, months later.
“I would have started with the community. I would have suggested that my colleagues begin not just with the Parker-Gray BAR, which is fine, but also reach out to those who had been deeply involved with the creation of the Parker-Gray BAR for their insights and input,” Silberberg said.
Silberberg said she believed that the goal to keep the two districts’ separate regulations intact was unrealistic.
“That might be the intent, that might be written down, but in years to come, some of the Parker-Gray BAR standards have been softened over the years,” Silberberg said.
Neither the Parker-Gray BAR, nor the OHAD BAR, completely reflect the community in their demographics. Due to the need for architects and historical preservation experts to serve on the boards, members of surrounding communities, who may not necessarily live in the OHAD or Parker-Gray, have volunteered as BAR members.
While the seven members of OHAD and the seven members of Parker-Gray are all city residents, only three of OHAD’s members live in the district and only two of Parker-Gray’s members live there.
Irwin said during the meeting that there is a lack of competition for election to the Parker-Gray BAR, and that she had previously run for her position unopposed. Irwin said that she hopes a possible consolidation will mean “more people will hear about Parker-Gray.”
Lillian Patterson, a longtime Alexandria resident and former curator at the Alexandria Black History Museum, said she still has concerns about the possible consolidation. However, she also said that changes to the culture of Parker-Gray started long before the issue of merging the boards was proposed.
“At this point I’m trying to decide whether I even think this is a big issue. As a matter of fact, I don’t even know that many African Americans that live in the Parker-Gray District anymore. So these people have
moved into the Parker-Gray District and they want to change something, … that’s going to be what they’re going to do anyway,” Patterson said.
City staff plans to continue with community outreach on the topic of consolidation over the summer and fall. A second public meeting is set for Sept. 17.
Alexa Epitropoulos contributed to this article.