For more than a quarter-century, the land has sat unused, a rare wooded patch in the commercial hodgepodge of Route 1 (Richmond Highway) in southern Fairfax County.
It has remained untouched as trees and bushes grew where hundreds of mobile homes once stood, before the county cleared them as part of what was to be a grand redevelopment. Birds twittered in the branches. Homeless people broke through the perimeter fence to camp amid the unused utility hookups and mossed-over lanes.
But still the 33 acres stood, becoming a subject of unending debate: What to do with North Hill?
An answer might finally be at hand. Fairfax County Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) announced at a recent meeting that he endorses dividing North Hill, with about a third going to affordable housing and the rest to a park with walking trails. His decision appears to settle a long-running clash between those who want the land undeveloped and others who think the county should build affordable housing there.
"No one's going to be completely happy, and everyone's going to be a little unhappy, but overall I think it's the best use of the land," Hyland said about his decision in an interview this month. "Both needs can be accomplished."
Helping shape the debate over North Hill is the effort to revitalize the Richmond Highway corridor, which has long been dominated by budget motels, trailer parks and unsightly shopping plazas. County officials are trying to reconcile their desire for more upscale development with a need to maintain affordable housing in one of the county's last working-class bastions.
The fight over North Hill dates to 1981, when Fairfax County used federal funds to purchase and demolish a dilapidated park of 550 trailers. The plan at the time was to use a $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to replace the trailer park with affordable housing.
The county rebuilt one edge of the parcel to hold 118 new trailers, Woodley Hill Estates. But most of the land sat empty after the county discovered that it would cost much more than expected to redevelop.
Most of those who had been displaced either went to Woodley Hill Estates or moved on, so there was little immediate pressure to rebuild the rest. The land sat empty. The site grew more wooded, and many residents came to appreciate the green break in the asphalt. There was talk of transferring the site to the Fairfax County Park Authority and opening it to walkers, but the county was concerned that doing so might require paying back the federal grant, because it would be using the land for a purpose other than what the money was intended for.
Fairfax County turned down several offers from developers.
Meanwhile, affordable housing advocates kept up their campaign to build houses on the site, saying the county had misused the balance of the grant by not using it for North Hill.
Their arguments went nowhere until recently, when the skyrocketing real estate market drew renewed attention to the need for affordable housing. Hyland had appointed a committee to study the possibilities, and the panel recommended keeping the land undeveloped. Hyland rejected that and decided the time had come to use the site.
He said there could be housing built by summer 2008, most likely on the lowest-elevation portion of the site, adjacent to Woodley Hills. He said it could serve as a new home for some of the people in the nearby Pen-Daw Mobile Home Park, who might be displaced in the face of a proposed development of upscale shops and townhouses.
Housing advocates praised the decision, saying that a third of the land would allow development of 50 to 100 prefab houses, along the lines of the tidy Meadows of Chantilly development in western Fairfax.
Considering the original plans, "it would be morally reprehensible to think about putting anything there other than affordable housing," said the Rev. Keary Kincannon, pastor of Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church in the Alexandria section, part of a network of local churches that have banded together to promote affordable housing. "There has been a strong element in our community over the past 25 years that didn't want these people here and that has been trying to do everything they could to keep housing for those people away from the area."
Opponents of developing the site expressed dismay and rejected Kincannon's characterization of their position. They said they are not opposed to affordable housing but do not understand why it has to go on one of the few green parcels in an area that suffers from water runoff. Why not redevelop one of the many big parking lots in the corridor and turn North Hill into a park for residents of Woodley Hills, they ask.
"This is an urban corridor undergoing redevelopment, and the solution is to put 50 'Katrina cottages' on that land? This is the best use of that land?" said Martin Tillett of the Spring Bank neighborhood, referring to the kind of manufactured housing being used on the Gulf Coast. "We're appalled. It doesn't make sense."
Tillett said the county should instead focus on the corridor's uplift, which ideally would provide greater economic opportunities to residents. So far, he said, the only change he has seen is that a few shopping centers have been spruced up.
"The county's failing to bring the promised revitalization that we feel would tackle all the issues . . . [including] the need to lift people from a lot of the circumstances that cause them to need affordable housing," he said.
David Dale, head of the Spring Bank community association, argued against adding low-income housing.
"Go ask any police sergeant or school teacher, 'Do you want people in concentrated low-income areas?' and they'll say absolutely not, you want your people spread out," Dale said. "If you have pockets that are predominantly low income, it's not helping people who are there or who are going to move in."
He added: "People are going to say I'm anti-poor. No, I'm not. There's nothing wrong with being low income."
Housing advocates see a clear class motivation in the push for keeping North Hill green. North Hill shouldn't be considered pristine parkland but a onetime neighborhood wiped out on a false promise, said housing activist Jerry Ireland, leader of the Pen-Daw community association.
"They try to paint this as a new development on an undeveloped piece of land, but it's a redevelopment that's been sabotaged for 25 years," Ireland said.