Sunday, December 04, 2005

Hopkins House Redux

If, like the Growler, you love Hitchcock films, you’ll know that none of his works are complete without a MacGuffin, the famous plot device that provides the surface motivation for the players’ actions and emotions but would fall apart on closer examination.

The use of MacGuffins have not just been limited to great filmmakers like Hitchcock. They have featured prominently in several recent Parker-Gray controversies, and have been employed to deflect attention from the true underlying motivations.

And if you read the Growler, you know that the motivations are usually money and power. Or both.

In the Hopkins House brouhaha of 2000-2001, the MacGuffin of racism was used to split the neighborhood, drowning out more reasoned arguments about zoning , land use and density.

With the Queen Street condo conversion, the MacGuffin was “cleaning up” the neighborhood or “restoring” a building that was exaggeratedly portrayed as ready to tumble down. These mantras were dinned into City officials’ ears to avoid any closer look at the project’s impact on parking, building height, density, the real condition of the building, and the project’s questionable approach to historic preservation.

The Growler thinks the great Hopkins House flap deserves a closer look, not just because it’s the event that cratered the neighborhood, but because it gave certain financially interested parties the opening to take over and ultimately compromise the once influential Inner City Civic Association (ICCA).

It’s important to note that, if only to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest, the ICCA met for many years at the Durant Center or the Queen Street library. But for the past few years the group has chosen to hold its meetings at Hopkins House.

That’s no coincidence. The fortunes of Hopkins House are now directly linked to those of the ICCA and the developers and zoning attorneys who are swarming over the neighborhood.

Now for a little history …

Playing the Race Card (1999)

A series of events in 1999 needs to be recounted before we can get to the zoning battle.

Hopkins House President J. Glenn Hopkins in early 1999 publicly charged the City with racial bias and favoritism in distributing Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds. Contemporary press reports indicate City leaders were startled at the charges, which appeared to be directed at the Campagna Center on S. Washington Street, the incumbent contractor on the City’s federal Head Start contract. In the wake of these allegations, then Vice Mayor William D. Euille and then-City Councilman David Speck resigned from the board of Hopkins House. Mr. Euille was even quoted in the press as saying he found the allegations "distasteful."

But three months after going public with his accusations, Mr. Hopkins scored a non-competitive $100,000 grant from the City’s unbudgeted CDBG monies, to be used for the expansion and renovation of Hopkins House. The grant carried a proviso that the organization was to regain accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) within one year. The City later ponied up another $129,500 for more improvements and to pick up cost overruns when the project went 30% over budget.

The $100,000 grant to Hopkins House stirred up more controversy. It was revealed that a small group of high-ranking City officials met privately to decide which charities would receive a slice of more than $1.3 million in CDBG money. The grants made to Hopkins House and several other non-profits were made without any publicity and in the absence of a formal, competitive application process. Richard Leibach, chairman of the Alexandria United Way and also a Planning Commissioner, wrote to then-Mayor Kerry Donley and City Council to express his concern about this undemocratic process.

Nevertheless, with these funds in hand and with encouragement from City officials who were concerned about the shortage of affordable day care in Alexandria, Hopkins House launched its expansion campaign.

The First Rezoning Request (2000)

For most of the last century, the neighborhood surrounding Hopkins House has been zoned RB, meaning only single family, duplex or townhome dwellings can be built on the lots.

At some date between the 1960s and 1980s – and oddly enough no-one could pinpoint the exact years – the Hopkins House site at 1224 Princess had been briefly zoned C-3 (commercial), which is how the new facility came to be built in 1973. But by 1986 the land was once again rezoned RB and the 1992 Braddock Road Metro Small Area Plan proposed continuing to keep the site designated as RB.

So by 1999 Hopkins House had been an anomaly for some 13 years, a commercial operation surrounded by residences. The City refers to a structure that is not compatible with its current zoning designation as “non-complying" and non-complying structures may not be expanded.

In March 2000, Hopkins House filed an application with the Planning Department to rezone 1224 Princess from RB to RC (Residential High Density). This was done because proposed expansion at Hopkins House would exceed the floor area ratio (FAR) or density that was allowed under RB zoning.

Hopkins House also sought an SUP to permit the organization to serve as many as 49 children and to accommodate community activities at its freestanding townhouse next door at 1218 Princess. Hopkins House was represented before Planning Commission and City Council by zoning attorney and longtime trustee Harry F. “Bud” Hart .

Before the first hearing, a majority of the neighbors had sorted out the implications of the rezoning and started to lobby against it. Among other things, the effort to rezone a single site looked suspiciously like “spot zoning,” a bad practice in urban planning.

Spot zoning occurs when a small area of land or a lot in an existing neighborhood is singled out and placed in a different zone from that of surrounding property. It’s sometimes permitted in a residential area for a park or school that serves a purpose for the neighborhood. But in some areas of the country the courts have found spot zoning illegal on the grounds when it is incompatible with the existing land use and zoning or with an overall zoning scheme for the community.

Residents of Princess Street who lived closest to Hopkins House had many other legitimate concerns. They pointed out that a higher enrollment meant more traffic and would likely exacerbate parking problems, since the building had no on-site parking spaces. Those in immediate proximity also feared the expansion would lead to a sharp increase in noise from the play area.

Some homeowners also noticed that the children at Hopkins House were no longer neighborhood kids but rather were being dropped off by parents with Maryland license plates. Apparently Hopkins House no longer served a neighborhood need but had evolved into a destination day care center for people who were employed in Old Town or passed through the area to other work sites.

Then there were the issues with the quality of programs and care at Hopkins House. Why should the City grant funds and allow rezoning for an organization that had lost its accreditation with NAEYC in 1998, and had been cited several times by the City for health violations?

Most importantly, it came out that Hopkins House was already in clear violation of an earlier 1988 special use permit (SUP) that limited the number of children served to 25. In essence, Hopkins House had violated its earlier covenant with the community but was asking the City to overlook this and to expand even further.

So the stage was set for the ensuing drama that burned out many of the original neighborhood activists and melted down the bridges of racial cooperation that had helped fight crime and improved quality of life in Parker-Gray.

The Growler’s getting mad just thinking about it again …. Grrrrrrr!

So stick around for Part II.