Eleven months after the Alexandria City Council denied a permit to a developer to demolish the 66-year-old Gunston Hall apartments on South Washington Street, those seeking to save the complex are scrambling to find a buyer who will purchase the property for $12.3 million and save it from the wrecking ball.
Recent discussions have explored the possibility of the city's year-old Housing Development Corp. stepping forward. An independent nonprofit organization, it gets its funding from the city but can apply for other funding as well.
If city funding was involved, such a purchase would be subject to council approval. If no preservation-minded buyer steps forward in the next two months, the developer will be free to begin demolition.
"There may be a way it can be done, but it's very complicated, and $12.3 million is a steep challenge," said Mark Jinks, an assistant city manager.
The complex, whose 56 units are housed in low-rise red-brick colonial revival buildings centered around a large grassy area with trees, was built in 1939. That date does not fall under a designated "period of significance" for structures built in Old Town before 1933, a factor that would not have protected it from demolition but would have automatically made it eligible for tax credits as a "contributing resource" to a historic district.
To be eligible now, it would have to be added to the National Register of Historic Places as an individual listing. Advocates of such a designation have filled out preliminary forms that -- if tentative approval was received -- could be an incentive for a prospective buyer looking to preserve the property. Final approval would need the owner's consent.
Last year, a developer approached the owner proposing to tear down the complex and replace it with 60 luxury condominiums and townhouses. Because the complex lies within a historic district of the city, the developer, Basheer & Edgemoore, was required to apply to the city's Board of Architectural Review, which voted last summer to grant a demolition permit.
But after protests by residents, preservationists and affordable-housing advocates, the City Council unanimously overruled the board, withholding a permit for a year to allow time for someone to purchase the property at market rate to preserve it.
Preservationists say the complex, constructed when the George Washington Memorial Parkway was being built, is an important part of the city's history and geography.
"It was intended to be an entryway to the parkway, leading into the city of Alexandria," said Ellen Stanton, chairman of the Historic Alexandria Resources Commission. "They have a great deal of open space, they're very moderate buildings, very gracious buildings."
Charles Trozzo, chairman of the Alexandria Historical Restoration and Preservation Commission, said the complex's architect, Harvey Warwick, was known for similar complexes in the District. "The guy put some thought into how to place this on there and preserve some green space."
Advocates of affordable housing say the demolition would displace residents who would not be able to afford to stay in Alexandria.
"You have elderly people," said council member Andrew H. MacDonald (D). "The market doesn't care; it's just trying to maximize the profit, so to speak. . . . It means you're going to have tremendous demographic shifts in the community."
Shawn Weingast, vice president and general manager of Gunston Hall Realty, which owns the property, said the responsibility for solving that problem should lie with the city.
"This project is not an affordable-housing project; it never has been," he said, adding that the developer had offered to double a suggested voluntary donation to help fund affordable housing elsewhere in the city.
Weingast said renovating the existing buildings was not an attractive option because of such problems as asbestos and a lack of central air conditioning. He said the new complex, designed by Rust, Orling & Neale of Alexandria, would preserve the large oak trees in the center and include underground parking.
"Given the condition of the building and the required asbestos remediation, no one has decided to come forward," he said.
If no one does, said Gunston resident Jill McClure, the feeling of community there -- where the lawns are dotted with bicycles, tomato vines and flowers planted by residents -- will be hard to duplicate.
"People bring their dinner out and read the paper," she said. "People look out for one another. . . . It's a real neighborly attitude." Some evenings, residents project movies onto a screen in the courtyard.
McClure's one-bedroom apartment still has its original wood cabinets, parquet floors and Murphy bed closet -- remnants of an architectural era often overshadowed by the Victorian and colonial periods.
But to McClure, a preservation architect, the mid-20th century has its own charms. "Buildings from the '40s, '50s and '60s, I'm fearful that 40, 50, 100 years from now, there's not going to be examples of that left," she said. "So I'm hoping for a realization that that era still has value and merit."