The Alexandria Planning Commission has recommended against a request by two attorneys for a special use permit to convert an historic apartment building into condominiums.
The building in question, at 1315 Duke St. in Old Town, is commonly referred to as the "Slave Pen." The name stems from its actual use in the 18th century when the building was a holding area for slaves waiting to be sold or transported to new owners. At the time, the port city of Alexandria was a flourishing center for slave trade.
The City Council is expected to act on the planning commission's recommendation at its meeting June 24. Council observers note that the council usually follows the advice of city commissions.
The owners of the building, Alexandria attorney Tom Stanton and Washington attorney Elizabeth Guhring, estimate they have tied up about $90,000 in cash since last August when they purchased the $285,000 building. In addition, monthly payments are running the investors $2,000.
"I hate to think of the numbers," Stanton groans.
While the partners decided last summer to buy the building, they planned to convert the seven apartments into small one- and two-bedroom condominiums, each with fireplace and costing an average of $90,000.
However, under zoning ordinances government condominiums and apartments, the planning commission told Stanton he would have to submit a plan including sufficient parking for each condominium unit. At present, there is no parking for the building and it was exempted from parking requirements for apartments because it was used as rental housing before the ordinance was approved several years ago.
"We're grandfather into the parking ordinance on apartments," says Stanton.
Because Stanton could not meet the parking requirements, he said, he petitioned the planning commission for a special use permit that would allow the condominium conversion to proceed without parking.
At its meeting last week, the planning commission told Stanton he could go ahead without the parking if he paid $5,000 per unit into a special city "parking garage fund" to help finance a city parking garage sometime in the future. Otherwise, the commission said, the special use permit would not be granted.
Stanton balked at the requirement, saying the $35,000 cost was "prohibitive" and would never benefit future residents of the building. Stanton said he resented being the first applicant asked to pay such a fee and called the requirement "unreasonable."
The planning commission voted to recommend to the City Council that it deny Stanton's application for the special use permit.
"It's a 'Catch 22' situation," complains Stanton. "We can keep the building rental and not provide parking.
"The property is zoned commercial so we can convert the apartments into offices without being required to provide parking, but that isn't what we wanted to do."
Stanton says he prefers residential usage and preservation of the building, but he expects the City Council to follow the planning commission recommendation.
Stanton says demolishing the building to rebuild with the proper amount of off-street parking is out of the question because the structure is listed with the National and State Historic Landmarks Registers and cannot be torn down without prior approval.
If the City Council denies the permit, Stanton says he will have to decide whether to make costly renovations on the deteriorating building in order to re-rent the apartments or, he says, he may gut the entire building and make offices.
Despite the planning commission recommendation, members of the city planning staff agreed with Stanton's proposal, since they say it would meet the city's overall goal of preserving an historic building in an historic area. t
"Tom Stanton could turn around tomorrow and reopen the apartments without parking," said city planner Charles Moore. "I think the building would be better preserved as condominiums than as offices."
Stanton said he would like to cooperate with the city.
"It's crazy," he says with a laugh. "I want to do what they want me to do, but they won't let me."