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Change and Diversity

By Louie Estrada
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 19, 1994

Built nearly six decades ago, the Buckingham area of Arlington over the years has taken on distinct identities as a place offering both affordable rental housing for a growing immigrant population and privately owned cooperatives.

Buckingham, a 1,544-unit complex of two-story, garden-style buildings, which stretch from Route 50 to just beyond Glebe Road, is divided into three sections: Gates of Arlington, Buckingham Village and Arlington Oaks. The property is dotted with towering oaks and hip-high shrubs.

While Gates of Arlington and Buckingham Village are apartments with ethnically mixed tenants, and a large Latino population, Arlington Oaks is a cooperative of young professionals and the elderly.

"I obviously enjoy it here," said George Burgin, 45, of his six years at Arlington Oaks. "You can't beat the location and there is the open space for walks; I've never had any problems with crime."

Arlington Oaks is composed of 372 units on 18 acres with large center courtyards and small grassy knolls in the front clipped neatly along winding side streets. The cooperative is in the process of converting to condominium units, where individuals would own separate units rather than a share of the property, said Marty Beal, president of the Arlington Oaks Civic Association. The change to a condominium will give its residents a stronger form of ownership, said Beal, who has owned a unit there since Arlington Oaks became a cooperative in 1981.

A final decision to convert the property will take place during a meeting of the shareholders early next month, Beal said. "There's a lot of excitement because we expect there to be a lot of demand for these units," he said.

Some of the Arlington Oaks units have sold through the cooperative for $50,000 to $80,000, Beal said.

"We're not sure what the prices will be when we turn condo, but when you look at the prices for similar units in Ballston, we think ours will be very affordable and very much in demand," Beal said.

Tito Segovia, who has lived at Arlington Oaks for the last five years, calls it a quiet neighborhood of mostly young professionals. "But a few blocks that way and it's a little uneasy," said Segovia, pointing toward the intersection of North Pershing Street and Glebe Road, where groups of young men gather regularly at night on street corners.

Loitering became such a problem at the shops of Buckingham's small business strip that local police used a special task force to confront the problem, said David C. Bassin, owner of Buckingham Florist Inc., which has operated there for more than 30 years.

"I would have gangs of teenagers just hanging outside," Bassin said. "But fortunately the police have been very active in telling them that if they're not doing business with the stores, they have to leave."

Bassin's grandfather first opened the Buckingham flower shop in 1948. His father then ran the store, later passing it on to Bassin 19 years ago. Through it all, Bassin said he has seen the community endure cycles of vitality and despair.

With its status as affordable housing, Buckingham has often been the first stop for newly arrived immigrants. The latest surge has been from Central America and South America.

Paul Cuadrado, a native of Guatemala, arrived in the Washington area in 1990 and was directed to Buckingham by a cousin, who had been living in Arlington for several years.

"I moved here because this is where I know a few people," he said. "They try to help me out that way, inviting me so I can live a better life."

From his corner store, Bassin said he has seen the rich mix of cultural diversity, and the ebb and flow of the community. During the early 1980s, Buckingham underwent a period of decline when buildings were neglected and crime began to increase, Bassin said. The turnaround began in the mid-1980s when, among other initiatives, community leaders started a cleanup effort. More recently, he said, the community seems to be faltering a bit again.

"The kids that hang out here don't do heavy damage, but they make a lot of people nervous, especially our older customers who are afraid to walk out here at night," Bassin said.

But part of Buckingham's resilience stems from its relationship with neighboring communities of pricey single-family homes. "I think Arlington as whole knows it has an interest in keeping Buckingham well maintained," Bassin said.

To help in that end, Arlington County last year declared parts of Buckingham an historic district. The decision was based upon Buckingham's pioneering role in establishing garden apartments in the United States. At the time of the historic designation, the property owners protested the move, charging that it was made to prevent redevelopment of the land and to assure low-cost housing in the area.

Under the designation, owners of Buckingham Village and the business district must receive county approval before razing or significantly altering the buildings or landscape.

"It takes a little longer to get things done around here because of the requests that go before the board," said Zina Martinez, resident manager of Gates of Arlington. "When we had to wash off some graffiti on the walls, we had to get approval of the type of cleaning fluid we were going to use."

Martinez said there is a lot of misconception when it comes to Buckingham: "It's not this terrible place a lot of people think. We're a stable, family-oriented community."

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