When Tina Breeding moved to the Del Ray area of Alexandria 22 years ago, Mount Vernon Avenue was thriving with small businesses. The smell of freshly baked pastries filled the avenue, and most residents could walk from their homes to buy those treats, or to shop at the grocery, the five-and-dime, the hardware store.
But the bakeries are gone now, and the sweetness of life along the avenue has somehow gone sour for the 27,000 residents near the 2 1/2-mile commercial strip. For some years, the strip has been marked by a deteriorating landscape and the opinion of some Alexandrians that Mount Vernon Avenue had seen better days.
In recent years, the area began changing, partly because of young homeowners who bought homes cheaply and put money and muscle into rejuvenating their neighborhoods. The new life brought with it a stronger tax base for the city -- and increased city interest in Mount Vernon Avenue.
Last year the city allocated $4.75 million for rehabilitation of the area and agreed to a community request that a task force of citizens and business owners be formed to advise the city on the project.
But the official rejuvenation process got off to a messy start this summer when members of the newly formed Mount Vernon Avenue Revitalization Task Force couldn't agree on how many business people and how many residents would sit on the panel.Both sides wanted to make sure their interests were protected.
Only after Mayor Charles E. Beatley Jr. recently threatened to scrap the task force were the boiling tempers in Del Ray stew lowered to a simmer. The task force now includes five business leaders, community activists and a representative from the city Chamber of Commerce -- just what city officials wanted in the first place.
"I think you are seeing growing pains. People care about that area, which is why there's such turmoil," said Vice Mayor Robert L. Calhoun. "But if these people can work together, we have a good chance to avoid the problems of King Street and Old Town, where residents claimed they never knew about all the business developing around them."
Mount Vernon Avenue runs through the center of an area dubbed Potomac West by city planners. The area includes several small neighborhoods, such as Del Ray, and is bounded by King Street on the south, Four Mile Run on the north, Russell Road on the west and Rte. 1 on the east.
The Braddock Road Metro station anchors the south end of Mount Vernon Avenue, near George Washington Junior High School, in a modest residential area.
At the other end of the avenue is Arlandria, where business and homes formerly battered by flood waters from Four Mile Run Creek are now protected by a recently completed $55-million flood control project.
In between are several residential neighborhoods with large single-family homes that real estate brokers regard as some of the best buys in the metropolitan area. The area is marked by one of the most complex economic and racial mixes in the city -- white, black, poor, rich, longtime residents and newcomers. In the past, that has been a volatile mixture, particularly during the racial disturbances of the 1970s. But, of late, the blend has become a point of pride among residents, who boast of the ability of neighbors with sharply differing backgrounds to get along together.
The new attitude has not gone unnoticed.
"Some of those people have been at each other's throats for years," said City Council member Donald D. Casey. "Now we're waiting for the dust to settle."
Adds council member James P. Moran Jr., who won his council seat last year largely by running as a champion of improvement in Del Ray, "After being ignored for so long, the city is starting to pay attention to the area."
The $4.75 million allocated for revitalization is to be spent over the next six years for a variety of improvements -- placing utility lines underground, planting trees, replacing sidewalks, adding benches. The council has approved $500,000 for the project over the next two years, city officials said.
The city also is seeking its first economic development coordinator, whose only task will be to oversee development of the Mount Vernon corridor, according to Vola Lawson, head of Alexandria's Community Block Grant Development program.
Lawson's department also has $445,000 available in low-cost loans to help store owners improve the commercial area.
A major concern of the task force will be to recommend to the city where the improvements should begin, at the southern end of the area, where commercial development is concentrated, or at the northern end, where residential neighborhoods predominate. The main issue in that discussion will be whether business or residential interests should come first.
A recent report by the city staff showed that shop-keepers consider crime and parking the two major obstacles to commercial development, and the task force also is expected to review those issues.
"Crime is the main thing we have to worry about," Tina Breeding, a task force member, said recently. "I don't know how we solve that, but you can't expect people to invest in the area as long as crime is what it is."
Police say the most common crimes are vandalism and shoplifting.
"Crime on Mount Vernon Avenue is similar to the crime rates in the King Street and Duke Street business corridors," said a police planner. The most common crime is larceny, or theft, and most stolen property is taken from automobiles, he added. Along the Mount Vernon corridor, police report that the highest crime area is in the Arlandria section near Four Mile Run.
Last year, in response to neighborhood concerns, the police Department assigned one officer to patrol the Mount Vernon corridor full time during the 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift, another police spokesman said.
If William Scott Jr., whose family has run the Scott Shop on Mount Vernon Avenue for 41 years, down-plays alleged crime problems. "You get that everywhere," he said. "It's no different here than it is anywere else."
Parking presents a ticklish dilemma: Task force members will be asked to find a way to provide enough parking for shoppers without creating problems for residents.
Maybe we'll have to give a little, and convert a home close to stores into a parking lot," said Breeding, who represents a citizens' group on the task force. "Everyone is going to have to sacrifice a little."
Other issues the task force will face include the question of whether to impose construction height limitations, such as those now in effect elsewhere in the city, and whether to attempt to limit population growth.
All these issues will require give-and-take by both business people and residents. Bob Bellavance, head of the city Chamber of Commerce and temporary chairman of the task force, believes the panel will be able to achieve that cooperation.
"The squabbling will pass," he said. "The task-force will get its job done.