Growth in Washington quickens with recovery


Quinn Cerana, 4, rides on father Yun Cerana's shoulders down King Street in the Old Town area of Alexandria. In census estimates pegged to mid-2011, Alexandria was singled out as one of the fastest-growing large cities in the country on a list otherwise dominated by places in Texas. (Daniel C. Britt/The Washington Post)

The District and some of its suburbs are gaining residents at a quicker pace now than in the previous decade, according to new census statistics that show most big cities in the country growing faster than the suburbs for the first time in decades.

The estimates show that in just 15 months after the census was taken in April 2010, the District gained more than 16,000 residents, a growth of 2.7 percent that brought the city within passing distance of nearby Baltimore, the next most-populous city in the country. That’s more than half as many new residents as the District gained in the entire decade of the 2000s, and it makes the District one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States.

Although the District is drawing the biggest number of new residents, Leesburg, Gaithersburg and Rockville were among several smaller cities and towns in the region that experienced outsized percentage gains in the census population estimates pegged to the middle of last year. Alexandria was singled out as one of the fastest-growing large cities in the country on a list otherwise dominated by places in Texas, although Alexandria officials disagreed, calling the growth solid but steady.

William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, said the phenomenon of big-city growth exceeding suburban growth points to an urban renaissance in the short term. He cautioned that although it might reverse when the suburban housing market picks up again, city-growth is likely to continue in cities such as the District, Denver, Seattle and Austin.

“They’re all magnets for young people,” he said. “There’s a there there. These are places that have attractive urban environments, with amenities as well as jobs. Young people can have a life there; they’re not just daytime cities.”

The estimates are based in part on birth and death records but are not always accurate.

For example, the census estimated Alexandria had added 4,300 residents to the 140,000 people counted in the 2010 Census, up more than 3 percent. Between 2000 and 2010, the city grew 9 percent.

City officials, however, said Alexandria has grown at roughly the same pace as it has for decades, a solid and steady 1 percent a year. Alexandria has added 200 housing units in each of the past three years, said Karl Moritz, the city’s deputy planning director. That represents a gain of 400 new residents annually.

Moritz said census estimates have proved overly optimistic in the past. Just three years ago, the census pegged Alexandria’s population at 150,000 — 10,000 more than were counted a year later in the 2010 Census. Moritz called it an “oops” moment.

“There’s nothing unusual in the housing and vital statistics,” he said after reviewing birth and death records. “There’s nothing we can see to suggest we’ve had an acceleration of growth in the past 15 months.”

The estimates might just have been premature in a city where cranes are again visible on the skyline. Seven housing projects are planned or under construction in the city, which is set to add almost 3,300 housing units in the next few years.

Alexandria has recovered faster from the recession than anywhere else in the region, said Stephanie Landrum, vice president of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership. Its housing prices are again at pre-crash levels, she said.

“People are wanting to live closer in as traffic becomes more challenging,” she said.

The Alexandria Chamber of Commerce gets 12 to 15 new members every month, compared with a national average of two or three, said Jay Palermino, the group’s director of membership.

“They see they’re stepping into an environment that is thriving and expected to grow,” he said.

If some people choose to live in Alexandria, others are chosen by their jobs.

Jan Prentace was calm and cheerful Wednesday afternoon as movers carried her books and dressers into her new apartment in the Beauregard Heights area of Alexandria. Asked whether she was the owner, she hesitated.

“This is actually a United Methodist parsonage,” she said. “I’m very blessed, because it’s very expensive in Northern Virginia.”

Prentace, the new pastor at the historic Roberts Memorial United Methodist Church in Old Town, was moving from Chester, south of Richmond, and looking forward to working at the historic African American church founded in 1832 by slaves and free black residents. Her neighborhood, on the West End of town, is filled with working people, mostly renters, who are worried about losing their homes as the area is redeveloped. Prentace said she was struck by the beauty of the tree-filled setting around the parsonage and the excitement of working with a new congregation.

“I feel like there’s divine providence at work, because my great-grandfather was a slave,” she said. Her father was a Baptist preacher in Ohio, and Prentace grew up vowing to “never marry a pastor.

“God had the last laugh” when he called her to her ministry, she said.

Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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