Sunday, January 01, 2006

Hopkins House Part II -- The Reckoning

The Growler has been distracted lately by the holidays. But today, the Cranky One has made a New Year’s Resolution: to finish all unfinished business.

It’s time to wind up the complicated saga of Hopkins House.

Founded in 1939, Hopkins House was for many years more than a traditional settlement house. It was an emotional symbol for many of Parker-Gray’s oldest black men and women, who vividly remember the Jim Crow era. They cherish Hopkins House for providing family services denied elsewhere in the City.

As explained in Part I, after desegregation Hopkins House enjoyed the financial and political support of City heavy-hitters, including future Mayor William D. Euille, one-time Councilman David Speck and an assortment of Planning Commissioners.

But by the end of the 20th century, the neighborhood’s ties to Hopkins House had changed.

Parker-Gray’s black population, which comprised 90% of the neighborhood in 1980, had dropped to only 45% by 2000. Many long-time residents had died and their children were selling the family homes to settle estates. Gentrification was on the rise and the new families in the neighborhood turned to other providers for child care. The neighborhood’s emotional attachment to Hopkins House appeared to be dwindling to an elderly few.

With these changes afoot, early 2000 would have seemed like an inauspicious time to campaign for the expansion of a non-complying property supposedly serving a neighborhood low-income population in a residential area where house prices were approaching half a million dollars.

Nevertheless, Hopkin House’s ambitious President J. Glenn Hopkins forged ahead. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 had forced many poor families off the dole and into the workforce. The City of Alexandria was openly concerned about the lack of affordable local day care for those transitioning from welfare to work and held out the promise of Community Development Block Grant money for an expansion. Mr. Hopkins, never one to miss an opportunity, could hardly resist.

[Growler’s note: The press has noted that Hopkins House was named in honor of Dr. Marcus Hopkins, a physician who tended the poor in Parker-Gray for many years. The current director, J. Glenn Hopkins, is no relation to Dr. Hopkins. But for newer residents who have been puzzled how Hopkins House hired a New Yorker in the early 1990s with the same surname, some legal documents from the Alexandria Circuit Court may be of interest.]

In Part I of this series, the Growler described how in early 2000 Executive Director Hopkins and zoning attorney Harry F. “Bud” Hart requested a variety of zoning changes to permit physical expansion and, in turn, greater building density at Hopkins House’s 1224 Princess Street site.

The neighborhood quickly mobilized and though the rezoning was ultimately approved in March 2000, it was only after intense negotiation with the Inner City Civic Association and concessions from Hopkins House. In those days, ICCA was active and enjoyed extensive neighborhood participation under the leadership of President Mark Webster, who lived close to Hopkins House.

Mr. Hopkins, as is often his style, tried to play the race card by claiming in a letter to supporters that the ICCA’s comments to Planning Commission were “racially insensitive.” Mr. Hopkins took particular offense with a phrase urging Hopkins House to “relocate to a suitable facility in an appropriate area.”

To the Growler, Mr. Hopkins' outrage is fascinating. In October 2001, Hopkins House issued a press release lamenting a fall-off in donations after 9/11. The decline likely meant “abandoning its three year old capital campaign to raise $1.2-million to construct a child and family learning center along the route one corridor in Fairfax County.”

Had Mr. Hopkins been caught? It looked like he had long been planning to open “a suitable facility in an appropriate area” but not one in Alexandria. If so, why was he upset that someone else had suggested it?

Planning Commission and the City Council approved the zoning changes but subject to conditions contained in a “proffer,” a voluntary agreement between a jurisdiction and a rezoning applicant. The proffer in this case stated that the land use and zoning would revert to its original lower-density residential status should Hopkins House sell and leave. There would be no opportunity to cash in by selling to a developer who could exploit the higher density rezoning or operate another non-conforming business.

As a condition of the rezoning, the City demanded that Hopkins House be reaccredited by the National Association of the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Accreditation is an important indicator of quality and one which the organization had lost in 1998. In the nick of time, Mr. Hopkins was able to announce this reaccreditation to Council before the critical vote on March 18, 2000.

And at a March 2000 meeting brokered by then-Vice Mayor Euille, Mr. Hopkins assured ICCA representatives that he would not seek future expansion of enrollment beyond 49 children.

Although a compromise had been forged, neighborhood relations remained so tense that a Neighborhood Advisory Committee (NAC) was established to promote better communication between Hopkins House and the community. Developer William Cromley was among the NAC members nominated by Hopkins House and even occasionally chaired the meetings.

Now the average onlooker might wonder how Mr. Cromley inveigled himself into the center of this controversy. Mr. Cromley was a recent arrival, a real estate speculator from Hollin Hills who had built a couple of infill houses in the neighborhood. Mr. Cromley’s name does not appear on the donor list for Hopkins House and he does not live nearby but some way across Route 1. Nor is the Growler aware that his children have ever been enrolled at the preschool. His background hardly suggests the possession of the Solomonic wisdom needed to bring peace to a conflicted neighborhood.

But significantly, it was about this time that Mr. Cromley forged a business relationship with Realtor and Hopkins House volunteer Martine Irmer. By around 1999, Mrs. Irmer started exclusively listing and selling Mr. Cromley’s new and resale properties.

Mrs. Irmer is a controversial Parker-Gray figure, as an anonymous 2003 letter to Planning Commission indicates. Mrs. Irmer and her husband Robert moved from the Ridge Road neighborhood in Arlington to Parker-Gray after the failure of their Fairfax antiques business and a personal bankruptcy in 1991-92. The Irmers supported themselves with odd jobs, according to a 1998 Alexandria Circuit Court lawsuit – she as a waitress at Chez Froggy and other local French restaurants, he as a car salesman – until Mrs. Irmer found her calling in real estate.

But not in the heart of Old Town or the more expensive neighborhoods to the west. Mrs. Irmer concentrated on selling homes in what was then the city’s least desirable neighborhood, Parker-Gray.

Now the Growler is all for civic volunteerism. Many Realtors immerse themselves in community activities, often to network with prospective buyers and sellers. So it’s no surprise that Mrs. Irmer would volunteer at Hopkins House. She also started positioning herself as an expert on Parker-Gray in interviews with the press and in direct mail pieces, although she was only a recent arrival and by no means the only Realtor selling homes in the neighborhood.

Some neighborhood skeptics are convinced Mrs. Irmer was determined to wreak vengeance on Mark Webster after a rancorous disagreement over a proposed stop sign at Princess and West Streets. Others, even more cynical, suggest that the French-born Mrs. Irmer was swept up in a peculiar unspoken rivalry against the French-speaking, cosmopolitan, MIT-educated Mr. Webster. From this the Growler concludes that there’s only room for one Francophone in Parker-Gray.

Because Mrs. Irmer sends her children to school in Arlington (not Alexandria), has talked openly to neighbors about her determination to “turn” the neighborhood, and represents and sells almost exclusively to white home buyers, the Growler can be excused for wondering about the real motives for her involvement in the Hopkins House fracas.

But back to the narrative. In November 2000 Glenn Hopkins violated his own promises to the neighborhood and ICCA by announcing plans to offer infant day care at Hopkins House. His intention was to again increase child enrollment, this time from 49 to 55 children. Mr. Hopkins also wanted to use their 1218 Princess Street site as a community center, including after school programs. There was also a proposal for an environmental discovery center.

The second Hopkins House rezoning controversy took on a more strident tone in 2001 thanks not only to Mr. Hopkins, who once again played the wheezing race card, but also to Mrs. Irmer who suddenly emerged as an organizing power.

In April 2001, letters went out to residents asking them to support the Hopkins House proposal, outlining answers to frequently asked questions and even providing form letters for citizen signature. Interestingly, the effort looked nearly identical to the campaigns Mr. Cromley mounted soon after to assure City officials of community support for projects like 334 N. Patrick and 1210 Queen Street.

More despicably in the Growler’s opinion, there was also a concerted effort to agitate the oldest black residents by claiming that white newcomers were "trying to keep black babies out of the neighborhood" and that some residents' objections were rooted in race, not parking or noise. This conveniently overlooked the fact that some of those who objected to the expansion were also black.

Worn out and bruised by personal attacks – many of which emanated from the Irmer faction and a recent Cromley home buyer – Mark Webster stepped down as head of ICCA. Other long-time activists who had united blacks and whites in the community also left ICCA in disgust. Camille Leverett, a protégé and a client of Mrs. Irmer's and resident for only a year or two, was brought in to lead the group.

The stage was now set for the June 2001 hearings and, to everyone’s surprise, the Planning Commission appeared to be losing patience with Mr. Hopkins. In a tie vote of 3-3 (with one Commissioner recusing himself), the Planning Commission effectively denied his request.

“Now here we go again,” said Commissioner Donna Fossum. “When is it going to end? What’s in question here is a lot more than parking. It is the support of the community which is on the edge of collapsing right now. The community thought they had closure last year. There is a very different spirit this year.”

The only way for Hopkins House to snatch victory from the jaws of this defeat was to make an effective appeal to City Council, and that’s when Mrs. Irmer arose to rally the troops. Mrs. Irmer, who is never seen without a cell phone in hand, worked her real estate network like never before.

The night before the City Council hearing, Mrs. Irmer organized a dinner at her home for Hopkins House defenders. The next day, the group was assembled and staged in the hallway outside the Council chamber. When the SUP came up for discussion they pounded theatrically on the doors and then burst into the Council chamber, flooding the room with mothers demanding justice and infant care at Hopkins House.

It was great theater and the Growler laments that the only thing lacking was Mrs. Irmer imitating Marianne mounting the barricades, breast bared and waving the flag of freedom.

Well … perhaps that’s not worth lamenting.

And at the Council hearing, Ms. Leverett stood up to represent ICCA and announced that "The Inner City Civic Association recognizes and values Hopkins House long-standing history of service to the children and families of the inner city of Alexandria. Therefore, we, the citizens of the ICCA, applaud and encourage Hopkins House in their efforts to bring affordable infant care to our community. We ask for full support of the Alexandria City Council in approving Hopkins House proposed SUP amendment, permitting a maximum enrollment of 55 children and extending the hours of operation by 60 minutes from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays. The ICCA looks forward to a strong and lasting friendship with this important institution and pledges to continue working with Hopkins House through the Neighborhood Advisory Committee on matters of mutual interest.”

Mr. Hopkins gained some of what he wanted, but not all. He got his increased enrollment but Hopkins House was unable to use either 1224 or 1218 Princess for community center because such activities are incompatible with the special uses permitted under the RB zoning category. Mr. Hopkins rounded off the controversy with a final huff in the Alexandria Gazette Packet, but the long wrangle was at an end.

So what was the aftermath? The Growler thinks it is even more curious than the back story.

A plan for an environmental discovery center at Hopkins House, which had been announced to the Neighborhood Advisory Committee in May 2000 and scheduled for the end of summer 2001, faded away.

The townhouse at 1218 Princess was sold in 2003 in a private sale, handled by none other than Mrs. Irmer. The parties arranged an easement to allow Hopkins House to use the backyard until the house was again sold.

The proposed on-site playground never materialized, in part because ICCA had insisted on a noise study. Today Hopkins House children routinely are taken to the Bernard Hunter/Helen Miller park for recreation, where they share space with an increasingly large number of homeless men and known drug users. Why, the Growler asks, has Hopkins House taken no active public stand on cleaning up the park and making it safe for children?

A check of NAEYC’s Web site reveals that as of January 1, 2006 Hopkins House is no longer accredited, meaning the organization is once again in violation of its SUP. Doesn’t the City care, or is this just another indication that the bureaucrats can’t stay on top of SUP enforcement?

The Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Social Services cited Hopkins House for a number of violations in 2005, including failure to complete background checks on staff, failing to secure hazardous chemicals, and for having overflowing trash cans and grounds littered with broken equipment and debris.

Meanwhile, an ambitious capital campaign is still underway to raise money for Hopkins House’s proposed Fairfax County center – and ironically a brochure on the Hopkins House Web site that was posted after the Growler wrote Part I of this series states that the Fairfax County facility will feature an environmental discovery center. As Yogi Berra once said, it’s like déjà vu all over again.

Much of the funding for the new site is coming from the Northern Virginia Building Industries Association (NVBIA), mortgage companies, developers and big Alexandria property owners like the Winklers.

This raises an interesting question: is Hopkins House now serving its target audience or its donors?

Mr. Hopkins’ recent political activity has been limited to testimony or letters on behalf of developers like Diamond Properties which is building townhouses at the old Hennage printing plant at Oronoco and Henry Streets. Another developer whom he has endorsed in writing to the City is Mr. Cromley, who is converting the old Alexandria Laundry at 1210 Queen Street next to Hunter/Miller park into condos.

The Winkler Foundation support for Hopkins House is also intriguing. Recently the company sent a shiver through affordable housing advocates, as well as politicians, when it was announced that it was preparing to sell its vast stock of affordable rental properties in the West End to the highest bidder.

The Growler wonders: if the City’s reasonably priced apartments disappear, will there be any low or moderate income Alexandrians left for Hopkins House to serve? And paradoxically, will Hopkins House have helped accelerate the housing squeeze by taking Winkler money and staying on the sidelines in the ongoing affordable housing debate?

And the roll of Hopkins House supporters is not just limited to developers any more. In October 2005 Glenn Hopkins announced an alliance with Consumers for Cable Choice and in December was elected to its board. Press investigations have revealed that Verizon – locked in intense competition with cable companies like Comcast – provided the seed money for CCC. And just coincidentally, Verizon recently kicked up its contributions to Hopkins House, from under $500 to under $4,999.

The Growler knows a lot of nonprofits have a weakness for following the money with programs rather than identifying a core mission and then seeking funding to support it. But the Cranky One thinks it’s a kind of a stretch for an organization like Hopkins House, which is not a consumer advocacy group but a day care and preschool services provider, to be touting for cable competition in exchange for cash.

Former ICCA president Camille Leverett left Parker-Gray three years after the second rezoning flap, making a tidy profit on her brief residence in the neighborhood. Mrs. Irmer listed and sold Ms. Leverett’s home on Princess Street.

In 2003 the Irmers bought a double lot at La Grande and Howell Avenues in Del Ray, subdivided the property, sold the existing house to Ms. Leverett and then obtained City permission to build a new house on the remaining, sub-sized empty lot.

Interestingly, the City’s building permit database for Ms. Leverett’s house on E. Howell Avenue shows that one of the permits for improvements to the house were taken out by Mr. Irmer, who listed himself as the owner a year after the sale although his name does not appear as an owner on the City’s real estate records. Currently there is a lockbox on the front door knob.

Recently, with property values soaring, other Realtors have been making inroads selling homes in Parker-Gray. Record-setting prices for individual homes in Parker-Gray are now being set by other Realtors, not Mrs. Irmer. Is Mrs. Irmer’s time in the spotlight over and is she losing her edge on the neighborhood to more suave and upscale agents who are finally discovering Parker-Gray?

ICCA has had revolving door leadership over the last few years, all allied with Mr. Cromley and Mrs. Irmer. Robert Irmer himself served a term as a Vice President and used that position to advocate for Mr. Cromley's developments, though at the time the Irmers lived outside the boundaries of ICCA in the 1400 block of Princess. The Irmers were allowed to join because they owned some rental property within the district. They have since decamped for N. Alfred Street, closer to Mr. Cromley.

Since the coup that changed its leadership five years ago, ICCA no longer distributes flyers and invitations to meetings and it appears the crew in command intend to keep the group a closed club. Membership and attendance have shrunk dramatically since the Webster era. ICCA no longer uses the Durant Center or the public library but for the last few years has met at Hopkins House, underscoring the interdependence of the two groups. Crime, which was once on the decline thanks to the ICCA and a band of black and white neighborhood activists, is on the rise again under ICCA's current leadership.

So the Growler now closes this tale with a few questions for the future.

Why is Mr. Hopkins building another facility in Fairfax County and not in Alexandria’s West End or Arlandria?

Why can’t Hopkins House maintain its accreditation with NAEYC?

Did the Irmer-Cromley faction take up the Hopkins House cause out of commitment to the black community or as a way to grab control of ICCA and build a power base to support their own financial interests?

Was Glenn Hopkins simply glad to find rezoning allies like the Irmers and Cromleys, or does he hanker after the seductive world of developers, mortgage bankers, and financiers who can give him access to their deep pockets in exchange for public support for their projects, even if these developments squeeze the neighborhood's low and middle income families?

And finally, is Hopkins House losing its identity as an Alexandria institution, and where will it be in five or ten years, both physically and financially?

Happy New Year from the Growler! Grrrrrrr………