The Alexandria City Council is telling the city’s public housing agency to replace the run-down Ramsey Homes apartment complex with a 52-unit, mixed-income building, without attempting to preserve any remnants of the segregated federal housing.
The unanimous vote Tuesday night, which reversed guidance that the council members gave in February, added yet another twist to the long-running saga of the effort by the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA) to raze four low-rise apartment houses along busy Patrick Street.
The council was presented with two options: Build 53 new affordable apartments in two three-story buildings, or provide 52 units in a single four-story building and renovate one historic building for two new apartments.
But the council created a third option, which the city’s planning chief said his staff had not yet vetted to ensure that it is doable: Build the four-story, 52-unit structure, raze the existing buildings to provide more open space and move the new complex closer to the Charles Houston Recreation Center, which would place the green space directly across Pendleton Street from a row of privately owned townhomes.
The result was surprising, because after a series of contentious meetings in February, the council ordered city staff and the housing authority to work closely to come up with better choices on what to do about the mustard-colored apartments at 699 Patrick St.
Historic preservation was clearly a priority for Mayor Allison Silberberg, who with fellow Democratic council members Redella S. “Del” Pepper and Timothy Lovain tried to extract a promise from the ARHA last fall to save two of the four buildings.
Silberberg said Tuesday that although she strongly supports historic preservation, she didn’t want to save the four 74-year-old buildings at the cost of open space, which neighbors wanted.
The apartments, which the federal government built from 1940 to 1942 to house African American defense workers, have long been outdated, and they lack adequate heating, electrical systems and plumbing. Many doorways and bathrooms are inaccessible to people with disabilities.
Council member Willie F. Bailey Sr. (D), who is African American and recalled seeing Ku Klux Klan rallies as a youngster in southern Virginia, said that if the city surveyed all its African American residents, he was sure none would care about preserving buildings from the Jim Crow era.
“I don’t need anything to remind me of what went on back then,” Bailey said. “I just wish we could find a way to add on more affordable housing,” he said.
The struggle to find affordable housing is acute throughout Northern Virginia, especially in such communities as Alexandria, where there is little or no open space left. The city has lost more than 12,000 low-to-middle-income apartments since 2000. Ramsey Homes, as public housing, serves the lowest-income group.
The fight over the project was more about politics than housing, though, as the owners of the townhomes sought to exercise some control over the redevelopment and the newly elected mayor wavered between catering to those residents and trying to satisfy historic preservationists and affordable-housing advocates. Meanwhile, council members, some of whom were nursing a years-long feud with the public housing agency, remained openly mistrustful of the agency and prone to anger over their differences.
The Ramsey Homes redevelopment project is expected to cost about $17.5 million, said ARHA chief executive Roy Priest, almost entirely paid for with federal money. The city may put in as much as $800,000 if an overhead power line along Wythe Street is buried, but it was unclear Tuesday night if that will be required.
Karl Moritz, head of the city’s planning department, warned the council that his staff had not researched whether the four-story building could be moved to the north, and he cited possible conflict with an underground storm-water vault, which annoyed several council members. Moritz said that his staff will research the issue and that he will keep the council informed. This was the council’s last meeting before a two-month summer recess.
No design for the redevelopment has been created, and it is likely to be the end of the year before a special-use permit on the project comes back to the council. The ARHA plans to submit the project for federal funds in March 2017.