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?