Thursday, September 23, 2010

Preservationists In Alexandria Play the Race Card

Drawing the line between honest historic preservation and nagging nostalgia is a difficult task. But sometimes the more difficult task is pulling back the layers of hyperbole to find the truths hidden behind the stereotype of bad, cigar-sucking developer squashing hopes of poor, kindhearted preservationists. In October of 2009 the Alexandria City Council upheld (with a 6-1 vote) the previous Board of Architectural Review (BAR) decision to allow demolition of the crumbling American Legion building at 224 North Fayette Street in the Parker-Gray neighborhood. But in an effort to avoid demolition, owner and developer Bill Cromley offered to delay his residential redevelopment plans for sixth months, hoping a preservationist would take the property off his hands at the city's assessed value. Nothing came to fruition. However, a bid of a different kind eventually did come, as self-proclaimed preservationist Boyd Walker recruited a group of 25 mostly elderly and African American Parker-Gray property owners to sign an appeal petition against the proposed razing.

Although all but two of the 25 signatories (including Walker) failed to show up and voice their concerns at the Council hearing, the group went ahead with the protest and hired the formidable local law firm Williams & Connolly to file a discrimination suit against the City Council, putting an indefinite hold on Cromley's plan to develop the property into a contemporary condominium. "Elevating architectural significance above cultural and historic significance inevitably has a disproportionate impact on buildings in historically black neighborhoods, while affording ample protections to historic structures in predominately white neighborhoods," reads the lawsuit. The building served as a childcare center assisting African American women who left their children daily to go to work, replacing the men that had gone overseas to fight in WWII. Later the building became the only American Legion post in Alexandria to serve black veterans as they returned from war, and throughout the '50's and '60's served as backdrop to community life in the predominantly black neighborhood. Later, the building became well known as a place of public drunkenness, fighting, and drug activity, until its liquor license was revoked in 1992. More recently it's remained empty, uncared for, and rotting from the inside out. It's hard to deny the building's history, but then again history is naturally embedded in everything, everywhere.

How does one decide when history is significant enough to favor preservation in the face of progress? Cromley argues that even if it is agreed that the building is historically significant (which he doesn't), there remains the question of feasibility, of practicality, of plain and simple economics. Opponents to demolition have communicated no viable plans for restoration or preservation, and the status quo would be demolition by default. Cromley remains convinced that the money it would take to stabilize and restore the old American Legion post would be impossible to reclaim in the marketplace. But he remains open to someone stepping in and proving his estimates incorrect. In order to make renovation and re-use of an old property financially worthwhile it has to have at least one of three factors working in its favor, explains Cromley: "location, size, and/or something special or quirky about the building. This building has none of these."

Cromley, only interested in the purchased land, originally offered to give the building to the city of Alexandria for free, and even offered to pay for it to be moved some fifty feet to the neighboring parkland as well as foot the bill of a new foundation. The city declined the offer. Cromley also contacted the Director Lonnie Bunch at the Smithsonian whom he knew to be in pursuit of storied artifacts for his newly planned Museum of African American History and Culture. But Smithsonian curators deemed the building unfit to convey their particular message, as they were hoping to illuminate the contrasts of "separate but equal." Historians revealed that the former nursery building in question was at the time built identically for both white and black communities.

Cromley, who has worked extensively on several successful historical restoration and adaptive reuse projects, such as the historic renovation of an old warehouse into Virginia's first LEED-certified condos on Queen Street, and formerly served as chairman of the Alexandria Board of Architectural Review, contends that "if this were the local Robinson Library, the Alexandria Black History Museum," a place built in response to one of the first Civil Rights sit-ins during which several young black men peacefully demanded library cards at the Alexandria Library, "I'd be adamantly opposed to whomever was trying to tear it down." But Cromley believes the opposition to his development is simply a cynical stalling effort, less a move for historical preservation and more an attempt at self preservation - a self-serving attempt by Boyd Walker to garner attention and publicity as a preservationist. If this was really about preserving African American history, Cromley insists, a legitimate institution would have stepped up to the plate and offered to preserve this property. "I've been open and trying my best to facilitate that solution," he says, "but the proof is in the pudding, no one has stepped forward."

In 2007 the BAR levied the highest fine in its tenure against Boyd Walker, docking him $25,000 for tearing down the historic canopy of the Old Town ice house at 200 Commerce Street without permission or proper permits. Tom Hulfish, then Chairman of the BAR, chastised Walker's actions, saying, “Boyd knows the process better than most people and yet he simply ignored it. This entire episode has been an embarrassment to the historic preservation statutes." This isn't the first time Walker gotten behind efforts to stop development. Walker, this time with broader community support, helped end a larger, more expensive commercial retail redevelopment on several blocks of King Street a few years ago, squeezing the developer out of his plans with promises of protest. But Cromley insists it won't work with him. He admits the lawsuit could tie his plans up for many, many years, but isn't too stressed. "I bought the property for very little," he says, "and the market can't get much worse, so it's bound to be worth a lot more in ten years."

The trial is set for November, but the waiting game has only just begun, with the plaintiffs invoking the Equal Protection clause of the 14th amendment. "They were clever to add that civil rights claim because that opens the case up to an appeal in the federal courts...," Cromley concedes, "...this thing could drag on for a decade." In the meantime Cromley will focus his efforts on his most recent project, a pure restoration of an 1851 Greek Revival residence in the heart of Old Town, located at 227 South Fairfax. A stately home was built the decade prior to the Civil War, and the structure was quickly expanded, eventually encapsulating a pre-existing shack, serving as a rare example of a residence in which the slave quarters were actually included within the confines of the house.

Old Town Alexandria, Virginia Real Estate Development News


IMGoph on Sep 23, 2010, 12:29:00 PM said...

this is proof that using capitalism or "the market" as the judge of what's valuable, what's historic, and what's worth saving will, inevitably, result in the destruction of history towards the favor of those who have money. simple as that.

J. Galt Speaking said...

And proof, IMGoph, that with out capitalists we'de be looking at old rotten dilapidated buildings that no one wants or cares for.

IMGoph on Sep 23, 2010, 1:19:00 PM said...

woohoo! i trolled a randite!

(without is one word, by the way)

that's why, in certain instances, preservation requires something besides the judgment of captialism alone to assign value and worth. this appears to be one of those.

Anonymous said...

I'm not really comfortable with the author's use of "Preservationists" in the title of this article. The spirit behind preservation is to preserve history both cultural and architectural but to also encourage adaptive reuse of structures. That is what preservationists do - not this NIMBY one sided activity that makes the rest of them look bad.

For example - other preservationists will be celebrating tommorrow night the adaptive reuse of a long derelict property now a Room & Board retail establishment on 14th Street.

There are preservationists and there are NIMBYs - believe me - there is a difference.

Anonymous said...

I agree w/ first comment.

Are we shocked only a couple of the old Af-Am petition signers showed up at the meeting. They are old.

I do not see this a playing race card. That is thrown around too casually now.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the phrase "playing the race card" is sometimes used inappropriately, but in this case, where the City of Alexandria is being sued for racial discrimination for allowing a property owner to demolish a building, I think it applies.

Alexandria is a majority white city with an African American Mayor, an African American Chief of Police and an African American City Attorney. Two of seven City Council members are African American, both of whom voted in favor of the demolition.

Calling them racist is a stretch.

Anonymous said...

In many parts of the country, situations like these are resolved by timely yet mysterious fires. Of course, I would never advocate such an illegal and dangerous approach.

Jay on Sep 24, 2010, 8:15:00 PM said...

Off the top of my head, here are some similar buildings in Old Town Historic District that are not attractive but still standing/protected.

Jones Point Lighthouse

The closed down military surplus store at the foot of Prince, which is really worn down but might get re-habbed.

House at NE corner of Prince and S. St Asaph. Looks like an old country shack, but preserved due to its age, one of the oldest in OT.

It seems to me that buildings are saved in the Old Town historic district, but in Parker Gray, people just want to get rid of them.

As far as undesirable prior uses, some of the buildings that were saved in OT had seedy pasts.

Heck, they saved part of the Alexandria Jail on North St Asaph and even put up a plaque to commemorate it.

Anonymous said...

I've had experience with both Alexandria BAR's, including my home in Parker Gray two blocks from the American Legion Building. The written BAR guidelines and the staff have always emphasized the importance of maintaining the historic fabric of the districts without regard to architectural or special historical significance. The only exception is when the structure is unsafe. (I was able to demo part of my house on that basis – after an inspection by BAR staff)

I have never been in the building, maybe it is ready to fall down. If it’s not, the City could lose the lawsuit on the basis of its guidelines alone.

Mr. Cromley has a very long, very friendly history with the City, and has more experience with development and redevelopment in Parker Gray than anyone else. Period. More likely, the demolition approval Mr. Cromley secured is not because the building is unsafe, but just another example of a long, long, long list of questionable approvals he has secured over the years because no one in small town Alexandria is prepared to tell him “no”. And if that’s case, the City is going to have to pay to defend a losing lawsuit and eventually Cromley will discover an adaptive reuse that will probably involve demolishing most of the structure anyway (with the City’s approval).

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