The Alexandria City Council last week approved a controversial condominium project by local builder William Cromley, who stepped down last month as chairman of the neighborhood's architectural review board under conflict-of-interest allegations.
The council approved Cromley's plan to build eight new condominiums in a historic warehouse building at 1210 Queen St., in the Parker-Gray Historic District, a historically African American neighborhood and former site of the city's segregated high school.
Cromley sat on the board of architectural review for the neighborhood -- which is bounded roughly by Cameron Street to the south, West Street to the west, Columbus Street to the east and Oronoco Street to the north -- for 11 years, during which time he built nine new homes there.
Architectural review boards were established to preserve the historic and architectural character of the city. The seven-member boards must approve any renovations or changes to buildings that can be seen from the public right of way, or any demolitions.
Neighbors opposed to the Queen Street project had complained that Cromley overstepped his role as chair of the board -- a person responsible for preserving the historic character of the neighborhood -- when he lobbied them with door-to-door chats earlier this year while trying to get his loft project approved.
Cromley needed special permission from the city to convert the warehouse into condos without additional parking -- approval that he was able to get, neighbors say, because of his close relationship with the city.
Cromley denied that he did anything unethical or benefited from special treatment.
"I am a person of integrity," he said. "What they're accusing me of is very sleazy, and I don't appreciate it."
City Attorney Ignacio B. Pessoa said he did not believe that Cromley had violated the state's conflict-of-interest laws because he recused himself from the deliberations whenever his projects came before the review board he chaired.
"As far as I'm concerned, there was no technical violation of the state's conflict-of-interest act," Pessoa said.
Many local builders and architects -- as well as members of the Inner City Civic Association, the local neighborhood association -- testified in support of Cromley and the Queen Street project during public hearings. Cromley was praised as a pioneer in the Alexandria neighborhood where, as recently as a half-dozen years ago, drug and prostitution activity were common.
"Bill's a great builder. He knows our history and wants to uphold it," Amy Harris-White, the civic association's president, testified before the council last week.
But Daniel K. Koslov -- a retired Air Force colonel who moved into one of Cromley's homes in the neighborhood in 2003 -- said he was troubled when he turned to Cromley for help last year, hoping the board chairman would give him advice on how to block another developer's plan to build condominiums at 1210 Queen St.
He and other neighbors opposed to the plan said they feared that the new residences would put a strain on the already tight parking situation in the historic neighborhood.
That plan eventually fell through.
Koslov charged that last summer, over soft drinks in the living room of his home, Cromley had advised the Koslovs on ways they could block the new development.
Koslov said he was shocked to learn later that, after their chat, Cromley had purchased the warehouse property himself for $880,000, and planned to turn it into eight one- and two-bedroom luxury condos.
"Fast-forward to November, and here is Cromley buying the building and putting in the same proposal," Koslov said. "That's the reason why Bill Cromley's got me on his back. He was disingenuous with me."
Koslov detailed his charges to the city in a lengthy letter a few days before Cromley decided to resign from the Parker-Gray board of architectural review last month.
Cromley said that Koslov's version of events was "made up out of whole cloth."
"I didn't tell them how to fight City Hall," he said. "It's just not true."
But Cromley said he felt it was best to quit the board because there was a "legitimate appearance" of conflict of interest.
"When the issue was brought up by my opponents, it resonated with me," Cromley said. "I was concerned . . . that somehow the reputation of the board might be tainted. I shouldn't be there if there is an appearance of conflict of interest."
Cromley said he plans to build classic loft-style dwellings with tin ceilings and wainscoting that hearken back to Alexandria's industrial past. He hopes to break ground in December and complete the lofts -- which will range in price from $350,000 to $585,000 -- by early 2008.
Neighbor Leslie Zupan said she was "disappointed" by the council's unanimous decision to approve the project.
"Many of us long-term residents feel the city is still treating Parker-Gray as a throwaway neighborhood where historic preservation takes a back seat to the real agenda, which is intense development," she said. "But at least our group has put the council on notice that the neighborhood cares about preservation, as well as parking and quality-of-life issues, and we'll mobilize again and again until they get the message."