Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Smokin' [Out] Herb

In a neighborhood where secret meetings, conflicts of interest, and sweetheart deals have become the norm — where arm's length relationships with developers have descended to lap dancing with full pelvic grind — a familiar figure has re-emerged, this time in a starring role.

Herb Cooper-Levy is a resident of Colecroft. And the Growler was quite surprised when he showed up at last week’s Inner City Civic Association meeting.

Mr. Cooper-Levy is not an ICCA member, nor is he eligible for membership since Colecroft is outside the ICCA’s boundaries.

Nothing about the ICCA is ever coincidental, so the Growler wondered if he had been privately invited to support the Braddock Road Small Area Plan which P&Z Acting Director Rich Josephson was scheduled to discuss.

The Growler has seen Mr. Cooper-Levy at some of the Braddock Road Small Area Plan meetings, where he assumes an amusingly proprietary air. But any representations that he is one of the plan’s pioneers is questionable, although several years ago Mr. Cooper-Levy was part of an informal, now defunct, citizens’ group that called itself the Braddock Area Team.

The Growler was even more surprised while watching Saturday’s City Council hearing to see Mr. Cooper-Levy stand up and tout the Inner City Civic Association’s support of K. Hovnanian Homes’ 621 N. Payne Street condominium project as well as his own passionate support for the project. Since the ICCA took no vote on the Payne Street project, his testimony intrigued the Growler. After some patient digging through public records, though, the Cranky One now understand what is really going on.

Mr. Cooper-Levy is Executive Director of the RPJ Housing Development Corporation, a non-profit offshoot of the National Capital Presbytery and named in honor of Rev. Robert Pierre Johnson. RPJ actively buys and preserves affordable housing in Alexandria, Arlington, Falls Church and Front Royal.

In April 2006, the Alexandria City Council approved a loan of $3.5 million to RPJ to acquire and preserve 34 rental units at the Arbelo Apartments (at 831 and 833 Bashford Lane). In June 2006, the City Council approved a loan of $6,615,000 to RPJ for the acquisition and rehabilitation of 44 rental units at Lacy Court Apartments, formerly known as the Commonwealth and Monroe-Nelson Apartments. These apartments are located in Del Ray at 1502-1516 Commonwealth Avenue and 4, 6, and 8 W. Nelson Street.

In the space of two months, Mr. Cooper-Levy scored more than $10 million in loans from the City, something he did not disclose at Saturday’s public hearing.

What likely prompted Mr. Cooper-Levy's support for 621 N. Payne Street? Could it be the $748,160 contribution that K. Hovnanian Homes is making to the City's Housing Trust Fund? That’s just the beginning of the gravy train for affordable housing groups, with all of the development now planned around Braddock Road and all the developer contributions on the horizon.

It turns out Mr. Cooper-Levy is pushing density in other forums and with other projects. He wrote a lengthy and impassioned letter in 2005 in the Alexandria Gazette about the Madison and Harris-Teeter, in which he also disclosed he was “one of two Federation of Civic Association representatives during the planning process” for the Carlyle. (Boy, Growler thinks he may want to retire that item from his curriculum vitae PDQ.)

So the guy likes density and he also runs an affordable housing advocacy group. So what?

Consider this: in 1997, Mr. Cooper-Levy also testified at City Council against strict enforcement of the City's Fair Share Policy. If you remember past postings, you’ll know that the Fair Share Policy relates to the equitable distribution of public housing within the city. This makes Mr. Cooper-Levy an advocate of both high density (which will benefit his group) and public housing containment.

Then there are the rumors that the City would like to shovel even more “affordable housing” into our neighborhood. The Growler clearly remembers that during the Mayor's walk last April Mr. Euille pointed again and again to sites in our neighborhood he thought appropriate for affordable housing. Now Mr. Cooper-Levy is taking center stage, pushing for density which will provide a windfall for groups like his.

Do these facts bode ill for a neighborhood that has just learned it's not getting any reduction in public housing at either Adkins or Bland? In fact, does this signal we are getting even more "affordable housing," which might mean work force housing but will probably translate to more Section 8 housing like Jefferson Village?