Residents of a modest Arlington apartment complex are asking the county to save their homes by preventing high-rise development on the site, using a new strategy to try to preserve affordable housing in the area.
"We hope this could set the tone for preserving garden apartments throughout the county," said Victoria Luna of Tenants of Arlington County, a housing activist group. "If this works out, it could give tenants a chance to help plan development, rather than just react to it."
The County Board is expected to decide tonight whether to hold a public hearing on the move by residents to protect the 40-year-old Pollard Gardens apartments, its 14 two-story brick buildings overshadowed by high-rise condominiums and offices that have sprouted along the Ballston-Virginia Square Metro corridor.
The people who live there, low- and middle-income workers and senior citizens, many of them Hispanic and Asian immigrants, are upset by the prospect that they could be evicted by redevelopment. They are pushing for a change in the county's General Land Use Plan to prohibit high-rise buildings on the site bounded by North Fairfax Drive, Wilson Boulevard and North Pollard Street.
Because the land use plan is only a development guideline, county officials are unsure whether changing the plan would prevent Pollard Gardens' owners from tearing down the complex's 124 one- and two-bedroom apartments.
But officials say the residents' move to change the development guidelines before any new construction has been proposed -- a tactic some residents are calling a pre-emptive strike against redevelopment -- represents a new strategy to try to preserve Arlington's dwindling supply of low-cost housing.
"It's definitely a new approach," said Wayne Rhodes, an Arlington housing official.
Like most Pollard Gardens residents, Aldona Gurskis found the complex to be an oasis of affordable housing in a fast-growing, expensive area. Gurskis, 73, and her sister, Lucille Mielcarek, 65, both widows, pay $550 a month for their one-bedroom apartment.
Gurskis, who has lived at Pollard Gardens for six years, said she does not drive and fears being forced to move because she might no longer be able to walk to her favorite church and grocery store.
"I don't know what we'd do if we had to leave here," Gurskis said. "Some people here have gotten so frightened they've moved away. My sister and I have walked around looking for another place, but there's not much to see and what we could afford is so run down."
Pollard Gardens' owner, Premier Realty Co., has not commented on its plans for the property, but acknowledged in a letter to residents last week that it is "evaluating redevelopment alternatives" with Tishman Speyer Properties, a development firm.
The letter told residents that Premier has no plans to redevelop the property within the next year, but said its representatives soon will begin talking with a residents' committee about possible aid in finding new housing.
Although changing Arlington's land use plan could make it difficult for Premier to have the Pollard Gardens site zoned for high-rise development, state property rights still give the owners wide latitude in deciding the complex's future.
If the land use plan is changed, under the property's current zoning Premier probably still could tear down Pollard Gardens and replace it with town houses or similar residential units.
"The big question here is whether changing the land use plan would be something more than a gesture that would merely make everyone feel good," County Board Chairman Albert C. Eisenberg said.
"That's something we'll have to find out."