Historic District Is Essentially Finished

Historic District Is Essentially Finished

Letters to the Editor

City hall continues to undertake (paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence) “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, [which] evinces a design to reduce us under [the] utter despotism” of an Old Town accommodated to dense development. Three strikes against Old Town, each egregious unto itself, together “evince a design” toward subordinating Old Town's historic protections to the pressing need for housing for the growing number of workers the region's economy employs. 

The Waterfront Plan was the first warning sign of what should now be clear is a gradually unfolding attack upon the historic districts' underlying presumptions, but the Waterfront Plan did not prove to constitute such an attack because its most egregious development concessions proved ephemeral: 301 N. Fairfax St. spot-zoning opponents even cited the Waterfront Plan to oppose the proposed rezoning; new buildings where they face the river might have a modern look, but facing inward they are still compatible with their historic surroundings: 

The Heritage development: Theoretically, tearing down the old affordable apartments and replacing them with more on the same site is not what exposes where city hall's actions “evince a design,” but the city council's unanimous vote overruling the board of architectural review's unanimous decision nixing the developer's incompatible-with-the-historic-district design and city hall's unwillingness to seriously consider removing that portion of the development from the historic district so as to not create a precedent. 

City hall's embrace of the Council of Governments report deeming historic protections incompatible with housing production: The COG complained that the city's “historic areas ... make it difficult to build multifamily housing;” viz., our historic districts are an impediment to city hall's desired density. By endorsing the COG's housing construction targets and consequently passing Zoning for Housing/Housing for All, the city council implicitly embraced this formulation framing a dichotomy of either historic protections upholding the past or an adequate housing supply for the workforce of the present and future. 

301 N. Fairfax St. spot zoning: The “zoning before planning” that sat so poorly with several planning commissioners and the spot zoning to suit the developer set a precedent for what city hall is likely to approve in the historic district going forward. 

But it is actually the YIMBYs of NoVA statement on 301 N. Fairfax St. which lays out where the demographics voting for candidates who support these atrocities are willing and even eager for things to go: The sole speaker in support of this redevelopment, the YIMBYs primary Alexandria lead, said: “This project should be a slam dunk, but it’s gone through the ringer of reviews and delays. Speakers here today – who are already comfortably housed in Old Town – have opposed the project on what are fundamentally aesthetic grounds. … Old Town is also a living neighborhood that should be treated as more than a museum for tourists and people already lucky enough to live there.” This statement frames the issue as one of moral and practical necessity – people needing somewhere to live – versus selfish ephemerals – aesthetics for folks already lucky enough to live in Old Town. “The ringer of reviews and delays” condemns the historic districts' – and perhaps even the zoning code's – raison d'etre. 

The historic district as we have known it is essentially finished ... not all at once, maybe not in its most of its defenders' lifetimes, but by the time most YIMBYs reach retirement, the historic district may well have been repealed or so many exceptions made that it loses most of its character or individual buildings or façades designated historic in lieu of having historic districts. 

The YIMBYs' formulation is a direct counter, both moral and practical, to the “thoughtful, appropriate development that fits in and is to scale, and will protect our neighborhoods and quality of life” because “all of us are the temporary stewards of this national treasure called Alexandria” which former mayor Allison Silberberg laid out as our standard. But “temporary stewards of this national treasure” is all the compelling moral and practical response we need to defend Old Town. Many of us have spent more money maintaining our residences' historical characteristics for the benefit of future generations than we would a regular residence. And what the YIMBYs dismiss as “a museum for tourists” is what keeps the historic district an economically viable net generator of city tax revenue. 

We should, though, welcome the YIMBYs' formulation because it is much more honest than then vice mayor Justin Wilson's facile “projects that are more dense than we probably would have otherwise, have less open space than we otherwise would have, that preserve less around historic fabric than we otherwise would have” in order to make them affordable, when most such projects yield so few affordable units. 

Dino Drudi

Alexandria, 22314