The owner of the Gunston Hall apartment complex has rejected a $12.3 million bid from the nonprofit Alexandria Housing Development Corp. to purchase the property, saying the agency's bid did not meet state preservation requirements.
The year-old city-supported corporation had sought to buy the property on South Washington Street to preserve its 66-year-old buildings and its middle-income rental units.
Last year, the city's Board of Architectural Review approved a proposal by a developer, Basheer & Edgemoore, to tear down the 56-unit complex and replace it with 60 luxury condominiums and townhouses. But after protests by residents, preservationists and affordable-housing advocates, the City Council decided to withhold the demolition permit for a year to allow time for someone else to purchase the property at market rate in order to refurbish it and preserve it as affordable housing.
Preservationists say the low-rise red-brick Colonial revival buildings, which have a grassy expanse and were constructed when the George Washington Memorial Parkway was being built, are an important part of the city's history and geography. Affordable-housing proponents say they are trying to save the dwindling number of rental units available to middle-income residents such as teachers and firefighters as Alexandria's real estate values rise steeply.
Earlier this fall, the City Council voted to lend the housing corporation the money to buy the complex, and late last month, the corporation offered $12.3 million for the property, the price that appraisers had said was the "fair market value."
But Shawn Weingast, vice president and general manager of Gunston Hall Realty, said the corporation waited too long to hammer out the details of how it intended to preserve the property, which he said was a required element of any bid to buy the property for preservation.
"We're very disappointed," he said, adding that the corporation had waited until the last day possible, Nov. 23, to send in details of an easement for the property.
Weingast said that when he called the corporation's representatives to discuss problems with the easement, they had left for the Thanksgiving holiday. He added that after Nov. 23, the earlier deal he had made with Basheer & Edgemoore could go ahead.
"I wound up trying to bend over backwards," Weingast said. "I offered to go to their meeting Monday night, I offered to meet with them on Tuesday. They sent me a contract with many errors the last day possible, and when I called them back regarding the errors they went home."
Weingast said the corporation had proposed adding an easement to preserve the property, but "it didn't include restoration and it could be vacated," or overturned. "They've ignored the whole preservation issue to the point where I don't think they care about historic preservation."
But Mark Jinks, an assistant city manager, said Alexandria Housing Development Corp. had submitted a bona fide offer and that the owner's requirements about how the property would be preserved were much more stringent than the city's requirements for the purchase. "The seller had a long list of additional detailed questions, some of which came in the night before," he said, adding that the corporation answered them the next day. "The standards that the sellers were putting forward in the view of the HDC were not reasonable."
Jinks said the owner's refusal to sign the contract was not a surprise. "I think all along it was clear that the seller was not interested in selling the property" to the housing corporation, he said.
The city will now look into the housing corporation's bid to determine whether its preservation plan was consistent with the city's housing preservation code. If the city determines that it was, the developer will have to apply for another demolition permit, which will be reviewed by city planning officials. If the permit is rejected, the developer can go before the Board of Zoning Appeals and on to circuit court if its zoning appeal fails.
City Council Member Andrew H. Macdonald (D), who supports preserving the buildings, said the owner did not negotiate in good faith. "They've made it as difficult as possible," he said. "They tried to get us to sign things saying that the rehabilitation must meet national historic guidelines," which, he added, is not a requirement.
Noting that the amount being offered by the developer is higher than fair market value, Macdonald said: "I don't think they've ever been really interested in the city's acquisition at all. It points to how difficult it is to acquire such things without a willing seller."
Danny Abramson, president of the Alexandria Housing Development Corp., said the issue is important because it arises as Alexandria is deciding what it wants to be.
"Do we want to be just an affluent community of expensive townhouses . . . or do we want it to be a place where people who make $35,000 to $50,000 can live?"