Monday, March 19, 2012

1984 and All That

Earlier this year, the Parker-Gray Board of Architectural Review established a work group to review and recommend changes to the detailed design guidelines that govern our neighborhood. (Disclosure: the Growler serves on this committee.) The design guidelines for Parker-Gray and the Old and Historic District are virtually the same, save for a provision about financial hardship cases that applies only to our district.

Except for a dwindling number of old-timers mostly born and raised in Alexandria, few readers have lived as long in Parker-Gray as the Growler has. It will be 32 years come May, and the Growler remembers well the stormy events of 1983-84, when the neighborhood became a local historic district governed by a Board of Architectural Review (or “BAR”).

So much time has passed that many have completely forgotten that this measure was hotly disputed, that it divided the community, and was by no means unanimously supported either by residents or politicians.   The boundaries of the proposed district, too, shifted a number of times.

The controversy started in May 1983, when the City Council acting on a recommendation from then-City Manager Douglas Harman — voted to consider expanding the City’s historic district. An article by Washington Post reporter Michael Martinez noted that in 1974 the Council rejected a request to extend the historic district, and further that in 1977 the community successfully fought a plan to place the neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places and then again defeated proposals to extend the historic district.

In April 1984, the Council voted unanimously to apply historic preservation regulations to the neighborhood, but as the Post noted, the neighborhood’s black residents were divided on whether this was necessary, quoting some who were strongly opposed and others who favored the changes. 

Interestingly, the Council voted to add other areas of Alexandria to the Old Town Historic District, including parts of the waterfront and blocks on both sides of N. Washington Street south of the Beltway but rejected an attempt to include a six-block area bounded by West, Cameron, Henry and Princess Streets on the grounds that a majority of the people there did not want to be included. Then, as before, the blocks north of Princess and west of Henry were not included either, despite the presence of the historic “Colored Rosemont” area at the corner of Madison and West.

To calm the dissension raging in the community, Vice Mayor Jim Moran presented a compromise to exempt current homeowners from BAR approvals. The only power the board would retain would be to control height of new structures and demolition of old ones. If ownership changed, the exemption would end.

However, a month later the tenuous compromise unraveled when the City Attorney ruled that the exemption for existing homeowners was illegal under the Alexandria City Charter. The controversy started afresh, and the Post quoted Councilman Donald C. Casey saying: “it’s one of these neighborhood battles that, whatever action we take, it’s going to leave a group of people disgusted.”

Neighborhood leader Roger C. Anderson stated that the review board is “too stringent” and that requiring residents to meet its standards would result in “a lot of unnecessary time and expense.” His group advocated for a “special preservation district” which would be regulated by Council, not the BAR. In addition, Anderson called on Council to push the boundaries of Parker-Gray from the railroad tracks, First Street, Columbus and Cameron.

Seeking middle ground again, Council agreed to designate Parker-Gray as a “special preservation district” that would exempt the neighborhood from control by the BAR but directed Planning and Zoning to set up a citizens task force to set standards for the area by the fall of 1984. A planning official told the Washington Post that the group could recommend that Council impose “all of the rules of the Old Town Historic District or none of them.” If no standards were agreed upon by November 1, the special district would be eliminated.

As could be expected with anything this contentious, Post reporter Leah Latimer wrote in the summer of 1984 that neighbors “are at odds over what the area’s historic character is and what measures should be taken to preserve it.” She noted that “Unlike neighboring Old Town, most of the streets in the Parker-Gray district are lined with modest shingle, brick and stucco row houses, more common to an inner city than a historic Colonial district.”

When the special committee gave its findings to Council in September 1984, according to the Post “they recommended that alterations to existing buildings and new construction in the district be based on compatibility with surrounding structures rather than stricter architectural codes used in Old Town.” Even then, some residents were not satisfied.

Alexandria’s politicians remained perplexed. “I’m not really clear about what people want,” Planning Commissioner T. Edward Braswell Jr. said in a meeting. Mayor Charles E. Beatley, who conceded he was “never that enthusiastic “ about the June compromise, said that Council would be likely to take some action by the November deadline, but “maybe it’ll be [something with] not too much substance, but they’ll come up with something.” Planning Commissioner Wiliam B. Hurd suggested another alternative, which was to set up a Parker-Gray planning district with an advisory board.

At last, in October 1984 Council took its final vote, moving to designate the neighborhood as a historic district but with dissension among its own ranks. Connie Ring was opposed by Charles Beatley, who said he did not want to force a decision on residents if they did not approve of the proposal . Beatley was supported by council members Lionel Hope and Donald Case, while Ring was allied with Robert L. Calhoun, Margaret Inman and Vice Mayor Patsy Ticer – thus revealing a split across political parties as well as race.

Interestingly, the final Post article regarding the birth of the Parker-Gray Historic District notes that “the designation [as a historic district] would impose less stringent architectural controls on the Parker-Gray area than those in force in the historic district that governs the look of fashionable Old Town area” [emphasis added].

So readers, what happened to the provision that we would be regulated less stringently than Old Town? 


Anonymous said...

"So readers, what happened to the provision that we would be regulated less stringently than Old Town?"

Given that many of us bought into a historic district because of what it offers, why would we want fewer protections than the Old Town historic district provides its residents? As one of the cited post articles states: "residents new to the area...fought hard for the provision as a way to preserve the historic integrity that attracted them." That sentiment is equally valid today.

Anonymous said...

Didn't know the growler was of the day. I opposed the BAR then and am unimpressed now. We old timers just work around it.

Anonymous said...

"That sentiment is equally valid today."

I couldn't disagree more. First code enforcement is weak, weak, weak. If the house is black owned watchem run. Second PG has a provision for means testing Old Town doesn't. And there's the rub. The means is never tested and the standards are not equally applied. The BAR holds us to the highest standard a neighbor not. How exactly does historic preversation increase my property value?

Anonymous said...

I'm glad we have the guidelines! I just wish they'd apply them fairly. Their tortured justifications notwithstanding, the bloated, easter egg-colored, vinyl windowed Bland project does NOT fit in our historic fabric. So many beautiful new projects have been built lately but this was a huge miss. I can only imagine how hideous the project would have been WITHOUT the historic district rules.

Anonymous said...

I agree about Bland. The buildings don't really fit in. But, then, in a way, neither do their residents...

It will be an interesting summer once ARHA starts moving people back. Will new homeowners be greeted with a new, friendly and peaceful neighborhood or will it be like Chatham Square in 2006 with literally dozens of screaming people running up and down the street all night on weekends?

Anonymous said...

I think what really makes Bland an eyesore is the lack of trees. No other part of Old Town stands as bare as it now does because of the lack of trees. That's what really makes it looks like a bland development out in the suburbs to me. But as to the design, with their reputation for high quality projects, I have to believe EYA did not want it this way but were forced to because of cost. But I still feel like they could've at least thrown in a couple more brick fronts to break it up a bit.

I'm also reserving judgement on The Asher until the final details are installed. But I'm tired of red brick with vinyl white multi-paned windows and I felt that with its metro proximity, it could've borrowed more from the adjacent Lofts and went more urban.

Anonymous said...

We should all be able to agree that since 1984 when that article was written, property values in PG have skyrocketed and the neighborhood is light years ahead of where it was. My house, nothing special - and virtually every other in sight - is worth (conservatively) 12 times what it was in 1984. I for one, am glad the City regards PG differently than it did in 1984. It should!

As pathetically inconsistent as BAR enforcement can be, such regulation is common for a reason. I agree that the new Bland is utterly ridiculous...examples of failures abound. But I would also point out that my neighbors who have lived here for many more years than even the Growler, have also enjoyed the rapid rise in values. Without so much as powerwashing the vinyl siding they installed without approval, their home is worth well over a million bucks. Not bad a bad ride.

Anonymous said...

"I couldn't disagree more. First code enforcement is weak, weak, weak."

"I'm glad we have the guidelines! I just wish they'd apply them fairly."

Can't say any of the regs apply well when talking about King Street. On Thursday, March 22 Lotus Blooms is displaying a sidewalk sign advertising Blow Jobs 101, a workshop with wine and cheese. Can't say the city guidelines offer much, can you? Then again, given Alexandria's educational conundrum the workshop may be well attended.

Anonymous said...

"I would also point out that my neighbors who have lived here for many more years than even the Growler, have also enjoyed the rapid rise in values. Without so much as powerwashing the vinyl siding they installed without approval, their home is worth well over a million bucks."

I would argue their gains did not come for reasons of historic preservation but rather a reduction in crime. Drugs and crime were horrible then and the civic association worked hard to get the problem under control. And by your own omission the owners of the vinyl sided home installed the siding without BAR approval.

Anonymous said...

"On Thursday, March 22 Lotus Blooms is displaying a sidewalk sign advertising Blow Jobs 101,"

Yep, made Channel 4 news. Let's see if the city in fact levies a fine. The sidewalk sign has to be violation of some kind of rule.

Anonymous said...

The lack of trees has nothing to do with EYA's costs and everything to do with EYA's profits. They wanted a far denser development for maximum profit and in doing so took 73% of the open space that the previous homes took.I hope that PG, which did nothing but complain about the previous housing is happy with what their complaints have given them. EYA is chuckling all the way to the bank.

Anonymous said...

Strike up the music, it looks like Jefferson Houston is going to play another round of musical chairs with administrators.

Anonymous said...

Today tells us that the new Jefferson Houston school will be three times the size of the present building. Are we building a monument to Sherman's ego? Neither he nor School Board member Helen Morris have explained from where the projected influx of students will come. The article also explains that the site plan now has gone to Planning for review. One joke deserves another.

If Ms. Morris is reelected it will only be because there is a dearth of interested school board candidates. She's lost our vote but we do congratulate Ms. Morris for her adroitness. She has self-interestedly exchanged a school vista for open space. At least we know her property's value will rise even if test scores do not. Shall we next discuss the State's Adult Education investigation?

Anonymous said...

"Neither he nor School Board member Helen Morris have explained from where the projected influx of students will come."

Plenty of space for high school students needing remedial work.

Anonymous said...

"So readers, what happened to the provision that we would be regulated less stringently than Old Town?"

Let's get back to the issue. As it stands now it is far more difficult and expensive to make improvements than to let things stand and rot. The flaming hoops through which a homeowner must jump leaves many exhausted and disillusioned before they ever even begin a project. Relaxing the rules would encourage neighborhood pride.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the influx will come from Potomac Yards? The word is that the city only provided slightly over an acre of land to construct a school on that site.

The BAR in PG is an utter joke. When I used to live in PG up until last year, I made countless exterior renovations to my house not even thinking about going through the proper approval channels of BAR. Considering all of the "historical" rusting chain link fences in various parking lots. Also, aren't satellite dishes verboten? Take a walk and see how many you can count. You'll need more than one set of hands and toes for sure. Preserving the architectural integrity of the traffic on RTE 1 is of the utmost importance right?

Anonymous said...

Anyone heading over to the ARHA Strategic Plan meetings this week?

Notice of final public meeting being held on ARHA's Strategic Plan. This is the last of three public meetings (3/28, 4/24) on the Summary of the results of the ARHA Strategic Plan.

Location: Charles Houston Center, Seniors Room - 901 Wythe Street, Alexandria, VA

Time: 06:00 PM