By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
Despite a galvanized effort by residents to fight the demolition of a 19th Century North Ridge home, its owner officially received approval from City Council on Saturday to proceed with subdividing the lot.
Although the Planning Commission initially approved a request for a subdivision on April 8, neighbors promptly appealed the decision, thus sending it to City Council for review.
In a 6-0 vote, with one abstention from Councilor Mo Seifeldein, council opted to uphold the Planning Commission’s decision to approve the request.
Located at 506 North Overlook Drive in Beverley Hills, the property is now subject to re-division of two existing lots which will likely involve owner and developer Brian Thomas of JS Investment tearing down the current house to build two new ones.
Many residents voiced opposition to demolition of the property, which is listed as a Documented Historic Site in the 1992 Alexandria Master Plan for Historic Preservation. The home was constructed in 1878 by Hampshire Fractious, a freed Black man.
Earlier this year, the North Ridge Citizens’ Association went so far as to sponsor a Change.org petition calling for deferment of the proposed subdivision until the Office of Historic Alexandria could complete an assessment of the home’s historic value.
“We would like to explore alternate approaches that would preserve this important structure as a symbol of North Ridge and as a key part of Alexandria’s history,” read the petition, which garnered 1,045 supporters. Another petition accumulated 104 signatures from 77 nearby households.
Still, the Planning Commission approved the subdivision contingent on city staff’s assessment of the property’s historical significance.
“We viewed the preservation of 100-year-old houses as a matter of public interest and welfare, which is the underlying generic standard for subdivision approval,” Planning Commissioner David Brown said.
According to Brown, at the time, the Planning Commission was not privy to the necessary information to evaluate the property’s historic value.
To compound this issue, the commission faced a deadline written into the statute stating that once a subdivision application has been filed, it’s deemed approved unless disproved within 45 days. Brown said this left the commission with a limited scope of options to preserve the issue for further consideration.
“Instead of deciding the case completely with regard to the issue of the historic nature of the property, we put [a] condition in and gave the North Ridge Citizens, [Association] … the opportunity to take the case to [council] on appeal. In effect, you could say we punted the issue to you,” Brown said, emphasizing that time constraints precluded the commission from debating the report’s significance.
During both public comment and council’s deliberation, the possibility of a 100-year-old building list designation study cropped up multiple times. Many residents argued, both in writing and orally, that the property requires “further research” before demolition should be allowed to proceed.
“Within a short amount of time a lot has been documented about the life of the person responsible for building this house and the history of the surrounding neighborhood, including an African American community nearby,” neighbors Jeanne Snapp and Charles Kent penned in a letter to council. “No doubt there is much more to be learned about the history of this part of our City.”
Snapp and Kent called for protection status of the North Ridge house through the 100-year-old building list, which includes criteria the city’s Department of Planning and Zoning has already stated the property does not meet.
Councilor John Chapman asked for clarification regarding staff’s decision to exclude 506 North Overlook from the 100-year-old building list, to which city planner Susan Hellman said the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards played a large role. One of the criterion, she noted, is if the property still looks much the way it did in the past.
“Whatever is original has been buried under additions, so it doesn’t retain its original integrity [and] staff determined that lack of integrity indicates it can’t be considered a 100-year-old building,” Hellman said.
Other members of council pointed out that even if they were to direct staff to conduct a further designation study, they would still be in a race with the developer, who has the right to file a demolition permit immediately since the property is privately owned.
“Let’s say staff came back to us and said all seven [100-year-old building] characteristics are met. … We would be in somewhat of the same spot because we’d still need to act on the subdivision,” Mayor Justin Wilson said. “Even if we wanted to initiate a 100-year building designation for this property, we would have to give that direction which would go back to the Planning Commission later and come back to us.”
Seifeldein asked Zachary Williams, the applicant’s attorney, if the applicant would be amenable to halting progress on demolition or tree removal until a designation study takes place.
“My understanding is the applicant is going to move forward regardless,” Williams said. “Our position is that the review has already happened … given that the city experts have spoken to that, we feel we’ve met our obligations, we’ve complied with the conditions and at this point, it should be approved.”
Council considered how to enhance the 100-year-old building list, wrestling with the notion of implementing a program to proactively find historic buildings that may not be subdivided in the future.
They agreed to more deeply discuss at a later date how such a program would work, what resources it would require and what a schedule might look like.
“There’s an argument to at least begin that process. … We might learn some larger things about how we go and expand the 100-year building list to protect other similarly situated properties around the city more proactively so that we’re not on a barrel here trying to deal with it,” Wilson said.
Councilor Canek Aguirre made a motion to approve the subdivision, which Chapman seconded. The motion passed 6-0, with Seifeldein abstaining.