The Alexandria City Council last week gave the final go-ahead to a proposal to build eight luxury homes on the site of the former Second Presbyterian Church, a wide grassy expanse of land on Janneys Lane that some local residents hoped would be preserved as a park.
The City Council, in a 4 to 3 vote, denied an appeal by neighbors of an earlier Planning Commission approval for eight luxury homes on the six-acre site, which sits on a prominent space at Quaker and Janneys lanes.
Council member Rob Krupicka (D) said the city did well in negotiating fewer homes than the developer initially envisioned, as well as securing 1.1 acres from the developer to be used as a neighborhood park.
"I think it's an accomplishment," Krupicka said. "We've made tremendous progress."
In the appeal, neighbors noted concerns about traffic, tree preservation and storm-water issues, as well as about the grander proposition of whether the city's decision not to buy the site was in keeping with the lofty goals of its new open space preservation campaign. The storm-water drainage issue will still be examined, but it is unlikely to halt the project's progress.
The council last year voted to set aside 1 cent of the real estate property tax rate for open space preservation.
"You can't develop this property and preserve its open space values," said council member Andrew H. Macdonald (D).
An attorney for the developer, Elm Street Development Inc., said that his client is pleased to be able to begin work on the final site plans for the homes, which are expected to sell for more than $2 million each.
"We're pleased the appeal was denied, which means we can move forward to the final site plan stage," lawyer Jonathan Rak said.
Over the last year, neighbors had launched a spirited campaign of community forums, letters to the editor and a protest rally to save the site, hoping the city would purchase the land to preserve it. The city decided not to buy the land last year, in part because it deemed the $5.3 million price tag too high.
"It's very disappointing that the council didn't have the foresight to save Second Presbyterian for open space," said Ginny Hines Parry, the president of the advocacy group Alexandrians for Sensible Growth. "I just don't see how they can make real progress on open space without acquiring Second Presbyterian. It's a real missed opportunity."
But in a last-minute twist during the council discussions, two members -- Macdonald and Ludwig P. Gaines (D) -- made oblique references to a third party that has made inquiries about purchasing the site.
A Jewish group that is currently holding services in its rabbi's home hopes to approach the developer within the next week with an offer to buy the land and use the property as a synagogue.
"We are intending to have conversations with the developer, but I can't say anything more about that right now," said Rodger Digilio, who represents the group, Chabad Lubavitch.
Rak said that the developer "is not considering any alternatives at this point."
But those opposed to homes being built on the site -- including Gaines and Macdonald -- said they still hope for an eleventh-hour save for the property.
"It's a very spiritual spot," Digilio said. "For those who keep the faith, it's always possible for something to happen."
At last week's meeting, the council also approved a list of 10 priority sites that its Open Space Steering Committee had recommended could be transformed into parks, including two prominent tracts along the city's waterfront that the committee tagged as an "immediate priority." The first includes seven lots owned by multiple people on Strand, Prince and King streets that encompass a parking lot, gun shop and boat clubs worth approximately $5.7 million. The other includes two parcels near the Hunting Point on the Potomac apartment complex now owned by the Virginia Department of Transportation.
The Second Presbyterian site was not high on the priority list.
The council also will spend $750,000 in open space funds to acquire a five-acre parcel at 4500 Braddock Rd., near the Seminary Forest apartment complex, for use as a park.