Council approves new Heritage project

Council approves new Heritage project
The Heritage at Old Town. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

By Olivia Anderson |

During Saturday’s public hearing, City Council approved a Certificate of Appropriateness for the construction of several buildings as part of the much buzzed about Heritage at Old Town project, reversing the Board of Architectural Review’s denial of the project.

The decision comes after the BAR’s decision on Oct. 20 to deny the certificate to applicant Heritage at Old Town PropCo, citing height and density issues that would overwhelm adjacent buildings and the neighborhood.

The sites in question include 900 Wolfe St., 450 South Patrick St., 431 South Columbus St. and 416 South Alfred St, all located in the city’s historic district.

At the Saturday meeting, BAR representative Christine Sennott said the BAR met six previous times to consider the projects, a smaller number than other similar projects.

Over a six-month period, the BAR found that the scale and mass of the new buildings is not compatible with the existing character of the neighborhood. Certain sections of the project, for example, had proposed heights in excess of five stories whereas most of the neighboring townhomes are two to three stories.

By the time of the Oct. 6 meeting, the applicant was not willing to make further modifications, according to Sennott.

“The height for the structures in Block 1 and Block 2 were too tall for the historic district and would overwhelm the adjacent buildings,” Sennott said. “There’s still more work to be done on the architectural design in order for it to conform to our design guidelines.”

Some residents, many of whom live within close proximity to the proposed development, echoed the BAR’s sentiments.

“I am seriously concerned by the applicant’s plans to construct three highly dense, massive and modern buildings,” resident Emmett Tyrell said. “They are out of character with the neighborhood.”

Other community members supported the project and questioned this analysis, encouraging council to overturn the BAR’s decision.

Shelley Murphy, a resident and affordable housing developer, argued that denying the certificate would undermine the provisions of the city’s new residential multifamily zoning policy. She argued the existing buildings have “no historical significance” and are no longer providing the standards of affordable housing that are now required by the city.

Murphy also emphasized the importance of easing the housing loss many lower-income residents have experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The need for additional high quality affordable housing has never been greater,” Murphy added. “This project has been through significant design changes to meet the architectural guidelines. … It protects and improves the quality of the housing of the people who live there now, and provides additional housing to meet the needs of a broad range of Alexandria city residents.”

Cathy Puskar, the attorney for Heritage at Old Town PropCo, countered that the developer, having gone through seven iterations, has made many compromises over the past year in an attempt to accommodate BAR’s “inconsistent feedback.”

“Do not take our unwillingness to defer as an unwillingness to work with the Board of Architectural Review,” Puskar said. “ … But where we found ourselves was in an impossible place where we were being told that there was no way four members of that board would approve this project unless we knocked two floors off or … go back to the drawing board and redesign the entire building. … Even if I had agreed to do that, the board members themselves … they were never going to all agree on the approach to these buildings.”

Puskar also said that both the development special use permit and BAR submissions anticipate the implementation of historic markers of some form. The developer has submitted a documentary study and will be working with archeology staff to “appropriately recognize” the history of the district.

The Heritage at Old Town was constructed in 1976 and lies within what was once a historically Black community known as the Bottoms or the Dip, established between 1790 and 1810.

Ultimately, council’s unanimous approval reversed the BAR’s decision, but included several conditions. For instance, the applicant must work with staff to determine the final location of all wall penetrations; revise the northernmost townhouse in Block 1; revise the design for the entrances on the South Alfred Street and Columbus Street sides of Block 2 and modify the three-sided bays on the west side of Block 2.

Council voted unanimously to approve the project, with Councilor Del Pepper making a motion and Councilor Amy Jackson seconding.