The Alexandria City Council, in a surprise reversal, will give its public housing authority another chance to find a way to replace a historic, but decrepit, 15-unit complex with a larger mixedincome development.
The vote late Tuesday rescinded a controversial decision by the council to effectively kill the redevelopment project. Instead, the council will reconsider the proposal March 12.
Council member Paul Smedberg, who had voted against the project Saturday, told his colleagues Tuesday that he had watched the video of their weekend deliberations and concluded that the outcome did no one any good, particularly the 15 families living at the severely run-down Ramsey Homes, a 74-year-old public housing project in the Parker-Gray neighborhood.
“We can all take a deep breath and reset everything,” Smedberg said, adding that the Alexandria Housing and Redevelopment Authority will have to work with the council to find an appropriate size for the project.
Smedberg’s motion to rescind the vote came at the end of an otherwise routine legislative meeting, when two citizens, a reporter and a handful of city employees remained in the council chambers. It quickly reignited some of the vitriol that followed Saturday’s session.
Mayor Allison Silberberg (D), who with Smedberg had voted against the project Saturday, asked Smedberg why he did not alert the full council of his desire to rescind before making his motion at 10:15 p.m. Smedberg said that he had not decided what to do until that hour.
Silberberg was surprised and appeared skeptical, noting that the city attorney, James L. Banks, had copies of the relevant legal code ready to pass out when Smedberg made his motion. Banks, whom Silberberg had earlier accused of providing inconsistent legal advice on the Ramsey Homes issue, said he prepared the copies on his own in anticipation of questions or an attempt at a reversal.
“Let the record show I’m not pleased that the city attorney did not inform all of us,” Silberberg said, prompting immediate rebukes from council members Timothy Lovain and Justin Wilson.
“Everyone on this body should have the decency and accountability if we have a criticism of staff, we address it at the appropriate time and place,” Wilson said. “This is not the appropriate time or place to do that, madame Mayor.”
Council member John Taylor Chapman defended Smedberg’s right to make his motion. He said all members of the council, including the mayor, should understand parliamentary procedure well enough to know that a reversal would be possible.
Meanwhile, one of the few people left in the audience — activist and Silberberg supporter Boyd Walker — began posting comments on Twitter questioning the council’s reversal and trying to draw council members into an online debate while the meeting was still going on.
“So, before people have even fully digested Saturday’s decision you are ready to reverse it?” one tweet read.
Silberberg is new to the mayor’s seat this year, after serving three years on the council. If there was a honeymoon period for her mayoralty, it ended abruptly last weekend.
Saturday’s decision and the political tension that it exposed prompted hundreds of comments on social media, a number of which were critical of Silberberg. More than 1,500 people watched the six-hour archived video during the first 30 hours it was available.
The recision of the vote, which appeared to be unanimous, gives the city’s public housing authority a new opportunity (“its last chance,” Smedberg vowed) to replace the failing Ramsey Homes with a redevelopment project that combines public housing and housing affordable to low- and middle-income families.
Neighbors have objected to the agency’s proposal to build 53 apartments on a half-block parcel, saying it was too big and would take away the green space that exists in the current garden-style complex.
Preservationists have lobbied to save at least one of the four existing Ramsey buildings, which were built by the federal government to house black defense workers during World War II.
On Saturday, the council refused a request from the housing agency to rezone the Ramsey site to accommodate the 53-unit project. Housing officials say they need the extra density to generate enough income to maintain the new complex and subsidize the public housing units it includes.