Del Ray and the West End provide a sharp contrast in the landscape of Alexandria. In Del Ray young homeowners are revitalizing a once-dying area, a revitalization that has not come without problems. Across town, the west End is home to a growing number of condominium owners, and as their numbers grow, so does the drive to influence the future of their city. Special writer Elsa Walsh and staff writer Robert Myers recently took a look at the areas and the concerns of the residents.
At a recent meeting of Alexandria condominium owners, city assesor David Chitlik received a few surprises.
"I was asked who the mayor of Alexandria was," Chitlik recalled. "Someone else asked me whether I was employed by their condo association or by the city itself.
"I was stunned. Here were all these people who lived in the city, but didn't know anything about it. But once they learn, I think, they'll become a force to be reckoned with."
Condominium owners in Alexandria already have grown large enough in number to make city officials take notice. An estimated 16,500 people, or 13.5 percent of the city population, live in condominiums -- four times the number just three years ago, according to city figures. And for the first time, the condominium population is nearly as large as that an older neighborhoods such as Del Ray.
Such growth has raised questions about the role condominium dwellers will play in a city traditionally controlled by single-family homeowners, and the response city officials will make to people who are concerned about Astro-turf instead of crab grass.
At stake, say some observers, is the future of a city that prides itself on small neighborhoods that attempt to achieve a cohesiveness despite a population turnover of 25 percent annually.
Alexandria's condo residents live in 7,871 units in 38 buildings, ranging from the tiny five-unit Port City development, near the George Washington Memorial Parkway, to the three Watergate at Landmark complexes, each with 400 units.
Half the units are in the gleaming highrises of the West End, where most buildings have their own pools, saunas, answering services, laundry rooms, beauty salons and recreation centers. The other units are scattered throughout the city in low-rise buildings, with fewer amenities.
According to city figures, the average assessed value of an Alexandria condominium is $52,600, a figure that would buy a one-bedroom condo at the 1,684-unit Park Fairfax complex near Shirley Highway.
That figure is considerably less that the average assessment of $75,000 for a single-family house in Alexandria. But condominium values have been increasing at a much faster rate than single-family homes -- 29 percent for condos last year, and only 20 percent of all housing in the city, according to city figures. About 30 percent of the units are rented out by their owners, a figure that parallels experience elsewhere in the country.
Despite the continuing increase in the condominium population, few residents seem to feel that Alexandria is home. More often, they express an allegiance to their own units, or self-interest.
"I go into Old Town only about four times each year," said Sheryl Bowling, 27, who lives with her husband in a $71,000, on bedroom-plus-den condo at the Greenhouse on Holmes Run Parkway in the West End. "When I go (to Old Town) I go to eat. I'm not a boutique-type of person."
City officials say the Bowlings are typical of many condominium owners: young, affluent, without children.
"Traditionally the biggest support we have had for the school system is from the single-family homeowners, who have children," said Vice Mayor Robert L. Calhoun. "It's possible that in the years to come (condo owners) will become vocal about an increase in school budgets which do not have any direct impact on them.
"In the larger condos, people can get so self-contained they don't ever have to come out into other parts of the city. But as there are more and more issues that concern them, they'll be heard from."
Many condominium owners in Alexandria, like the Bowlings, are drawn more to Georgetown and Tysons Corner for social life and shopping than to the restaurants and shops of Old Town. Others say the they shop only at the nearby Landmark shopping center and go to West End restaurants for drinking and dancing.
"I think we will have an impact as oiur numbers grow and city officials see our strength," said Robert Hammerman, president of the fledging Alexandria Condominium Association, which represents most of the condominium associations in the city. "We have already succeeded in getting some of the services for our members that single-family homeowners take for granted, like once-a-week garbage pickup."
The Great Garbage Issue provided rhe association with its most recent opportunity to test its muscles. Although condominium owners pay the same property taxes as other property owners, their units are classified as apartments, and owners did not receive free once-a-week trash collection as home-owners did.
Such unequal treatment angered condominium officials, who last year repeatedly sought "equal services for equal taxes." This year, they succeeded: For the first time, the City Council agreed to allocate $200,000 to the condominium associations for trash collection, which would pay for one free trash pickup a week.
Condominium officials are now trying to get the city to allow residents to bring food and drink within 20 feet of their swimming pools, and to decide for themselves if they want a lifeguard on duty. As matters stand now, the pools are regulated by the apartment code, which condominium owners feel should not apply to them since they are owners not tenants.
In alexandria, 12 condominium originally were apartments, while 26 were built as condominiums, according to city figures. Conversions and new construction each account for roughly half of the condo units in the city.Those numbers are expected to mushrooms as more landlords convert aging rental properties to condominiums, and as new condominium construction begins, especially in undeveloped Cameron Run on the city's southern rim.
A recent meeting of Hammerman's group, however, showed that political savvy, as well as intent, is needed before the condominium owners can become as powerful as their numbers indicate they might be.
The meeting featured Alexandria Mayor Charles E. Beatley Jr., who was kept wating 35 minutes while a candidate for Congress spoke about the oil crisis.
When Beatley finally spoke, he addressed only 21 people, although the issues of swimming pools and trash collection -- and, ironically enough -- finding a way to prohibit construction of future highrise condominiums in the West End, had been singled out by Hammerman as crucial to the condo owner's interests.
Beatley, a long-time civic activist from neighboring Seminary Hills, reminded those present of his past opposition to condos ("I opposed every rezoning which I permitted the construction of the condos you now live in)." With condos now a fact of life, however, he urged those present to be come involved in city government as a way of bringing about change.
Hammerman and other condo owners hope their neighbors will follow that advice. But as Hammerman well knows, it can be difficult to organize the thousands of residents in areas like the West End.
The problem came home to Hammerman last year, when he sought a seat on the City Council.
Although he waged a vigorous campaign as the "Condo Candidate," Hammerman came in 11th out of 16 candidates, in Large part because many of his neighbors in the West End didn't bother to vote.