Drive south along Washington Street leaving the city of Alexandria. Just past the rumbling earthmovers and the cranes that rise over the Wilson Bridge like the mad needles of a giant sewing machine, two hulking brick towers fill the frame of your windshield.

Hunting Towers.

These days, they are so much more than mere uninspired apartment buildings. They have become the center of a fight about fast-disappearing affordable housing, scarce waterfront property, wetlands protection, urban ambience and property rights.

The Alexandria City Council, Virginia Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, National Park Service, environmental groups, housing advocates, the developer and the residents of the buildings are all fighting over what will become of the property: Swank waterfront condos? Wetlands preservation? Affordable "workforce" apartments? So much drama over such a small piece of land.

The problem is this: VDOT bought the property for $95 million in 2001 to make room for the Wilson Bridge construction project. The agency demolished one apartment tower, two office buildings and three garden apartment complexes to make way for the new bridge and ramps.

VDOT didn't really want to buy the remaining buildings, two at Hunting Towers and five garden apartment buildings across Washington Street at Hunting Terrace, which have a combined 645 apartments. But when the agency's financial analysis showed that it would cost more to leave the buildings in private ownership and pay for damage caused by the bridge construction than to own them outright, it bought the buildings and became a landlord. VDOT planned all along to sell the buildings and plow the money back into the bridge project, to help pay its $2.4 billion price tag.

The agency has since poured millions of dollars into repairing collapsing apartment ceilings, rehabilitating a swimming pool and making other fixes to the properties.

Now, VDOT wants to sell the combined 22-acre property, one of the few buildable waterfront parcels left in the area. And, with property values in Alexandria having more than doubled in the last three years, VDOT wants top dollar.

With 7 percent of its affordable housing converted to upscale condos in the past year, and with another 10 percent being converted, the city -- which has little power to stop such conversions -- wants to preserve at least some affordable housing at Hunting Towers. Monthly rents at the aging apartments range from around $700 to above $1,000, which is still within the reach of many elderly tenants on fixed incomes, military personnel and young professionals just starting out.

In public meetings and private discussions last week regarding a proposed Hunting Creek Area Plan, City Council members considered how to use zoning regulations to keep affordable, or "workforce," housing on the land. But under state law, there is little the city can do other than offer incentives to developers -- such as allowing them to build taller structures or buildings with higher density in exchange for affordable units.

The City Council was expected to vote Tuesday on the master plan. At a closely watched public hearing last Thursday, council members agonized over what kind of zoning and land-use restrictions or incentives to put into the plan in order to promote affordable housing. Should they hew to Old Town height restrictions or let a developer go higher on a promise of providing affordable housing? Do they keep the 80-foot setback proposed by planning staff, or again, with a promise of affordable housing, allow a developer to build wider and closer to the road?

They decided to delay action until this week.

"The state of Virginia effectively has an affordable housing policy that says, 'Go buy a house in the Shenandoah Valley and we'll make the road wider for you to get to D.C.,' " council member Rob Krupicka (D) said at a hearing last week. "Our police officers, our schoolteachers are no longer able to afford to live in our community. I feel very strongly that we have as much flexibility as possible" to offer developers.

Krupicka himself lived in Hunting Towers, he said, when he first moved to Alexandria.

The city's stance, which has drawn praise from housing advocates and residents, has environmental groups and the National Park Service worried. They say the spot is a critical "Gateway to Mount Vernon," George Washington's ancestral home, that it marks the transition between the urban area and the bucolic marshes and trees, and that it allows for river views from the George Washington Memorial Parkway. They want careful building restrictions and oppose giving a developer free rein to build wide and tall in order to accommodate affordable housing.

"There's a 76-year-old agreement between the National Park Service and the city of Alexandria to protect and preserve the George Washington Memorial Parkway that needs to be kept in the forefront of the discussion," said David Murphy of the National Park Service. "The bulk and density and possible housing there is potentially significant. We have no quibble with affordable housing. We believe everyone can have their cake and eat it, too."

But the state and federal government don't see it that way at all. Imposing any kind of zoning restriction or requirement for affordable housing amounts to a "downzoning," which will reduce the value of the property they are preparing to sell. Indeed, Kay Management Co., the property's previous owner, which began negotiating Sept. 1 with VDOT to buy it back, has already raised the proposed zoning change in negotiations in an effort to bring the sale price down.

"If the fair market value we determine for the property is not received, then obviously the state would receive less money for the property," said Malcolm Kerly, VDOT chief engineer. "That would mean we would have to make up those funds as we try to finance the rest of the Woodrow Wilson bridge project."

And as to the goal of maintaining affordable housing? "We're not responsible for land development in that area," Kerly said.

Robert Fonseca-Martinez, a division administrator with the Federal Highway Administration, which has financed 80 percent of the bridge project, denounced the city's plans in a recent letter as "self-serving" and "a flagrant and obvious conflict of interest."

He noted that if the deal with Kay Management falls through, the city is next in line to buy the property, and he said he would request a "full investigation" if the city follows through on zoning restrictions.

But Vice Mayor Redella S. "Del" Pepper (D) said the city has no ability to buy the land. "There are no suitcases of money in the basement," she said at a hearing.

All of which raises the question: Given all these competing pressures, what will the future look like here, hard by the sprawling new bridge and the marshes of the Potomac?

Fond Memories of a Bygone Era

The two eight-story buildings that make up Hunting Towers are not pretty. The 1940s structures are big, boxy, sturdy and made to last. The Hunting Creek Area Plan, which the city Planning Commission approved earlier this month, described neither Hunting Towers nor Hunting Terrace as being worthy of historic preservation. And both places showed "little sign of a spirit of neighborhood or community" -- an important planning and design goal for future residential building in the city.

It's true. Outside, there are few trees and few gathering places, other than the parking lot at Hunting Towers and the pool, now covered. On a recent day, Hunting Terrace's courtyards were empty.

But step inside the Towers and a whole new world opens.

There is 91-year-old Theresa Pilla, who has lived at Hunting Towers since the 1950s. She tried moving back to New York after her husband died and after she retired in the late 1990s. But after one month, she came back to Hunting Towers.

"All my friends, all my most gracious memories were here," she said. "This is where I was the happiest."

Sit with the carefully coiffed Pilla in the lobby of the West building as her friends drop by to chat. Friends such as Carroll Lester, 73, who once tended bar at the Surf Bar at the swank Hunting Towers restaurant that Pilla owned with her husband. An on-ramp to the Beltway now stands on the bar's former location.

When Lester was a young man from West Virginia, Hunting Towers was the place to be. "This is where all the action was," he said, easing his bones into a stuffed armchair, his wool socks poking through holes in his moccasin slippers.

Airline flight attendants and pilots and Redskins players lived in the East building, and there was always a party to go to, Lester said. "If you were well-to-do or wanted to hide, you lived here, in the West Building, where it was quiet." People such as Mercury Seven astronaut Walter Schirra. A former Mr. America. Members of Congress and their "women playthings." "You could see a lotta 'em running in and outta here."

And Francis Gary Powers, the pilot of the U-2 spy plane shot down over the former Soviet Union, once he was released from captivity.

Ardith Dentzer, 47, sat on the lobby floor last week, listening intently and pressing the old-timers for details. She has lived in the building for eight years, moving here after testifying in New York as a federal whistleblower in the BCCI bank scandal. Her life was upside down, her marriage and career over. And to her, Hunting Towers was safe. It was a place to heal.

She formed the Hunting Point Tenants Association, which now has 267 members. In her book-lined top-floor apartment, she has stacked six boxes of files in her living room. She has attended just about every hearing and meeting and has fought persistently to keep the aging apartments affordable.

"Just when I think I'm ready to move on, I'll have an elderly neighbor ask me, 'Please Ardith, just work it so that I can die here,' " she said. "My faith is a huge part of my life. My faith tells me to love my neighbor. Once I know all the residents are safe here, I can leave."

There are no building plans on the table. And the best guess that residents and City Council members have come up with is that Kay Management would demolish Hunting Terrace and build a luxury high-rise.

But the towers? Left as is? Refurbished and converted to condo? Demolished and replaced with high-end waterfront condos? No one knows. And the potential developer isn't saying.

Howard Middleton, a local attorney representing Kay Management -- a Washington-area apartment management company -- and its partners, told Mayor William D. Euille (D) last week at the public hearing that the group was committed to making a "substantial contribution" toward affordable housing -- either in units or as a cash contribution.

That made housing advocates, who would prefer that units be earmarked for affordable housing, suspicious.

"There's a perception that getting folks at a certain moderate income level into developments that are high-end, such as this has the potential to be, adversely impacts your marketing," housing advocate Martha Paschal said. "It's easier, for a lot of different interests, for there to be a cash contribution."

Looking for a 'White Knight'

Pilla, with her memories of an elegant bygone era, and Lester, with his, rose stiffly from their lobby seats and returned to their apartments.

Dentzer sighed. "I wish there could be some white knight to come in and save us," she said.

Across the parking lot, just over the massive concrete sound wall going up, jackhammers pounded, trucks rolled and the arching cranes busily stitched together the new Woodrow Wilson bridge.

The Alexandria City Council discusses the proposed Hunting Creek Area Plan at a meeting last Tuesday. The city wants to preserve some amount of affordable housing at Hunting Towers and Hunting Terrace.Ardith Dentzer, above, has fought to keep the apartments affordable. At left, Dentzer talks with 91-year-old Theresa Pilla, who has lived in Hunting Towers since the 1950s. Some fear the apartments will be demolished to make way for luxury condos. Others have concerns about the environmental impact of any new construction on the site.