Deja Vu on Development
Recent articles and letters about housing in Arlington stirred something deep in the recesses of my memory. I closed my eyes and repeated calming words, hoping to call it forth to the sunlight. Finally it emerged -- and it was like deja vu all over again.
A mere year ago, Arlingtonians were deeply vexed about McMansions and condo encroachment in formerly quiet neighborhoods. Zounds -- not much has changed in 12 months, has it?
The slash-and-burn developers continue to fund the county's tax-and-spend proclivities. If Arlington voters don't like policy, how about changing the leadership? Conveniently, there's an election in just a few weeks.
A Welcome for Verizon
Arlington County was a pioneer locally in providing cable TV service to its residents. But for some unknown reason, Arlington regulators are now dragging their feet in allowing access to the latest breakthrough in video technology.
Verizon is ready to offer TV service, along with broadband Internet and telephone, over its new, super-fast FIOS fiber-optic network. But while the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors recently gave unanimous approval to Verizon's application ["Verizon Wins Approval to Sell Cable in Fairfax County," Business, Sept. 27 ], Arlington residents evidently will have to wait.
The Post reports that Fairfax expects that the new competition between Verizon and Cox (Fairfax's major cable franchise) will bring cable rates down by as much as 15 percent. Other reports indicate the savings could be greater.
Comcast currently has the cable TV market cornered in Arlington. Competition from Verizon can only result in better service and lower rates. Let's do this!
Keep King Street Unique
Sometimes an individual, community or government makes a decision that, although not seen as momentous at the time, changes things forever. Alexandria recently made such a decision affecting the future of King Street as it traverses Old Town.
King Street, from the Metro station to the Potomac, is the part of Alexandria that tourists, shoppers and visitors from the surrounding area think of first. That place is unlike any other shopping street in the region; what it offers is different from Pentagon Row, Crystal City or Connecticut Avenue. To promote commercial success and a strong tax base, every business owner and citizen should be working to maintain the ambiance of King Street as it is today.
Unfortunately, this ambiance is threatened by a recent City Council decision that somehow wasn't perceived by either the council members (except Andrew H. Macdonald) or the public as special at the time.
The council has agreed to allow demolition of the early 20th- century twin townhouses at 1514 and 1516 King St. to allow changes to the 150-year-old building west of them and to save only the facade of the adjoining building at 1602 King St.
This would allow a multistory condominium building to occupy the maximum amount of space in the large vacant lot at the rear of these buildings. A substantial amount of residential or commercial construction could take place on the vacant land without making changes to the buildings fronting King Street. If the approved plan is not revised, we will lose the twin townhouses, which are a little less than 100 years old.
If we tear down these buildings, how can our city refuse any other landowner with a building of similar vintage who wants to replace it with something larger? There are dozens of similar townhouses on King Street, all occupied by commercial and office tenants. Are we going to remove all these small businesses to make way for bigger buildings whose only virtue will be that the landlords can have more tenants paying higher rents? That's a big price to pay just to achieve a King Street that looks like Anywhere, U.S.A.
The magnificent 150-year-old two-story building that the city will "save" will be visually lost in the much larger building behind it. The rear of the very old building, a compatible addition replacing the original construction containing bathrooms and heating and cooling, is being torn off so that the big new condo building can be built closer to it.
We must save these buildings if we are to save King Street as a special place.
Preservation Sets Example
An article in The Post ["Council's Moves Irk VDOT," Alexandria-Arlington Extra, Oct. 6] talked about the Alexandria City Council's move to help fund the restoration of the historic Gunston Hall apartments and thereby maintain the 56 units as affordable workforce housing for teachers, firefighters, police officers and other city workers.
This is great news, but there is even more to the story that makes it truly exciting. The fight to save the 1940s-era Gunston Hall marked the first time preservationists joined forces with affordable-housing advocates, as well as the National Park Service, to prevent the developer from razing these buildings designed by a notable architect of that era. Not only would Old Town have lost some of its last affordable rentals, but fast-encroaching gentrification and loss of interesting older buildings also would likely have marched all the way down Washington Street.
Saving Gunston Hall has given us hope that our City Council will also quickly reconsider its decision to allow the late-Victorian-era and early-20th-century properties at 1514-1600 King St. to be demolished or stripped of everything but the facades to make way for luxury condos. Here the issue is also loss of affordable rental space for local independent merchants. Old Town is a premier destination for residents, businesses and tourists because of its historic cachet. Tearing down older buildings to make way for monolithic new buildings with little character will quickly make Alexandria nondescript and just a Beltway exit. City leaders are being urged to lean toward preservation when making development decisions.
The Post article left the impression that no developer was interested in restoring the Gunston Hall property. In fact, two firms were preparing their proposals when the city announced that it wanted to ensure that affordable units remained and would therefore support financially the purchase by the Alexandria Housing Development Corp., the city's own chartered nonprofit organization. This action underscores how it is possible to achieve multiple goals with a single, creative, bold stroke. That's what worked with Gunston Hall, and it can work again with upper King Street.
Protect Alexandria History
I read with considerable amusement the letter ["Alexandria's Future," Alexandria-Arlington Extra, Oct. 13] from architects William and Karen Conkey. The Conkeys argued that the only way the city of Alexandria can ensure that it becomes a "vibrant living city" and not "a perfectly preserved tourist attraction" is to lift the design restrictions on builders and developers -- presumably so architects are free to express their vision.
Several thousand of us who have lived long and happily in the Old and Historic and Parker-Gray districts must have been fooled. We had no idea we were living in a wax museum. Soaring home values further attest to the excitement and interest in living in these neighborhoods.
What the Conkeys failed to disclose in their letter is their own tangle with neighbors about historic preservation, which is documented in City Council dockets.
Earlier this year they sought permission to build a two-story garage and home office at the rear of their property in the Parker-Gray neighborhood, which they proposed cladding in metal. With the support of 25 other residents who live around the Conkeys, a neighbor, Raymond Deakins, appealed the Board of Architectural Review's approval to the City Council. The Conkeys were then required to substitute Hardiplank to emulate historic wood siding. The case was further appealed by Deakins to the Alexandria Circuit Court, where it is pending.
This year has seen an unprecedented number of appeals regarding historic preservation cases -- Gunston Hall, 1210 Queen St., the Conkeys' project and now the historic buildings on upper King Street. These appeals were supported by a broad spectrum of residents of all ages, races and income.
What this signals is that our neighborhoods are pushing back against bad decisions that compromise the city's historic character. Without its history and charm, Alexandria is just another exit on the Beltway. There are many opportunities and much scope for talented architects and builders elsewhere in Alexandria or the wider region. Why sacrifice our irreplaceable heritage, when the community stands firmly behind preservation?
Doubts on Sports Complex
I was quite surprised to read in an article about the T.C. Williams football team ["Crafting a New Script for Titans Football," Oct. 13 Extra] that the City Council -- on which I serve -- will be voting on an "initial" plan for an All-City Sports Facility on Oct. 25. Unfortunately, I am nowhere near ready to sign off on a project that will cost taxpayers at least $5 million and that may not be the most cost-effective and gender-equitable remedy for the problem at hand: the need for more and better-cared-for athletic fields of various types for use by both men and women.
I'm concerned that the primary reason for building this 4,000-seat sports facility (at a cost of at least $11 million) is to bring nighttime football back to Alexandria rather than to really expand playing opportunities for a whole host of other sports, including soccer and lacrosse, which both men and women can play and which I suspect are much more popular, less costly and generally more accessible to the average athlete than football programs.
When it comes to reserving playing time at this new facility, I wonder who will be given first priority? Will it really be a multi-use facility where men and women get equal playing time? Is building a large stadium (over an existing field) the most cost-effective way to solve the growing demand for athletic fields? My wife, who was a highly accomplished high school and college athlete, recalls bitterly the time when female athletes received little or no financial support.
She's not yet convinced, nor am I, that the All-City Sports Facility is really being designed with enough of an eye toward the future. Although the T.C. Williams track team is nationally ranked, the design plan developed by the Parks and Recreation Commission does not include a new track or, for that matter, a bank of decent tennis courts. Space and cost obviously are issues to be dealt with, but what, then, are our athletic priorities?
As an avid tennis player and father of an athletic 12-year old daughter, I support spending more money to upgrade the city's recreational facilities, but I want the tax dollars to be spent wisely and for the right reasons. I'd like to think that if we're going to spend millions on a sports center, it really should be a place where women and girls have as much field time as men and boys and where many sports -- especially those that serve the largest number of people -- can be played all year long. Before taking a stance on the All-City Sports Facility, everyone who cares about this issue should ask whether these very basic questions have been answered satisfactorily. I don't think so.
Alexandria City Council