The families who live on Elbert Avenue in north Alexandria, a one-street subdivision called Sunnyside, are fighting to maintain their neighborhood character amid thousands of apartments that surround them.
They remember that their community was developed in 1905 as a place for disenfranchised blacks to own single-family homes. And they feel they have been ignored by city officials during recent years as the population of the surrounding apartment buildings has changed and increased and as crime, trash and parking problems have grown steadily.
Sunnyside residents' complaints intensified this month after the body of a strangled teen-ager was found in a vacant lot along their street. Police have not solved the death of Bernadette Osuji, a 17-year-old Nigerian who was a resident of the nearby Brookside Apartments.
"It's just been continuous neglect," said Elsie Thomas, who lives across the street from the vacant lot and is president of the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association. "The proof in the pudding is that we had a tragedy . . . . We used to be a quiet community."
In response to the incident, Thomas called her neighbors and city officials together in a back-yard meeting last week. City Council members Lionel R. Hope and Carlyle C. Ring Jr. promised to help the troubled area.
"We're all here today to try to help and put this area back where it belongs, as a part of Alexandria . . . . ," said Hope. Representatives from the city's police department and its code enforcement, weed control and planning offices also attended.
Because the surrounding area now known as Arlandria boomed during the late 1930s and early 1940s before city zoning was in place, the density is almost three times as great as would be allowed under the current apartment zoning, said Larry Grossman of the Alexandria Planning Department. As a result, too little parking and limited open space cause the people and problems of the surrounding apartment buildings to spill over into the Elbert Avenue neighborhood.
Grossman said he was optimistic that the recent sale of seven apartment complexes known as the Layton Estate properties will mean more stability for the entire area. But residents of Elbert Avenue say they will still have 20 apartment buildings on one side where there are problems and that the improvements to Layton Estate properties might put more pressure on Sunnyside residents to sell out.
To ensure that problems do not worsen, Grossman is recommending that the current zoning be changed to allow only town houses to be built on the remaining undeveloped land between Elbert Avenue and Old Dominion Boulevard. The Sunnyside residents support the lower density zoning and would like relief from constant offers to be bought out. "We want to pass our property on to our children. And we want neighbors, not transients," Thomas said. "We want to know the people who live near us."
The undeveloped tract is owned by Presidential Gardens Partnership, the firm backing the renovation of an apartment project to be named Presidential Green just a block east on Executive Avenue. Mark Tracz, a partner in Presidential Gardens, told residents at the meeting that his firm would like to place "piggyback" town houses on the now-vacant lot across from Elbert Avenue. The town houses, which would have one unit on the first floor and a two-story unit stacked on top, would be sold instead of rented and could be built as early as next spring, Tracz said.