Sunday, July 27, 2008

1200 Prince Edward--What Next?

It has been over four years since fire destroyed the seventeen-unit apartment building located at1200 Prince Edward Street. What remains is a 19th century brick fa├žade that is structurally sound. Next month City Council will again debate whether this structure should be demolished and the lot restricted to single-family use. The Council’s decision on this issue will impact not only the historic character of our downtown but also Council’s housing goals, and the City’s urban character.

What will occur next month in City Council Chambers is a continuation of a debate that began two years ago when the owner, Al Sharp, presented a proposal to build four condominium units using the existing facade. Prior to Mr. Sharp’s proposal the Architectural Review Board (ARB), in response to City efforts to declare the property blighted, unanimously voted against the blight designation and recognized the, “historical significance of the building.”
At its next meeting the ARB gave, “conceptual approval” of the owner’s plans to restore the building.

A month later the Planning Commission approved the proposed reuse of the structure on a 6-1 vote.

On August 8, 2006 the project came before the City Council. A Council majority, 4-3, voted against the proposed reuse. The majority rationale provided was that the new use was not in compliance with the current zoning.

There is no question that the proposal submitted for the re-use of the building was not in compliance with the zoning. In this case, Mr. Sharp did not even have the option of applying for a Special Use permit. His only option was to apply for—a Special Exception. Two observations on this point—1) The Planning Commission and staff recognized that the project could have been considered to have met the Special Exception criteria. 2) A large number of structures in the Historic District are not in compliance with City zoning and their owners would find themselves having to apply for Special Use Permits or Special Exceptions in similar circumstances.

This is what happens when you apply 20th century planning concepts—zoning—to an 18th/19th century downtown. Under these circumstances ridged application of zoning makes no sense. Some common sense must be applied. In this particular case we must look at this project in the context of our Comprehensive Plan and economic realities. When we look at these we find that the single-family home option does not work and frankly doesn’t meet our goals.

On the economic side when one takes into consideration the cost of the lot along with the cost of demolishing the structure we are looking at a single-family home in the million dollar range. I have talked to a number of developers in the area and they all agree that a single family home is not economically feasible.

Then there is the issue of the Comprehensive Plans goals for housing. Two state the following:

“3. Encourage retention and rehabilitation of existing residential dwelling units as a means to maintain affordable units. (See also Neighborhoods Policy #12.)”

“15. Promote the development of a variety of housing types (e.g., single-family units, townhouses, loft apartments, accessory apartments, etc.) throughout the City, while promoting homeownership.”

How does replacing (17) apartments with a single house achieve our goal, “ to maintain affordable units, " and “Promote the development of a variety of housing types.”

While I would prefer a plan that provided housing options for teachers, firemen, and police I would have to say four condos comes closer to our goal that another “McMansion.” I share former Councilman Wilson’s much stated fear that we are pricing our children out of the City.

Downtown is not suburbia. Within two blocks of 1200 Prince Edward Street there are apartments and commercial development. This is an urban setting. Today, as in the past, downtown residents reside above commercial establishments, in apartments or single-family homes. This mix provides opportunities for diverse economic groups working both inside and outside of Fredericksburg. These residents are the employees and patrons that help make our downtown a success. We need to maintain this diversity not eliminate it.

Finally there are our preservation goals. Every member of Council who voted in August 2006 acknowledged the historic and architectural significance of the building. Those that voted against the four-condo proposal made this clear. On the issue of demolition they pointed out, “Voting against the four-condo proposal is not the equivalent of demolition." At our August 12th meeting we will begin to discuss a staff recommendation to do just that—demolish the building.

We need to revisit all options for the reuse of this property in the context of our goals, economic realities, and a little common sense. In 2006 the Planning Commission put strict guidelines on their approval to expedite the redevelopment of the property. We can do so again.

Post Script--Councilwoman Mary Katherine Greenlaw has advised me the brick structure still standing was built around 1934. I was referring to previous Historic District surveys which refer to parts of the building dating back to the 1880s. As Councilwoman Greenlaw has extensive experience with this issue I would defer to her position and offer my apologies for the error. I would point out that in June of this year the ARB again reaffirmed their position that the building was a contributing element to the Historic District.

1 comment:

Bryan said...

I have to agree with the common sense approach here - Building 4 condos is better than demoloshing the building. Hopefully in construction of whatever goes here, they preserve the front, side and corner fascias that show the old store front design.

The worst thing that could happen here is that they city goes forward with demo, because that doesn't accomplish ANY of the goals. The owner is more likely to build a single family home of grand proportion, the city doesn't preserve any of the historic structure, and I would bet the combined tax income from multiple condos does not equal that of one sf home.

Any chance of appealing the previous council decision? Maybe have them resubmit the application with additional architectural oversight from the city? Alternatively, could some preservation society use city backed bonds to purchase and rehab at lower rates? Why are the only options, do nothing waiting for a new plan from the owner and demo the entire property.