“I wake up at 3 or 4 every morning worrying about this,” said Pineda, president of the Beauregard Tenants Association. “My wife is crying. . . . We don’t want to move. We say, ‘No, this is our home.’ ”
The Alexandria City Council is scheduled to vote Saturday on a far-reaching plan that would allow the five developers who own the apartments to replace them with bigger, more expensive housing as well as new hotels and offices, turning the leafy low-rise neighborhood into something more akin to Arlington County’s stands of dense residential towers.
The stakes are high not only because the plan would make over the neighborhood but also, some argue, because it would more broadly influence who can afford to live in this increasingly affluent inside-the-Beltway city.
The decision could be as politically definitive as the continuing fight over plans to redevelop the city’s waterfront. But it’s also a struggle over who controls the future of a community — those who own and develop property or those who live, work and vote there.
Plans for a large area
The area marked for redevelopment is huge. At 430 acres, it is more than four times the size of the Pentagon and its parking lots and 100 acres bigger than the Mall in Washington.
Within the seven distinct neighborhoods lie two elementary schools, a botanical preserve and a separate nature park. There’s also a 496-room, 30-story Hilton, a grocery store and retail center, and the Mark Center, where 6,400 Defense Department employees will be working by September. Not far away lies the redeveloping Columbia Pike neighborhoods in Arlington and the Baileys Crossroads area of Fairfax County.
About 5,500 townhouses and low-rise garden apartments nestle peacefully amid mature trees and expansive green lawns in the western reaches of Alexandria. The 5,000 people who live in the buildings marked for demolition work as nursing assistants, sous chefs and construction workers, among other jobs.
Rents have been rising in the neighborhood simply because more people are looking for places to live close to employers, the city and developers say. Two years ago, 2,300 apartments there were considered affordable to those who make less than the median income; a year later, only 829 were still in that price range, and there’s been a 40 percent turnover at many of the buildings.
The five developers who own the Alexandria rentals — the JBG Cos., Duke Realty, Southern Towers, Home Properties and Hekemian Development — have the right under existing zoning permits to build more than 10 million square feet in the Beauregard area, 5.6 million square feet of which has been constructed. So when several of the developers went to the city with plans to exercise their rights, city officials began to look at how they could leverage those plans into improvements for the area.
The city negotiated a deal under which 800 of the new or remaining apartments would be affordable for the next 30 to 40 years to a family of four that makes $43,000 to $80,000 or less each year. That would be a major addition to the city’s affordable housing stock; none of the units now have capped rents. Developers also would be required to set up relocation assistance for those who have to move.
Developers would provide $9 million for a new fire station, $50 million for new roads and transit, $8 million for athletic fields and recreation, and $4 million for enhanced landscaping. They agreed to do this in exchange for 2.4 million square feet of development over what they are now allowed.
Those contributions would save Alexandria taxpayers an average of $2,800 over the next 28 years, Deputy City Manager Mark Jinks estimates.
“For a city of this size, this is an enormous amount of benefits,” he said.
The project would also cost the city $4 million from its housing trust fund intended to help low-income residents.
But over a decade, the city would collect and set aside about $52.4 million in additional property tax revenue because of the development, meaning that Alexandria would not have to dip into general tax funds for infrastructure improvements in Beauregard.
“This is a complete pay-as-you-go plan,” Jinks said.
‘Where is our government?’
Attorneys for the developers say that they began notifying tenants of their plan in 2009 and that the city has been holding meetings on the issue almost as long. They point to the multiple changes they’ve made in the plan based on public comment.
But opponents say that 800 affordable apartments are too few and that the plan still allows for too much density. They also contend that transportation plans are inadequate for the number of new residents that the redevelopment would attract and that widening Beauregard will require taking down mature trees that define the area. And for some, the issue comes down to a lack of trust in the city’s elected officials, the appointed citizen boards that approved the plan and professional staff members who are seen as bending too easily to developers’ desires.
“Planning is being done for people who don’t live here yet at the expense of those who live here now,” resident Joanne Lepanto said.
Pineda asked: “Where is our government? Where are the policymakers we once voted in? Are they going to turn their backs on us now because we are lower-income working people?”
Lepanto and Pineda are among the residents who want to stop the planning process until fall, when they hope to replace most of the City Council, and until the city has completed a promised survey of tenants, their incomes and their needs.
But opposition to the plan is not unanimous. Pete Benavage, who lives in Shirley Gardens, scoffed at criticism of a proposed traffic ellipse at the congested 10-lane intersection of Beauregard and Seminary Road.
“If we do not trust the experts we hire, why exactly do we hire them in the first place?” he asked.
City staff members warn that if the plan does not pass, all the negotiated benefits will be lost. Housing will be razed and rebuilt without any guarantee of affordable units, sewers will not be upgraded, transit improvements will be made more slowly, if at all, and the tree canopy that defines the area may not be maintained.
That’s not a warning that all residents accept, and during this spring’s heated discussions, some likened it to a threat.
To people like the Pinedas, who both clean houses for a living, the redevelopment they oppose might actually be of some benefit. If they can get one of those committed affordable units in 2013 or 2014 , their rent might drop. The big question for them is whether they can hold on.