Claudia Aguilar stood in the leafy shade outside her two-bedroom garden apartment in Alexandria’s Beauregard area, chatting in Spanish with a friend and keeping an eye on her 4-year-old son as he madly pedaled his tricycle in the grass.
Across the street, middle-schoolers shot baskets on the courts of Ramsay Recreation Center. Residents walked home from their shifts at a CVS drugstore and Clyde’s restaurant, while a pair of painters headed out for the evening shift. An Ethiopian taxi driver pulled out of the parking lot, on his way to pick up a customer.
“I love this area,” Aguilar said of her neighborhood of six years. “This is like a little town. Everybody knows each other, all the kids. I see my friends’ kids growing up.”
But Aguilar’s $1,450-a-month oasis will vanish in the next few years. There are plans to demolish her modest low-rise apartment, along with 2,475 others, to build 5,000 housing units as well as stores and offices.
The result will mean a dramatic makeover for western Alexandria. On Saturday, the City Council is scheduled to take a final major vote to rezone the area and allow the project to move forward.
Aguilar, who works in the cafeteria at nearby John Adams Elementary School, has seen the drawings of the high-rises and the new town center and she likes its look. But she’s worried about her family’s place in the future.
“To be honest, I’m really sad because the new buildings will be fancy buildings, for people who make $80,000 or $100,000 a year. It will be nice, but we don’t make more than $20,000,” she said. “I want my kids to keep going to school here. I’m crossing my fingers I won’t have to go away.”
The Beauregard project, which includes plans for at least one new hotel, office buildings, athletic fields and parks, would dramatically change the landscape in a 430-acre area just northwest of Interstate 395 and southwest of Seminary Road.
Chevy Chase-based JBG Cos., the largest property owner, along with four other landowners, has been working on the plans for years. The first construction could begin as early as this year, although the entire project is expected to take three decades.
What’s about to happen there could be called suburban renewal. After urban renewal displaced poor residents, the less-affluent sought lower rents in the suburbs.
A generation of people found a home in the cluster of three-story apartment buildings and townhouses with small patios, air conditioning and free parking spots. That housing is now aging, and thousands of working-class Hispanic, black and Asian renters may be pushed out. But the renewal also could help answer the increasing demand for more and better housing inside the Beltway, improved mass transit and additional tax revenue.
“This is one of the largest inner suburban redevelopments in the United States,” said Derek Hyra, an associate professor of urban affairs at Virginia Tech. “The inner suburb is the new frontier for upgrading and gentrification.”
The city government has negotiated with the developers to set aside 800 new or existing apartments for the next 40 years for people who earn $15,000 to $65,000 per year, depending on family size. Most of the people who live along Beauregard qualify, although it’s not clear if they will be able to wait for one of the affordable units.
Hyra, who served on the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority and is now on the city’s planning commission, wants to see at least 100 additional apartments for lower-income residents. He’s also pushing to have those apartments ready within 10 years. Right now, the city says it will take 21 years for all 800 to be available.
“The whole idea is maximize the potential for [current residents] to stay,” Hyra said. “But overall, it's a pretty good plan.”
Rodney A. Lawrence, a JBG partner who oversees its northern Virginia projects, said the area will become a “walkable community with housing options for a broad demographic range of people.”
Lawrence noted that JBG has been working on the project for about four years, and just a year ago the City Council endorsed the concept.
“You need a broad mix of residential, retail, office,” Lawrence said. “The city deserves a lot of credit for this, for taking a bold move to think about this. It takes a long-term vision to recognize balance is important.”
Under Virginia law, a property owner like JBG has the right to raise rents, raze its buildings and rebuild whatever it wants, as long as it abides by local zoning laws. But city government offers a tantalizing carrot: If developers accept more oversight, stricter zoning and negotiate other amenities upfront, they can build a more dense, and more valuable, neighborhood.
That’s the route taken by JBG and the other developers — Duke Realty, Hekemian-Foster Fairbanks, Home Properties and Southern Towers.
In return, Alexandria negotiated $158.6 million worth of new infrastructure in the area, including a fire station, parkland and a rapid-bus transitway. The affordable housing alone is one of the largest developer contributions ever made in the region, according to JBG and the city.
Officials also say the tax dollars brought in by the new residents and businesses would amount to hundreds of millions in coming decades.
Former vice mayor Kerry Donley has strongly endorsed the plan, pointing out the benefits for housing, transportation, public safety and infrastructure.
Johanna Wilder has lived in the Brookdale section of Beauregard for 22 years. An immigrant from Holland, she raised two children in her $1,300-per-month one-bedroom-plus-den. She worked for 25 years for the telephone company and for the past 20 years has had a part-time job at the Kennedy Center as head usher in the children’s theater.
“I love the trees,” she said Tuesday afternoon, looking up from a crossword puzzle on her patio. “I personally like all the different cultures here, too. They’re not all white Americans.”
But she said she’s not surprised the landowners want to redevelop. “The buildings are getting quite old and kind of ugly; they’re not keeping them up,” she said.
Wilder would like to stay in her neat-and-clean home, but both her children now live in Arkansas and if she has to move, she’d go there, she said.
“It’s going to be devastating to a lot of people,” she said.
City officials say they are working to ease the transition for tenants. Under an agreement between the city and the developers, existing renters in good standing will have the first chance to move into the new apartments when their current buildings are scheduled for demolition. The city also is chipping in to help alleviate the burden on some lower-income families, promising cash payments of between $750 and $1,550 to help people move out while construction is underway. The very poor and the elderly will get double that amount.
Tenant and Workers United, a 23-year-old community organization that works with low-income residents, has been trying to organize the opposition for more than a year.
“The improvements, and where the overall concept is at, at this point is a good start,” said Aurora Vasquez, TWU’s co-executive director. “But we need to change the conversation from numbers, units, taxes and taxation to people. . . . We should be approaching this holistically.”
TWU last month called on some of JBG’s investors, such as the giant California State Teachers’ Retirement System and the Yale University endowment, to pressure the developer to provide low-cost housing for all existing tenants.
JBG’s spokesman called that effort “a misinformation campaign” and said it had no effect once the investors were fully briefed.
On a recent afternoon, Aguilar, the mother of two, said some neighbors are looking to move farther from the District, to places such as Woodbridge or Manassas.
She knows that she, her husband and their children eventually could be among them, but for now she is keeping her fingers crossed.
“People like us, who are paying their rents on time, we are trying to be good tenants,” she said. “We might have to move. We could never buy a house, but we might buy a trailer. I think we’ll stay until the end.”