Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Valley of the Dolls

The Growler has always been intrigued by matrioshka, the Russian wooden dolls. On the outside a matrioshka doll looks just like any other vividly painted folk object. But as you open it you reveal successively smaller dolls hidden inside until finally the last tiny, painted nub of wood is exposed.

Those dolls have been on the Growler's mind because they're not too different from the venerable Inner City Civic Association (ICCA). It's necessary to pull apart the larger doll to get at the increasingly smaller dolls hidden inside. And in this case there's a small nasty surprise waiting.

From the outside, this organization appears virtually moribund. Most new residents don't even know there is a civic association. That’s because ICCA has failed to distribute fliers to members or prospective members for several years now, and has stated so in E-mails to the Mayor and City Council earlier this year.

ICCA continues to meet regularly at Hopkins House. But of the 1,000 or so households within its boundaries, ICCA has enrolled only a few dozen members. Frequently only five or six members turn up at meetings and attendees are usually outnumbered by developers, police, and code enforcement staff. That means ICCA communicates with less than 1% of the neighborhood.

The ICCA's Web site, which was simple but informative, has disappeared and the association’s domain registration has lapsed. Too expensive and not enough hits, ICCA officers claim.

One rainy night even Hopkins House forgot about the ICCA. The building was locked tight when the handful of members arrived, so they held a brief, outdoor meeting huddled under the porch.

Crime had been trending downward under strong ICCA leadership in the 1990s, but has been spiraling up again in the last four years -- something that even caught the attention of the Alexandria Gazette late this summer. Residents have started to murmur about the riff-raff congregating at Queen and Fayette. The Growler has even seen crack dealers once again emerging to openly sell their wares on door stoops and on the path behind Colecroft.

The neighborhood's Jefferson-Houston School has been plagued with declining test scores and revolving door principals since the departure of the gifted Lois Berlin and the September 2000 school redistricting.

Yet ICCA has done nothing effective about either crime or education.

ICCA President Amy Harris-White's response to crime has been to obsess with the Alexandria Redevelopment & Housing Authority (ARHA) since a murder that took place at the Andrew Adkins housing project last fall, practically in her back yard. Besides focusing on the wrong pressure point -- ARHA is an independent entity not directly under the control of the City -- Ms. Harris-White has done nothing about crime elsewhere in the neighborhood and in fact community policing has withered during her tenure.

And as a teacher, why should Ms. Harris-White not be concerned about the local elementary school, particularly if the idea is to retain new homeowners with young children? The last meeting about Jefferson-Houston, which drew Mayor William D. Euille, Vice Mayor Del Pepper, Councilman Rob Krupicka (whose wife has been president of the PTA), and Superintendent Rebecca Perry had been advertised as a joint meeting sponsored by the Upper King Street and Inner City Civic Associations. Not one representative from ICCA bothered to show up. In fact, the meeting wasn't even announced at the ICCA gathering the previous week.

ICCA has all the earmarks of an organization in decline. A down-at-the-heels matrioshka with the paint worn off.

But strangely enough there is one topic that galvanizes the ICCA's leadership: development. The officers who are unable or unwilling to recruit and inform members, who are unable to combat crime, and who blow off important school meetings will gallop down to City Hall in a heartbeat to speak up for the Monarch, the Prescott, or local developer William Cromley.

In fact, ICCA officers' blind enthusiasm for anything any developer does has actually hurt the neighborhood. When developers come knocking, a community has only one opportunity to negotiate for the type of development and the benefits that it wants to extract in exchange for City approvals. But the ICCA's roll-on-its-back routine means that developers get whatever they want.

However, ICCA's lassitude may just be on the surface. Perhaps the current leaders are just squabbling children trying to dress up and play Mom and Dad. Maybe underneath them are a couple of dolls, another set of figures who form the real kernel of the organization. Maybe it serves their interest to push development at the expense of other quality of life issues. Maybe it fills their pockets better if ICCA doesn't reach out and inform the community.

So it's time to start pulling apart the dolls.

Under the exterior matrioshka, you'll find zoning attorney"Bud" Hart.

ICCA's officers are on the record as mindless boosters for big developments, like the Monarch (one of Bud's showpieces) and the Prescott, even though many residents had concerns about their height and mass and the impact on parking and traffic in the neighborhood. It is telling that it was a group of independent citizens, not the ICCA, who organized to press CarrHomes to make significant concessions on the Prescott.

Was it deliberate that Ms. Harris-White and her colleagues recently "forgot" to E-mail ICCA members with a notice about the October meeting? Bud had three new development projects on the agenda, including one at Braddock Place slated for Planning Commission review this fall. Is there something about these projects that can't bear the light of day, even among the depleted ranks of ICCA's members?

Since Bud is chairman of the board at Hopkins House, the next doll to examine is J. Glenn Hopkins himself.

If Hopkins House's core constituency are black families with small children who are being pushed out of Parker-Gray and into public housing and shelters by gentrification and rising property taxes, why is Hopkins cashing checks from developers and realtors while buying land miles away in Fairfax County for a new facility the financially challenged organization can ill-afford? Was the 2000 rezoning really about serving more children or a cynical preparation for a future exodus?

Pull Glenn apart and you will find Realtor Martine Irmer along with her business partner Mr. Cromley. It was Mrs. Irmer, a Hopkins House "Lifetime Community Stakeholder" and volunteer, who stage-managed the coup that drove away the previous, respected leaders of ICCA during the Hopkins House rezoning flap, using racism as the ugly fulcrum. Mrs. Irmer sells and resells Mr. Cromley's houses. He, in turn, has routinely used ICCA as a vehicle to back his projects, including the controversial condo project at 1210 Queen Street which had the written endorsement of J. Glenn Hopkins.

So what is underneath the smiling doll on the surface?

Financial self-interest. Personal promotion. Empire building.

This is not a civic association, it is a special interest group masquerading as a civic association. That's why everything that speaks to the larger needs of the neighborhood is pushed aside. It's all about the money. Anything else is superfluous and a waste of time. It requires long-term energy, when making big bucks immediately is the real objective.

Worst of all, city officials like Planning Director Eileen Fogarty are using this hollow reed of an organization to advance and justify their own agendas.

A case in point is the Braddock Road Metro Small Area Plan. Why did Ms. Fogarty attempt to arrange a private meeting with ICCA's Executive Board in August, two months after the public workshops? Why would Ms. Fogarty cancel the September public meetings on the Plan which had been scheduled months in advance, and instead send Kimberley Fogle to brief a sparsely attended ICCA meeting in October?

So is the neighborhood getting a double screwing -- one from the ICCA and a second from City staff? And how did this come to pass?

The Growler will be following this posting with a series of postings about who is attempting to control the Parker-Gray District -- where they come from, their past, their financial dealings, and their legal wranglings. It should be juicy...

Let the Growler tantalize you, dear reader, about the next episode by asking this rhetorical question:

Is Parker-Gray the boulevard of broken dreams? Is it a place where failures come to reinvent themselves and exploit what was once Alexandria's most neglected neighborhood?

Stay tuned.

For now, the Growler bids you good night and good luck.