The best thing for the community would be to have the Carver Nursery building preserved, restored and programmed, says the owner of the building, but it’s not that simple.
“I am a preservationist,” says Bill Cromley, a developer and owner of the North Fayette Street structure, which has been in the Alexandria spotlight recently for a looming deadline permitting its demolition.
The community has engaged in recent discussion about the building, which was built to school African-American children during World War II and later was an American Legion post for African-Americans not able to join whites-only posts.
“I’ve preserved more buildings in this town than any one who has had something to say about this issue put together,” Cromley says. Most recently he’s renovated 224 Fairfax St., 1210 Prince St. and the carriage house behind the 200 block of North Pitt Street, for example.
“The idea that this debate is preservationists versus developers is ironic,” he says. “It’s much more nuanced than that.”
Cromley says people can agree or not whether the building is “historic” but “even if we all agree it’s historic, then what happens? There is no money to save the building. It’s in bad condition. …It’s a practical problem, not a historic problem or a moral problem.”
Cromley bought the building about five years ago and the city approved his request to have it torn down. A lawsuit and subsequent agreement allowed the building to stand for about two more years with the idea that a buyer or a means to preserve it would be found. No suitable solution has been offered.
“Nothing has happened in two years,” Cromley says. “What could any reasonable person expect me to do? I have a family with children and a career in the business. I have done my part to help preserve the building.”
Members of the community are divided. In a recent letter to the editor published in Patch, former Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald wrote that Cromley and the city “have made no serious effort to preserve this building because they want to develop it.”
Crowley says the onus is not on him or the city, it's on the people who are clamoring to save the building.
City council members, community members and others have recently held multiple meetings as a Feb. 25 deadline looms.
Supporters of saving the building are circulating draft notes from a Feb. 10 meeting regarding the building that was not attended by Cromley. In those notes proponents of saving the building say Cromley “is willing to give a six-month extension.”
Cromley told Patch that interpretation is incorrect.
Cromley said if someone could “give me a sense of a reasonable way to save it, I would extend [the deadline] for as long as it took to happen,” but he added that a plan to save the building is not going to save the building.
“I need something other than words,” said Cromley. For example, he would consider a commitment from an individual buyer or a group of churches.
He said about 10 prospective buyers during the last two years or so considered the building and “all said it needs to be torn down” partly because the structure likely was intended to be a temporary structure like many buildings constructed in the Washington, DC area at that time.
It also has asbestos shingles, which could be covered with new siding, but he argued that “every time you shoot a nail through as existing shingle you’re shooting fibers in to the air next to a playground” located adjacent to the vacant Carver building.
He said it would cost about $7,000 to $8,000 to remove the shingles, which is also a possibility. “It can be restored - anything can be restored - but is it financially viable,” he asked.
When he bought the building, Cromley said he decided that the building wasn’t financially viable and wrote a letter to the city manager. He asked to move it about 30 feet to the adjacent park, saying he would pay for the new foundation, to have it moved and would give it to the city. The city refused.
Cromley recalls that the city in 2009 nixed his idea largely because it said there are so many other financial needs in the city.
Cromley says he’s not going to have a bulldozer there on Feb. 26. “That wouldn’t be the right thing to do.”
“Up until the 25th offers can come in. I don’t have plans for this building now but there has to be an end to this process,” he says.
“The opponents of having this demolished should have hope. It’s not coming down on the 26th. I hope their last effort is fruitful. There is an opportunity to make something happen. I hope they do, but I’m not holding my breath.”
Proponents of saving the building need to understand “that the way the world works is that people get together and actually do something – not just talk about doing something.”
Some community members plan to come before City Council Feb. 23 with a proposal to save the building through a newly created foundation.