The Historic Alexandria Foundation and three Old Town property owners have filed a suit to halt the demolition of part of an 1812 brick building at Prince and Patrick streets.
The suit, filed in Circuit Court last week by lawyer Charles D. Marshall, seeks reversal of decisions by Alexandria's Board of Architectural Review, which allow for razing and replacing the rear section of the structure at 916 Prince St.
While the house is not "significant in the sense that George Washington slept there," it does have "historic and architectural value because of its age and the people who lived there," said Penny Morrill, a board member of the Historic Alexandria Foundation. "It is typical of Alexandria homes from the early 1800s, and the two families that lived in it for most of the time since then still have descendants living in Old Town."
The citizens took their case to court after the City Council upheld the review board's decision in a split vote last week. It is "very rare" and "highly unusual" for an appeal to go beyond the council level, said April Eberly of the review board staff, adding that no cases have been appealed to the courts in the three years that the board has been under the jurisdiction of the Planning Department.
The complaint calls the action of the review board "capricious and arbitrary" because public notice was given only for renovations, not for the razing of a historic structure, nor was a demolition permit required. An extensive public hearing process is required for approval of a demolition permit.
Council member Patricia S. Ticer, who voted along with council member Robert L. Calhoun to reverse the board's approval, agreed that the city was remiss in not giving more accurate public notice, and said a razing permit probably should have been required.
"You're losing something historic," said Ticer, who lives in Old Town. "Reproduction is not the same as the real thing."
Ticer noted, however, that the citizens' appeal is late -- "after the horse is out of the barn" -- and will probably be unsuccessful because review board members were fully informed when they made their decisions on the Prince Street project.
But Ticer stressed that the proposal to convert an early 1800s residential structure into office space points up the larger, pressing problem of the "commercialization" of the upper Prince Street corridor. She repeated her call for a study to assess whether the rezoning of the area that took place in the 1950s was appropriate, or whether it should be returned to residential use.
The 916 Prince St. proposal actually originated more than two years ago, when developers sought review board approval for renovations to that property and permission to build a new Victorian-style building in the now-vacant lot next door at 914 Prince St. The overall proposal for an office complex was initially approved without plans to raze the rear of the brick structure at 916 Prince St.
As designs proceeded, however, architects returned to the review board, saying they would like to demolish and rebuild rear walls of the old structure to create a third floor and allow for an atrium within the office complex.
The applicants were told to reapply to the board for an "amendment" to the earlier approval, which was later granted. Yet another vote of approval for the overall project, including the partial razing, was granted a year later by the board when the applicants applied for a renewal of the certificate of appropriateness, because construction had not begun within the one-year time limit.
Historically, the board has required only a certificate of appropriateness for partial demolitions "versus the permit to raze, which is given for the demolition of entire structures," said Eberly, who has worked extensively on the 916 Prince St. case.
The lawsuit was brought by the foundation, Old Town residents Morgan Delaney and Charles Lemley, and Nancy Marshall, an owner of property adjacent to 916 Prince St. and the wife of Charles D. Marshall.