Take a ride on the 8M Metrobus line called Shirley-Duke.But don't expect to find any traces of the old Shirley-Duke -- the notorious, decaying crime-ridden apartment complex that was closed in the late '70s.
This is now Foxchase of Alexandria.
And, as the trendy Foxchase ads have promised for the past year, it offers "2,113 new leases on living."
"That bus is one of the last things left with the Shirley-Duke name," said Leonard Skolnik, property manager of Foxchase, a development that could house 5,000 people, or 5 percent of Alexandria's population. "And I don't think there is anything we can do about that. Though we'd like to . . . ."
It has been a year since the first tenants moved into the 87-acre property -- formerly the 200 buildings of the Shirley-Duke and Regina apartments -- between Duke Street and Shirley Highway in the west end of Alexandria. After renovating the interiors of all the buildings, adding balconies to all and a third floor to some, the management has leased all but 142 of the 2,113 apartments.
"We had to lose the old image of Shirley-Duke, and it had to be killed totally and completely," said Morton Sarubin, Foxchase's Baltimore developer, when he announced the new name last year.
His wish has all but come true. Sarubin describes his feelings about the $100 million project, which will be completed eight months ahead of schedule, as "blissful."
Built to house returning World War II veterans, Shirley-Duke by the mid-'70s had deteriorated into a roach-infested eyesore Skolnik described as being "like Berlin after the war." The wooded slopes of today's Foxchase feature Olympic-sized pools, clubhouses and tennis courts.
Last year, when Alexandria Mayor Charles Beatley, who lives in nearby Seminary Hills, learned of Foxchase's new gentrified name and the names of its four quarters -- Longpath, Huntingwood, Derbyshire and Saddlebow -- he was impressed. "Foxchase of Alexandria?" he said at the time. "That's pretty ritzy. Sounds more like Middleburg to me."
Along with the new image has come a new crop of residents. Most of those who were forced out when Shirley-Duke closed were low-income families (median annual income: $7,354). Many of the former tenants were on public assistance. New residents must have an annual income of about $13,000 to be able to rent the least expensive apartment in Foxchase.
Foxchase reflects what some have come to call the "new" Alexandria -- a city with a population that is, according to the latest city planning survey, 52 percent single and 10 percent older than 65. Skolnik says his demographics show there are more single than married people among the new renters, and most are between the ages of 21 and 35.
A recent survey found that 34 percent of new Foxchase residents are from Alexandria; 10 percent from Arlington; 9 percent from Maryland; 22 percent from Washington; and 25 percent from outside the immediate area.
"There's a nice mixture of people here," said Gene Prather, 80, who moved last August with his wife Erma into one of the 423 Foxchase apartments set aside for subsdized housing under HUD's Section 8 program. "It's like a village here: nice trees around, and it's a block and a half from the shopping center."
"I think the name is silly," said John Horan, 31, who just moved in. "But it's a full range of people, from young professionals to retired people."
The shift in the resident population from large, low-income families to higher-income singles and small families has changed a few other things in the neighborhood as well.
The adjacent shopping center, being redeveloped along with the apartments by the joint partnership of Morton Sarubin, Bush Construction Corp. and the National Housing Partnership, is getting a new facade and a new, foxy name. Exit West End Shopping Center; enter The Shops of Foxchase.
The center's old-time barbershop is gone, soon to be replaced by a unisex salon. A jewelry store, a furniture rental store, a computer center and a coin shop have moved in. Gone are the topless bar and the mom-and-pop clothing store.
"I want the image of the stores to be upbeat and cater to the people who are now living in the area," said Roxi Hill, who manages the shopping center but is also called the Foxchase social director. "I want a restaurant like Clydes. Maybe we could call it The Hunt Room?"
At the center's Grand Union, the baby food section has shrunk and beer, wine, tonic and frozen entre'es are popular items. "We're thinking of putting in a Japanese gourmet section soon," said assistant manager Al Hancock.
"I've been here for 21 years, and I've seen the area go from one extreme to another," said Hancock. "In the 1960s you had the poor whites, mostly with two or three kids. Then it gradually became more black, and the families grew larger. When Shirley-Duke closed, we thought we would have a bigger drop in business than we did . . . . Now business is up, and I think the area is 100 percent improved."
The transformation was a while coming. By 1977, conditions had become so bad that owners of Shirley-Duke were denied occupancy permits and foreclosed by creditors, starting the downhill slide.
Sarubin bought the apartments and shopping center in 1978, but it was several years before he could begin work. City officials, fearing a repeat of the Shirley-Duke situation, argued for months over the plans for the project. And neighboring property owners complained to the council about having subsidized housing in the area. It wasn't until March 1980 that Sarubin began the renovation, after receiving a $72.5 million loan from the Virginia Housing Development Authority and federally insured financing at below-market rates.
Next February, when the cranes and trucks move out and all apartments are occupied, a new chapter will begin for an area that has foxtrotted from here to eternity and back in 31 years.
When the spanking-new Shirley-Duke apartments opened their model rooms in 1950, 6,000 families lined up to take a look. The models were decorated in the "in" colors of lipstick-red and chartreuse and were filled with blond furniture, leopard-skin lamps and gold-filigree mirrors. One of the heralded extras was an exhaust fan in every kitchen.
The rents at that time, said to be the lowest of any post-war apartment project in the area, ranged from $60.75 to $74 a month, including all utilities except electricity. The adjacent 30-store shopping center was called "gigantic" and "innovative."
When Foxchase opened 30 years later on the old Shirley-Duke tract, the models were done in neutral colors, with chrome and glass furnishings, horsey accessories and fox-hunting prints. The countryish Foxchase logo features a golden hunting horn on a navy-blue oval. At the grand opening party, hostesses were dressed in riding clothes.
According to Foxchase marketing supervisor Jacquelyn A. Van Cleve, rents now range from $320 to $365 for one-bedroom apartments and from $475 to $510 for two bedrooms. Every apartment has a dishwasher. Utilities -- electricity and gas -- are extra; Van Cleve says utilities total about $45 monthly for one-bedroom units and $65 for two-bedrooms.
As for The Shops of Foxchase, there are two establishments not universally loved by the tenants: an adult movie theater and a proposed video game center, which some tenants believe would encourage loitering.
Some residents say they prefer to shop at other nearby centers. "I don't find the selection of shops there that I would like," says Horan, a teacher who moved to Foxchase from Washington. The Foxchase management says it's working on the problem.
Horan is one Foxchase tenant who was not aware of the history of the complex or its special arrangement with the city. Foxchase developers contracted with the city of Alexandria in 1979 to ensure that the city would not lose the rental units to condominium conversions. The 20-year agreement prohibits Foxchase from going condomimium and also reserves 20 percent of the apartments for persons who qualify for federal rent subsidies (Section 8).
The subsidized apartments, scattered throughout the buildings, have all been rented, according to Skolnik. "We are trying to be very selective -- legally selective -- in our criteria for them," he said. "We look at where they have lived, how they lived and how they paid their rent. We visit them in their current homes as often as we can."
Skolnik, who says most of the subsidized apartments are occupied by senior citizens, noted that few prospective tenants have expressed concern about having neighbors in subsidized housing.
"This has not been a problem, said Skolnik. "Most of them are elderly, and a senior citizen is a good person to live next to. They have more fun than the younger people sometimes."
The Prathers, who live in a subsidized apartment, say the area is ideal for them since they don't own a car and can easily walk to the shops. Gene Prather, a retired pianist, says Foxchase representatives visited him and his wife in their apartment at nearby Southern Towers before they were offered the lease.
"We like the winding walks. It's safe at night and everything is new here," said Prather, who has managed to squeeze a Steinway into his new, one-bedroom apartment. "I'm a country boy, and there's a window even in the bathroom and kitchen. And we like to be around younger people."
The Foxchase management has given residents plenty of opportunities to mingle by sponsoring parties on the grounds. "And the Foxtales newsletter brings the latest news -- what's happening in the construction progress, how to get Foxchase T-shirts -- as well as coupons redeemable at neighboring shops.
Residents seem pleased with the Foxchase services and the way the complex is run. Most say maintenance is prompt and efficient, and the management says the only complaints have concerned lack of storage space and the small size of the one-bedroom units. The city Health Department and Office of Landlord Tenant Relations report that the low number of complaints they have received -- including a few reports of sewage problems -- have been quickly resolved by the management.
"We liked the location and the fact that it wasn't a high-rise," said Gordon Oliver, 27, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment with his wife Sandra. Oliver, who works at nearby St. Stephen's School, says the complex was recommended by co-workers.
"It's convenient," said Horan, who moved from an expensive D.C. high-rise. "But I'm sick of my friends asking me if I've caught any foxes yet."