Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Last of the Laundry ...

This summer City officials blessed developer William Cromley’s plans to renovate the historic Alexandria Laundry at 1210 Queen Street, despite neighbors’ concerns about parking, density and historic preservation.

But the questions still linger. Here are just a few to think about:

A Woodson Factor?

At the June 21 Council hearing on the Queen Street special use permit (SUP), it was Joyce Woodson who after a few questions swiftly moved that the Council support the Planning Commission recommendation to grant the SUP for the parking reduction. To some observers, the discussion and its closure seemed a little too pat.

Well, it has now emerged that Mrs. Woodson had her own interest in Mr. Cromley’s well-being. He employs her son Samuel H. “Max” Woodson IV in his construction business – a fact that she did not disclose to the public at the hearing.

And City officials have been mum to inquiries about it ever since.

In late July 2005, Max Woodson pleaded guilty to a charge of unlawful wounding (plea bargained down from malicious wounding) for kicking another youth in the head during a melee in the spring of 2004.

Young Mr. Woodson claimed that he could not pay his fine so he submitted a form requesting a payment plan. In that document, the spelling-challenged youth listed Mr. Cromley as his employer.

One indignant neighbor E-mailed City Manager James Hartmann and City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa in the wee hours of the morning after the June 21 hearing to ask why Mrs. Woodson did not disclose the link and recuse herself from the discussion. There was follow-up by letter too, but so far there’s been no response. None at all.

As one of the Growler’s friends likes to put it, “Crickets.”

You know ... crickets! The sounds of silence.

Does Mrs. Woodson’s failure to disclose the relationship violate the Virginia Conflict of Interest Act? If the actions don’t violate the Conflict of Interest Act, why not promptly say so?

Why the crickets?

Another Model Employee?

Mr. Cromley’s supporters – most of whom are from the other side of Route 1 and rarely set foot in the neighborhood around 1210 Queen Street – ardently promoted the project because they claimed the conversion would help stamp out crime.

Were they being cynical or just stupid?

Because Mr. Cromley has employed a well-known neighborhood crackhead, who lives with his mother in the 1300 block of Queen – and this is documented in public court records.

The 50-year old Mr. Crack can be regularly seen in the Bernard Hunter/Helen Miller Park or loping around the 1200 and 1300 blocks of Queen. He also does odd jobs for those trusting or naïve enough to employ a former felon. (Not the Growler however, who has never had any problem with him all these years but thinks prudence is an underrated virtue.)

Mr. Crack has an extensive record dating back to 1973, most seriously a 10-year concurrent prison sentence for his 1990 conviction on one count of distribution of a controlled substance (cocaine) and one count of distribution of cocaine in a drug free zone (within 1,000 feet of Jefferson-Houston Elementary School). At the time he listed himself as unemployed. The incident for which he was convicted took place at the corner of Queen and Fayette.

Not one to learn a lesson, Mr. Crack was convicted again in 2000 for possession of cocaine. Unable to pay his $916 fine, he filled out a request for a payment schedule. This time he was employed -- and stated he worked for Mr. Cromley. Fortunately, Mr. Cromley reports his employees’ income and withholds taxes, so the Commonwealth was able to garnish Mr. Crack’s Federal tax refund as partial payment toward the fine.

The Fast Track?

How is it that the condo conversion project at 1210 Queen Street went so quickly when other projects gather cobwebs in the dusty halls of the Planning Department?

It took a mere six months from the purchase of the old Alexandria Laundry in December 2004 to City Council ratification of the SUP on June 21, 2005. (The final BAR decision on design details was a foregone conclusion.)

Now when the neighborhood’s appeal of the BAR decision on 1210 Queen Street was filed before noon on June 6, seasoned City observers expected the filing to “stop the clock” on Mr. Cromley’s project and remove it from the Planning Commission’s June 7 docket. But no such thing happened.

After punting the issue back and forth from the Mayor’s Office to the City Attorney and finally to Planning, City officials concluded that any postponement was at the discretion of Planning Commission Chairman Eric Wagner. And some time on the evening of June 6 or the morning of June 7, Mr. Wagner decided to proceed with the hearing.

Had Mr. Wagner not done so, Planning Commission would not have heard the request for the Special Use Permit (SUP) until its July 5 hearing. The SUP requires ratification by City Council, but the Council’s last public hearing for the fiscal year calendar was held on June 21. Had the Planning Commission hearing been postponed until July, the first opportunity for City Council ratification would have been September.

Why the rush?

Well, the Growler may not know why there was such tender concern for Mr. Cromley – after all, he does employ Duncan Blair, the Karl Rove of local zoning attorneys -- but a clue why he was so frenzied to get approval may lie in a document that turned up in Alexandria land records.

According to these public documents, Cromley paid former owners William Gifford and Yvonne Weight $880,000 for the landmark building in December 2004. (The Growler believes Mr. Gifford is a New York tax lawyer and partner in the firm of Davis Polk Wardwell. Ms. Weight is a local attorney and a member of the Old Town Civic Association.) The same records reveal that Cromley obtained $600,000 in financing from the Business Bank in Tysons Corner, payable in 2009 – well after the building is converted and the condos sold.

But court records also reveal Ms. Weight took back a $150,000 note requiring payment in full -- by June 30, 2005. (Presumably the rest of the money for the purchase – some $130,000 -- came from Cromley’s own pocket.)

Was the push on to get this project approved to meet this deadline for some reason – or was it pure coincidence? Was Mr. Wagner pressed by Mr. Blair to keep Mr. Cromley’s project on the fast track? Does this illustrate Col. Daniel Koslov’s contention that Mr. Cromley took up the Rust Bros.’ abortive condo proposal because he knew he could push it through in the face of community concern – and even predict the time frame for approval?

City Surrogates?

Why did city employee Katrina Newtson “present” Cromley’s project at the Inner City Civic Association meeting in April? And why was she first up at the podium to “explain” his project at the Board of Architectural Review hearing on May 25?

Developers who come hat in hand to civic association meetings for consideration typically present their own projects. Mr. Cromley had no problems speaking at the ICCA meeting about his project – although it ultimately proved a mistake, since it became part of the conflict of interest charge against him that ultimately cost him his chairmanship of the BAR. At the very least, his attorney Mr. Blair could have spoken for him or even his architect Stephen Dupont.

And Planning Department employees don’t normally present BAR applicants’ cases either. Any explanation about the intricacies of a case are usually made in in the course of public dialogue between members of the BAR and the staff liaison (in this case Beth Hannold) as the project is being discussed at the hearing.

It certainly looks the City was pushing Mr. Cromley’s project and having it showcased by a City staffer would give the aura of City backing and approval. But how many other developers get this favor?

Tit for Tat?

The evidence that the City’s historic preservation staff came up with to justify the third story addition on 1210 Queen Street deserves another look.

When Mr. Cromley originally filed his proposal, he provided a list of several historic buildings he claimed had third story additions. But it turned out these buildings were either (1) not in the Parker-Gray district, (2) not in any historic district, (3) not historic buildings, and (4) not even third-story additions. One of them, the Green Steam Furniture Building on S. Fairfax Street had a fourth-story addition dating from the 1930s removed in the 1960s.

But it appears that preservation staff knew early on these examples were flawed, because in the BAR report they ignored Mr. Cromley’s painstakingly photographed examples – which would logically have been incorporated in the report if they were germane.

Instead, staff came up with two examples of their own – 512 N. Alfred Street and 321 N. Fayette Street.

Well, the Growler thinks a third-story addition to a private single family home is a much different proposition than a third-story plunked onto a landmark commercial building. But as the infomercials say, “Wait, there’s more!”

Or Al Jolson -- “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”

The owners of 512 N. Alfred Street are Martine and Robert Irmer, whose plans were approved in late 2003 when Mr. Cromley still chaired the Parker-Gray Board of Architectural Review. Mrs. Irmer is a well-known real estate agent who has sold all of Mr. Cromley’s new developments. She did not speak at Planning Commission but glared balefully at everyone who expressed concerns, including the Growler – who was amused to think she bore more than a passing resemblance to Mme. Defarge sans knitting needles.

Mr. Irmer is an officer of the Inner City Civic Association and also a developer and speculator in Parker-Gray and Del Ray. He was among the group of four ICCA officials who banded together at the June 7 Planning Commission hearing to proclaim that the ICCA fully supported Mr. Cromley.

(That also provided an unintentionally funny moment, with Mr. Cromley frantically trying to grab the ICCA members’ arms as they rose and stage-whispering that he wanted them to go up individually to speak on his behalf. All of this took place a few rows in front of, and in full view of, the Planning Commission. It couldn’t be missed.)

The third-story addition 421 N. Fayette was requested by Nensi Fiorenini, who was also an ardent public supporter of Mr. Cromley throughout his ordeal, both speaking for him and writing letters to the Planning Commission. Ms. Fiorenini’s request for 421 N. Fayette was first heard by the BAR in March 2005, then deferred for restudy. It was approved at the April 27, 2005 BAR hearing. Interestingly, public land records show the purchase date for the property as the very next day, April 28.

The BAR hearing on 421 N. Fayette was the last one Mr. Cromley presided over before resigning as chairman of the BAR in May.

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So there you have it ... the last load of dirty linen at the old Alexandria Laundry.

Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr ……