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 revitatization that has not come without problems. Across twon, 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 Meyers recently took a look at the areas and the concerns of the residents.
When Barbara Dill hung out her Realtor's shingle in 1972, she was anxious to tell callers about Del Ray.
Dill had lived in the Alexandria community for several years and found the diversity of life styles and housing an ideal place to raise her two young sons. It offered an urban-like flair -- only 15 minutes from Washington -- but had the warmth and friendliness of a small town.
It surprised her, then, that disapproving pauses and clicks of tongues punctuated the conversation when she mentioned Del Ray to her clients.
Never, her colleagues counseled her, tell a prospective buyer that a house was in Del Ray. Del Ray, they said, conjured up images of urban blight -- white flight, dilapidated houses and pockmarked streets. Instead, they advised, casually describe the area as "upper Alexandria."
Eight years later, on the 50th anniversary of Alexandria's anexation of Del Ray, Dill no longer hedges when asked about a Del Ray address. Now, it's "trendy Del Ray."
Dill's shift from a hesitant seller to a pround advertiser reflects the feelings of many residents that Del Ray, after approaching death during the mid-60s and early 70s, has been reborn.
During the past five years, young professionals -- and more than $4 million in city and federal funds -- have poured into the area, providing a facelift for the run-down houses and blistered streets that once were typical of the area.
Despite the surge in revitalization, some observers say that everything is not rosy in Del Ray. At the same time some residents are finding the homes of their dreams, others are losing theirs.
Historically, "greater" Del Ray was bounded by Braddock Road on the south, Glebe Road on the north, Russell Road on the west and Jefferson Davis Highway (Rte. 1) on the east.
But as the character of the neighborhood has changed, so have the boundaries. Older residents, convinced that new homeowners would not represent their interests, have broken away from Greater Del Ray into smaller neighborhoods.
One indication of the new alignments is the birth of several new civic associations in the area. The Del Ray Civic Association, although still in existence, no longer represents most residents of Greater Del Ray. Instead, at least five new civic associations have been formed to represent neighborhoods once considered part of Greater Del Ray.
Residents of Del Ray itself, which had included more than 1,100 acres under the old boundaries, now define their neighborhood as 500 acres centering on Commonwealth Avenue, Mount Vernon Avenue and Braddock Road.
City officials also are aware of the changes in the area. For planning purposes, they group the various neighborhoods -- including Greater Del Ray and areas outside the traditional boundaries -- under the neutral name of Potomac West.
Alexandria city planner Pete Crabill says about 21,000 people live in Potomac West, including about 15,000 within the old Greater Del Ray.
City officials say the changing boundaries reflect a continuing concern of older residents in the area -- that the influx of young homeowners has come at a high school cost to the many lower-income residents who had rented homes in the area.
"As Del Ray becomes an increasingly popular area," said City Council member Robert L. Calhoun, "rental and housing prices rise higher and higher, making it more and and more difficult for low-income residents -- usually renters -- to live here."
Last year, more than 250 Alexandria resident asked various city agencies to help them find housing after they had been evicted from their homes, said Sharon Annear, a member of the city's Landlord-Tenant Board. Because the city has only a 1.5 percent vacancy rate in rental housing, Annear said, nearly three-quarters could not be helped. Although exact numbers are not available, city officials say many of those residents were from Del Ray. While city officials do not dismiss the problems of low-income residents forced from their homes in a "Comeback" neighborhood such as Del Ray, they contend that recent improvements in the area will outweigh displacement problems.
But families who are victims, or potential victims, of such displacement are not so sure.
Ethel Benton lives with two other women and eight children in a small, two-bedroom house in Lynhaven, on the northern edge of Del Ray. As Benton sat on her front porch, surveying the smattering of "For Sale" signs in the area, she quietly remarked: "We all worry about our homes being sold. You never know if a 'sold' sign will be waiting for you in the front yard when you come home -- everything around here is for sale."
City officials say several factors influenced the changes in Del Ray:
Affordable housing, with the promise of a good return on a housing investment.
Gayle and Tom Blachy, both in their mid-30s, bought their home six years ago for $45,000. Since then, they have substantially rehabilitated the house, which is on Mason Avenue in Del Ray, and have added on several rooms. Recently, the house was valued at $145,000. The average price of a home in Del. Ray, according to city assessor David Chitlik, is $75,000.
Proximity to Washington and to transportation. Del Ray is about 15 minutes from The Mall, and in 1982 two Metro subway stops -- at Braddock Road and at King Street -- will be within 2 miles of most Del Ray homes.
Completion of the Four-Mile Flood Control Project. Designed to eliminate the serious flooding that has plagued the area in the past 15 years, the project is nearly completed, opening up the area for major redevelopment.
Officials say one sign of veritalization is the steady change from primarily rental neighborhood to a more balanced homeowners-renters ratio.
A spot-check of city records on two main streets in Del Ray indicates the rate of turnover in houses. In the past five years, 47 of the 89 houses on East Del Ray were sold -- many of them several times -- while 87 of the 125 houses on East Windsor changed hands.
Single-family houses, said city planner George Colyer, represent 60 percent of the Del Ray housing stock. Of those, 40 percent are owner-occupied; five years ago, 30 percent were owneroccupied.
While many new residents have improved the area, they do not realize, said economic opportunity planner Fern Dennis, that they were a part of the first-round of speculation -- buying up relatively cheap housing -- that now is causing the serious housing shortage for low-income residents.
And, said Economic Opportunity Commission Chairman Phil Sunderland, Del Ray simply reflects a continuing trend in Alexandria. Since 1974, Sunderland said, more than 15 percent of rental housing -- or 4,500 units -- has been taken off the rental market by landlords who sell the units as single-family homes or convert apartments into condominiums.
The areas hardest hit by heavy real estate activity in Greater Del Ray, said Dennis, are the predominantly black and low-income neighborhoods of Mount Jefferson and Lynhaven, which already have been overburdened with an increase in renters since the 2,000-unit, Shirley-Duke apartments closed in 1978.
In an effort to cushion displacement in neighborhoods such as Mount Jefferson and Lynhaven, the Alexandria Office of Economic Opportunity, in conjuction with other city agencies, recently initiated a program to help low-income renters buy their residences by plugging them into low-interest loan plugging them into low-interest loan programs. For families who do not qualify for the loans, relocation efforts are being made.
Officials, however, are skeptical about the long-range benefits of the program.
"We are only moving them one step ahead of the next round of speculation," said Dennis.
Despite the displacement caused by the purchase of single-family homes, some residents had hoped that the other problem plaguing renters -- conversion to condominiums -- would bypass Del Ray.
Recently, however, the first proposal for a conversion was presented in Del Ray by the owners of Auburn Gardens, who expect to convert the 304 units by early next year.
The City Council this week approved a site plan for the complex after the new owners, the Savage-Fogarty Company, agreed to neighbors' request for improved parking. The developers also agreed with city officials to offer tenants a relocation plan, as well as sell units at a discount to tenants who are interested.
Although the city will make some money available to help residents purchase their apartments, block grant analyst Beverly Steele cautions that "most residents will not realistically be able to afford to purchase the units."
Julia Merchant moved to Auburn Gardens 2 1/2 years ago when her last residence was sold. Merchant pays $260 for her one-bedroom apartment, and her income consists of $225 in Social Security benefits and a $200-a-month rent subsidy.
The prospect of moving again dismays Merchant, who is 75: "I don't know what I will do or where I will go. What will become of us?"
Despite what some officials say is a serious rental housing shortage in Del Ray, the city planning department recently submitted a five-year plan to the City Council that excludes any large-scale development -- including low-income housing -- for Del Ray. Instead, the plan recommends that the low-density and single-family housing in Del Ray be maintained.
Residents' mixed reactions to the plan reflect the many problems facing Del Ray on the eve of its transition from a blighted community to a desirable address.
There are residents like Ruth Parker, who has five children and pays almost half of her $600-a-month salary in rent. Parker prays every night that her home will not be sold, but sees no solution to the displacement problems if the city does not begin providing low-income housing.
And there are residents like the Blachlys, who are sympathetic to the displacement problem and castigate "speculators," but who nonetheless support a building moratorium.
"We love Del Ray the way it is and I don't think we will ever leave it," said Gayle Blachly. "Why would anyone leave a place that is pretty, has a strong community feeling and where the people really care about each other?"
Some do not have the chance to make that decision, answered Auburn Gardens resident Charles Hendricks: "It's a wrenching experience when you learn the place you have called home is no longer going to be home through no fault of your own except to have the misfortune of being poor."