Friday, August 08, 2008

Pesky BAR, Pesky Citizens

Uh-oh. You know the neighborhood's in trouble when Planning Commission Chairman Eric Wagner tells the ARHA Redevelopment Work Group he's convinced the current ultra-dense James Bland redevelopment proposal is "the right plan for Alexandria," adding "We're trying to make the best decision as a whole for the City."

Yes, Parker-Gray's in for a screwing when Mr. Wagner (who personally helped dumb down Potomac Yard density without worrying about the rest of the City) implies that our role is to redeem decades of financial mismanagement by ARHA and its short-sighted BFF the City by taking height, mass, density and public housing units up the wazoo without a murmur in the name of Rosemont, Del Ray, Beverly Hills, Northridge and all the other protected neighborhoods in town. We should be so lucky.

A major theme at last night's meeting of the ARHA Redevelopment Work Group was alarmingly undemocratic: concern that annoying residents of First Street, of Columbus Street, of the Inner City and Northeast — and above all, members of the Parker-Gray BAR, who have shown some real spirit on this issue — might derail the rocket docket for James Bland and crimp profit margins by daring to ask for tweaks in height, mass, density, parking, open space and public housing offsiting.

Only ARHA Vice Chairman Connie Ring (bless him) observed that "different tensions are inherent in planning. Some will be in opposition to each other, but we have to find compromise." But shockingly, Mr. Ring was the only work group member who spoke up in any way to acknowledge that the community's input was not only legitimate but to be expected.

There were questions about the schedule, about whether the BAR concept review was critical path, whether the BAR's decisions could be appealed or overriden, etc. so that the project can be tied up with a ribbon by October and demolition and construction at Glebe Park can begin in November. The tax credit application for Bland doesn't have to be submitted to VHDA until February, so it's not our redevelopment but the Arlandria project that is driving the train.

What really set off work group members was the discussion about open space. To their credit, Planning & Zoning staff seem to have taken to heart neighborhood criticism of the draft plan and now suggest increasing open space by taking out two to six market rate units and creating either a new pocket park on Wythe Street or expanding the larger open space now planned for Montgomery Street and making it a City park.

Interestingly, it was also suggested that the City could use Open Space Trust Fund monies for this purpose. Funny how pots of money cached by City leprechauns suddenly pop into the light when enough pressure is applied.

But this proposal raised the eyebrows of developer Bob Youngentob, who worried about not only about the lost units but the opportunity value of the land, especially if prices continue to rise. (Council member Rob Krupicka, however, noted tartly that the City and ARHA weren't in for any rebates if the prices fell.)

Don't despair too much readers. A lot of this is the usual posturing and jawboning of negotiation, and EYA is in a strong position given ARHA's desperation. Has Growler mentioned the persistent rumor that EYA earned an $18 million windfall on Chatham Square? And Mr. Ring also noted yesterday that ARHA made $3.2 million on Chatham Square, which enabled it to pay back the City's loan.

What last night's meeting demonstrated is that the City and ARHA would like to push this project through as quickly as possible and with as little dissent as possible. Members of our neighborhood will have to keep up strong pressure on these characters (particularly our elected representatives) to ensure we get what we want and need.

Keep E-mailing and writing.

The Growler is not convinced that our demands are incompatible with those of ARHA and the City or that they will jeopardize the whole tandem redevelopment of Glebe Park and James Bland. The City just needs to put more of its money on the table.

Right now, it's so stingy that ARHA was apparently rebuffed last night in its plea for a full-time person to help coordinate the social service for its Bland residents during the move since there's no hope for a HOPE VI grant. ARHA was also told that with the new Charles Houston Recreation Center under construction there was no need for a separate community center to replace the one Bland will be losing.

But one valuable thing we learned from the Braddock East process is that other jurisdictions are a lot more generous with their contributions when it comes to public housing renewal. And the City has some resources near at hand.

Has anyone forgotten that the City collected $1 million from the Monarch for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund? Or that the Payne Street and Madison projects will contribute more than $700,000 each, while the Jaguar is slated to give a whopping $5 million? Since our neighborhood is taking the density on those projects, let the City spend the donations here on offsiting.

Take another 30 Bland public housing units offsite, throw in a little more open space, ease the height behind Columbus Street residents' homes, and the City and ARHA can make this thing happen — if the political will is there.

If not, keeping applying the pitchfork to the posteriors, naughty readers!