In the eight months since a group of activists and others rallied to save part of the Buckingham Village apartment complex for low-income tenants, there have been countless community meetings and much wrangling over a redevelopment plan that could cost Arlington County millions -- and result in 300 new affordable apartments or houses. The saga even has its own blogger.
For the residents of the aging brick apartments off George Mason Drive in Arlington, many of them immigrants, the seminal moment came at a tenants meeting last week, when a developer pulled out a large map to show which apartments were slated for the next round of tear-downs and who among them would have to move.
About 40 tenants tensed and leaned forward in their seats when project manager Micheline Castan-Smith drew a large circle on the map. She said residents of apartments within the circle would be getting 120-day eviction notices by the end of the year, should the Arlington County Board approve the project next month. Other buildings in the complex might remain for months or years, she said.
"Is it ours?" wondered Jose Najarro, 37, a house painter from Guatemala.
"No," said a relieved Julio Vasquez, 25, also a painter. He drew a circle in the air, showing his friend that their apartments are outside the line and are safe for now.
Helping to relocate more than 350 families in staggered phases over several years is just one of the complications of the $250 million redevelopment deal, which grew out of a memorandum of understanding, reached in July, between the county and the complex's co-owner, Paradigm Development Co.
The Arlington-based developer had wanted to tear down the entire complex, but a deal was forged after the plan became a focus of community outrage and a symbol of the county's transformation into an increasingly affluent area. Over the past six years, the county of 199,000 residents has lost half of its affordable apartments to rising rents and redevelopment, pushing many of its lower-income residents, particularly Latinos, to far-flung suburbs such as Woodbridge and Manassas.
The county could vote on the Buckingham plan as early as March 17. Many key details have yet to be worked out.
"It's going to be a challenge to make the whole thing work," County Board member Chris Zimmerman (D) said. "It's too early to assess how it's going to wind up, but at this point it's still possible. I'm hopeful."
In recent weeks the general outlines of the project have begun to emerge.
Developer Stanley W. Sloter said last week that his company -- after much discussion with housing activists, historic preservationists, transportation commission members, county staff and others -- will submit a plan for the site that will include two large rental apartment buildings, 68 luxury townhouses and underground parking. The apartments and townhouses, which will start at $725,000, will be built around a grassy park and a new extension of Fourth Street.
The buildings will be built in a style that will meld with the simplified Georgian architecture and brick of Buckingham Village, which dates to the 1940s. Buckingham Village was once part of a larger community of more than 1,500 apartments, which have been split up and turned into condominiums or other rentals, considered historically significant because it was one of the first planned developments built for a burgeoning middle class in the World War II period.
The two new apartment buildings, which will be between Pershing Drive and Henderson Road, will have 150 units of affordable housing, including 100 for people making 60 percent of the area median income or less, about $54,000 for a family of four.
The remaining 50 will be available to people with slightly higher incomes. The county hopes to house middle-class workers such as teachers and police officers who have had to leave Arlington because of the high cost of housing.
Those involved in the project say two big questions remain. The first, and biggest, is cost. The price tag for the first 150 affordable apartments is about $12.5 million, which will be financed through the county's housing fund. A park and road extension will also be pricey, $15 million to $20 million, officials said.
The second question is how the county will go about preserving another slice of the complex that is slated to be renovated. Some housing activists say those buildings should be turned into 140 co-ops or affordable condominiums, another costly endeavor. The county or a housing nonprofit organization would have to purchase the land, which has been appraised at $35 million, from the developer.
"It is expensive, but we -- the County Board -- feel that it's worth it," board Chairman Paul Ferguson (D) said.
Affordable housing advocates who spent months trying to broker a deal said they were pleased with the proposal for the most part.
"I think given that the area was going to be redeveloped, we are getting basically a pretty good new neighborhood and an awful lot of affordable housing," said Carrie Johnson, a former chairman of the county Planning Commission who was part of the Save Buckingham Coalition.
At last week's tenants meeting, neighbors expressed worries over having to relocate, as well as more immediate concerns such as maintenance problems in the fraying apartments and crowding.
"I think these guys are talking about an Emerald City, how great it's going to be, and I'm concerned about having a roof over my head," said Daniel James Ohleger, 51, a former hairdresser now on disability who has lived in Buckingham for five years.
Because the two buildings will be built in two phases, Sloter said he hopes the tenants displaced in later rounds can be moved into the new building, limiting the impact on the neighborhood. Last summer, when tenants in 79 units were displaced in the first round, only about a fifth left Arlington. Others were moved into the Gates of Ballston and Historic Ballston Park, two nearby developments with affordable units.
Najarro said he was a little worried about eventually losing the modest apartment he shares with his brother. He said he wouldn't be looking for anything yet. "I'll wait," he said.