After a contentious five-hour hearing, the Alexandria City Council voted Saturday to allow the demolition of 15 public housing units in the historic Parker-Gray neighborhood so that they can be replaced with up to 53 units of affordable housing.
Deciding the fate of the 73-year-old Ramsey Homes visibly frustrated council members, who lashed out at the public housing authority — which will build the affordable housing — for not providing enough information and requiring a decision on short notice. They forced the attorney for the agency to agree that despite their 5-2 vote, no demolition will happen until the council and federal authorities approve a still-under-development proposal for what will replace it.
“This decision-making is unworthy of this body,” said council member Justin Wilson (D). “One way or another, it’s either going to mean significantly increased density on these properties, a significantly larger infusion of cash from this city or we destroy property that some people feel is historic. . . . This is a mess, absolutely horrible decision-making.”
The Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which manages the city’s public housing projects, wants to raze all four two-story buildings at 699 Patrick St. Built by the federal government in 1941-1942 to house African American defense workers, the buildings anchored the institutional heart of Alexandria’s historic black neighborhood, across the street from the long-gone, segregated Parker-Gray School and Robinson Library.
The Ramsey Homes have deteriorated, said ARHA chief executive Roy Priest, with inadequate heating, an electrical system unable to support air conditioning, narrow doors and stairs, and second-floor bathrooms inaccessible to some people with disabilities.
“These were very spartan homes,” and renovating them would cost almost as much as replacing them, he told the council. ARHA is at risk of losing federal housing subsidies because of the substandard conditions, he said.
Razing the property would allow ARHA to build more housing on the site that could serve both those on federal aid and those who make up to 80 percent of the area’s median income, giving the agency better cash flow from rents in an era when federal housing subsidies have dramatically shrunk. The agency needed a decision Saturday, officials said, because it plans to apply for federal tax credits for the redevelopment project and it first needed to be sure the council supported demolition.
In previous appearances before other city boards, ARHA said it wanted to build a 53-unit complex that would mix public housing with housing that is affordable to middle-income residents. Priest said after the meeting that the redevelopment proposal will come to the city in November.
But council member Paul Smedberg (D) attacked ARHA for allowing the Ramsey Homes to deteriorate, which later speakers described as “demolition by neglect.” He also berated the agency for failing to provide detailed information to the council before Saturday’s meeting.
“I want to make sure you’re a viable organization,” he said. “You are changing your [business] model; you are becoming a development corporation. This is your first, most important project. . . . We are time and time again put in this position, having to make these tough choices against deadlines.”
Smedberg and Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg voted against allowing the demolition.
More than three dozen residents, many of them neighbors, spoke in opposition to demolition, most focusing on the historic and cultural importance of the property.
Charkenia Walker, the only Ramsey Homes resident who spoke, said, “It’s hard to believe the historic significance outweighs the lack of modern amenities.”
Tempers flared again when the chairman of the ARHA board, Merrick T. Malone, objected to Smedberg’s charges that the agency doesn’t communicate well, and he then accused opponents of “racism and classism.” Boos erupted, and Malone soon apologized.
But it wasn’t the end of the anger and mistrust. Silberberg and council members Timothy Lovain (D) and Redella S. “Del” Pepper (D) tried to extract a promise from ARHA to retain half of the buildings. Mayor Bill Euille (D) and council member John Taylor Chapman, who both grew up in local public housing, argued forcefully about the need for more affordable housing. Alexandria has lost more than 12,000 affordable apartments since 2000.