By Katherine Hapgood | [email protected]
The Board of Architectural Review deferred a decision on the Certificate of Appropriateness for construction of the controversial redevelopment at the Heritage at Old Town apartments during a meeting on July 29.
The development, which would take place at 431 S. Columbus St., 416 S. Alfred St., 900 Wolfe St. and 450 S. Patrick St, will involve tearing down the Heritage’s previous 244-unit apartment complex and replacing it with a 750-unit complex with buildings of varying heights that reach seven stories at their tallest point. The new development will include 195 units of committed affordable housing.
BAR initially approved the developer’s request to demolish the existing buildings in September 2020, a decision which was appealed by residents in Old Town and near the property. City Council then upheld the approval for demolition in October 2020.
However, the BAR approval process was not entirely smooth sailing for developer Heritage at Old Town PropCo. The applicant presented four concept reviews before BAR in July 2020, September 2020, October 2020 and December 2020. Staff from Old and Historic Alexandria also “attended several working sessions to review the proposed design and provide feedback,” according to the Old and Historic Alexandria staff report from July 29, 2021.
Previously in the concept review process, BAR members rejected the applicant’s renderings of the development and criticized the architect’s plans. During the July 15, 2020 concept review, BAR members specifically directed the developer and architect to alter the development’s design so that it was more in line with the neighborhood’s height, scale and architectural character.
When the developer and architect brought revised plans to the board on Sept. 2, 2020, board members said little had changed.
During the most recent BAR meeting, board member Lynn Neihardt again argued that few substantial changes have been made over the past year.
“I have seen rendition after rendition where it is difficult to truly see the difference between the prior and the current and have had to flip back and forth from page to page,” Neihardt said.
Other board members expressed concerns that their prior critiques regarding the size of the proposed seven story project had not been addressed. Most buildings in the area of the proposed project are four stories tall, with the largest being six stories tall.
“We’ve had five or six meetings about this project, and I’m empathetic for the community that the project is far larger than code,” board member Robert Adams said. “It’s overreaching; it’s not in context with the size and scale of the environment.”
Although residents of the Heritage and other residents of the city supported the increase in affordable housing that the project would provide, many other residents have consistently expressed concern about the size and scale of the proposed project. Prior to the July 29 meeting, 14 residents sent letters and emails to the board expressing their opinions that the board deny the project, with the main reasons cited as size and scale, and the monolithic design.
“The changes made after all this commentary, not significant. … This project is a massive overreach going beyond anything now built in the Route 1 North canyon,” resident Yvonne Callahan, vice president of the Old Town Civic Association, said during the meeting.
According to Christine Roberts, chair of BAR, the board’s practice is to give first time Certificate of Appropriateness applicants that the board would otherwise deny, the opportunity to come back before BAR with something that better reflects the board’s feedback.
“We would be going beyond our precedent if we go ahead and deny this without giving leave for a referral. We are generally very giving to the applicants who come before us for Certificate of Appropriateness, and we give them a chance to come back,” Roberts said.
Members were concerned with potential repercussions if BAR denied the certificate. After denial, the applicant could go before City Council with three potential outcomes: Council denies the application, council approves the application or council sends the application back to the board.
“I’m also concerned that the City Council is able to override the BAR,” Adams said.
Typically, City Council sends denied applications back to the board under these circumstances, but that is not required.
“I want it to be that [the board] are part of this discussion. And I firmly believe that if we deny it right now, we have thrown ourselves out of this discussion for the rest of the project, and I do not agree with that at all,” Purvi Irwin, a board member on BAR, said.
Several board members expressed that they had little faith in the project’s ability to meet their needs.
“I cannot support this application and I cannot support a deferral. I don’t think we’re going to get a change again,” Neihardt said.
“Given that we’ve been here seven times now and we have not seen any change, I vote to not accept the deferral,” board member John Sprinkle said. “Madam Chair, I’ve asked these questions, exactly the same questions, from concept review number one. We have not heard a single response any way in terms of the precedent and the exact design applications that have come forward.
We’ve basically seen tweaks of the initial proposal. … I don’t see why we should go forward.” The Board voted 5-2 to defer the request for new construction, with Sprinkle and Neihardt voting in opposition to the deferral. BAR will now reconsider the application for new construction in September, after a restudy.