A group of preservationists has filed a lawsuit against the city of Alexandria to block developers from partially demolishing a historic building on upper King Street to make way for luxury condominiums.
The five-member group, led by resident Boyd Walker, filed the suit in Alexandria Circuit Court. The suit argues that because the two-story Colonial-style building at 1520, 1522 and 1524 King Street was built in the mid-19th century, it must be preserved under rules of the city's 100-Year Buildings List.
The developer, DSF Long King Street LLC, has offered a plan to build the six-story, 65-unit condominium complex around the historic building. City officials approved the developer's request to demolish a shed they say was added to the back of the building in 1985 and has no historical value.
"We agree that nothing should happen to the original building, but taking off sheds built in 1985, if anything, enhances the original building and would bring it back to more of its original appearance," said Eileen P. Fogarty, the city's planning and zoning director.
Opponents of the project say they don't believe the shed is entirely a modern addition, citing evidence they say shows that it was built over historic features in the rear of the building. The project's opponents say that removing the shed would destroy parts of the building that merit preservation. They say, nevertheless, that there is more at stake than the razing of a shed.
"People come here for the history," Walker said. "If you tear down buildings, especially the buildings along our main street, a street which has been a model for main streets across the U.S., you lose what people come here to see. These buildings are connected to our history."
To complete the project, which includes 5,400 square feet of retail space on the ground floor, underground parking and a 4,600-square-foot courtyard for residents and shoppers, the developer would tear down two rowhouses built in the early 1900s that are also in the 1500 block and gut a building in the 1600 block. The site is about two blocks from the King Street Metro station.
Jonathan Rak, an attorney representing the developer, said a "careful process of design" was carried out so that the scale and character of the condo complex would be consistent with nearby buildings.
"The primary issue that's been raised is the character of King Street, and it's one we've been careful to preserve," Rak said.
Some city planners argue that Old Town needs an infusion of mixed retail and residential development to give it new life, but critics say such projects do more harm than good and that they would strip Old Town of the history that makes it attractive to residents and visitors.
"This reminds me a lot of what happened during urban renewal here in the 1960s," Walker said. "We tore down buildings on King Street and created our architectural style we call 'phony Colony.' What they're trying to create isn't even historically accurate to this part of town."
Alexandria City Council member Andrew H. Macdonald (D) voted against the developer's proposal and supports the lawsuit, saying he is "adamantly opposed" to the loss of the city's charming older buildings, even if they don't fall within the 100-year standard for historical protection.
Macdonald said the debate being waged over the upper King Street development is just "the tip of the iceberg" and warned that city planners need to reconsider the rules governing historical preservation before development wipes out more buildings that have no protection.
"Historic buildings -- the 100-year-old ones and slightly younger -- are not only essential to the historic character of the town but to the future and current retail vitality of the town," Macdonald said. "The use and reuse of the buildings is what makes Alexandria special. To tear them down and demolish and encapsulate them results in a less historic town. That is what makes Alexandria ultimately important and valuable and attractive."
Retail stores on the upper end of King Street, which is outside the city's historic district, are struggling. As a result, the City Council voted in May to adopt the King Street Retail Strategy, which explored ways of enhancing the thoroughfare. It essentially authorized the development and revitalization of upper King Street and encouraged shopkeepers and property owners to be creative in their marketing.
Some planners view the proposed condo development as a valuable opportunity to rejuvenate the area.
"What you'll have if it goes through is a condo development that will give life to the street at night," said Thomas Hulfish, chairman of the Board of Architectural Review for Alexandria's old and historic district, which voted in July to allow the shed to be razed.
Although 52 residents signed a petition appealing the decision, it was rejected by the City Council in September in a 5-2 vote. "The city feels it's a good project," Hulfish said.
No hearing date has been scheduled for the lawsuit.