Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Voice from the Neighborhood

The Growler would like to share an eloquent E-mail which came in recently from a resident concerned about what is happening here in the neighborhood where massive development looms on the horizon:

I prize aspects of life that are humane, cultural, functional, practical, and efficient. I don't see these qualities in the city planning department.

Very little of what I see on the horizon represents anything other than maddening chaos and unliveable/unbearable overcrowding. Manhattan works because it is thoroughly urban-organized and proportioned and functional, yet liveable.

Alexandria is NOT Manhattan, because it was never intended to be, nor why I moved here. Here it's all about colonial community, history, people-scale neighborhoods (with the "McMansion Carlyle development" tacked on and plopped down in the middle of things, like a geek-in-a-bad-fitting-suit, attending a celebrity Oscar fashion gala).

And the city doesn't seem to want to remain true to itself, but sublet its soul to special interests.

Settling for Anything

Over the weekend, the Growler received the following comment from a Braddock Lofts resident, whose homeowners association was just briefed about the proposed condo project at 621 N. Payne Street:

It's a beautiful development with a sympathetic, height-based eye to the various borders of the project (i.e. taller buildings toward the Monarch end; lower buildings elsewhere). It's also got the requisite pocket park and four live-work townhouses. What it DOESN'T have is true retail -- the City seems to think we need people before we get retail. To me, that's the "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" argument, but whatever.

The city is leaning toward approving this condo/townhouse project and is up for approval on the Feb. 24 docket. That's GREAT news -- I'd encourage all of you in the neighborhood to come out and speak in support of it at the 2/24 meeting. I firmly believe that any development is better than none. I KNOW this runs contrary to the Growler's position on a lot of the proposed building. But you've got to start somewhere, and this is a good way to do it.

The K. Hovnanian Homes presentation also made the circuit at the ICCA a few months ago. The development, as is often the case, offers some intriguing ideas, particularly the use of live-work townhouses.

But the height issue is troubling, especially for those who live on in the single-family homes on Payne, Oronoco or Fayette Streets and have already expressed unhappiness with the Monarch's size. These residents may well feel that life within the canyon has begun. Lofts dwellers, who will see the lowest side of the project, may feel differently.

Typically developers and their lawyers attend civic or homeowner association meetings and trot out a couple of lovely color renderings of their project — copies of which are never left behind for further scrutiny because the design may still be in flux with Planning & Zoning. They describe their project in glowing detail to their audience, but rarely get into the grittier details like density, parking or traffic.

If mixed-use development is involved, the developers may drop a few sexy retailers names designed to make residents salivate — but as we've learned with the Monarch and Madison there may be no contract and no real commitment. The CVS or Harris-Teeter we're promised during negotiations may be replaced in the end by a cheap nail salon and yet another dry cleaner.

But by then the building is up and the bait and switch has already been successful as far as the developer is concerned.

In the end, these presentations are staged to whip citizens into a frenzy of support before the plans are finalized and while negotiations with P&Z are ongoing. It's designed to give developers leverage, but it's also downright misleading.

It's also interesting that the Braddock Lofts homeowners were informed about a February 24 "meeting," which Growler is sure is no accident. That's the date of the City Council hearing, when the politicians typically rubber stamp whatever Planning Commission sends up.

The real forum where the details and community concerns are hashed out is the Planning Commission itself, which meets on Tuesday, February 6 to review the project. The staff report to the commission is the only opportunity citizens have to see the many details of the proposed development.

More on that later ...