Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Redevelopment: The Ugly Truth

In a previous post, I outlined the joint efforts of JBG Corporation and Alexandria City Government (the Planners) to demolish 2475 low-income housing units located on Beauregard Road in West Alexandria (the Village). The Planners intend to destroy those units and force the residents to leave their homes, but have no plans to provide replacement housing for them. There is a very tentative plan to build or restore 875 affordable apartments but these will not be available until long after the current residents are forced to leave.  aside from a few, very speculative, affordable housing units (AFUs). In 30 years there may be 875 of these.

The Planners view the housing complex as an embarrassment, not just for what it is, but for who lives there. The complex is composed of 50-year-old, 3-story apartment blocks. The Planners believe these buildings can be replaced by a much more profitable mix of apartments, townhouses, and condominiums. The Planners also envision more office space, retail stores, and modifications to the streets that will improve traffic flow and well-paid office workers to settle here.

Mostly, the planners dislike the current residents, who are poor and non-white. Their ethnic cultures are diverse. Nearly half are latinos, many from Central America, but the residents also come from Ethiopia, Iran, and India. The Planners believe that these people must be removed before to make way for more affluent tenants. They envision a new neighborhood devoid of ethnic minorities. This new neighborhood, they hope, will have more expensive homes, pay higher taxes, and return more money to JBG in the form of rents or condominium sales.

This plan is not the first to expel minorities from their homes in the name of progress. It is filled with unfunded promises, like the provision of affordable housing and the streetcar that may happen some day. These extras are the bait that makes the project palatable to the city. Without them, the plan is simply a way for a corporation to make money.

Other redevelopment plans have promised much, delivered little:

Fillmore District, San Francisco, 1950s

In the early 1950s, the city of San Francisco developed a plan to remove unwanted minority populations and to reap great financial rewards. The city demolished much of the Fillmore district, a primarily African-American community in the geographical heart of the city. The Fillmore district was famous for its black culture, including jazz clubs that brought world-class talent to San Francisco in an era when the bay area was a cultural backwater. The redevelopment destroyed the cultural nexus of the region. Nineteenth-century wooden houses, for which the city is justly famous, were replaced by sterile cement-block housing projects where life took on a nightmarish quality. The neighborhood remained unsettled, with vacant lots and empty stores, for thirty years. The people evicted from their homes never returned.

Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles, 1950s

The city of Los Angeles decided to demolish the Mexican barrio in Chavez Ravine in 1950. The city planners had a lofty goal, the creation of a low-rent development called Elysian Fields. They had to evict Mexican-American homeowners and renters who had turned the neighborhood into a cultural center. Planners bought out the residents using eminent domain, threatening that those homeowners who did not sell immediately would receive less for their properties. Elysian Fields was never built. Instead, the cleared property was sold at a bargain-basement price to the Brooklyn Dodgers as an enticement to bring a major-league baseball team to Los Angeles. Once again, the city was happy, the developers were happy, and the LA Dodgers were happy, but the people who had lived in the area lost their homes and their community.

L'Enfant Plaza, Washington DC, 1966 (ongoing)

DC planners wanted to create a Parisian-style plaza through the L'Enfant Plaza project. The area south of the National Mall was a typical DC neighborhood of old wood frame houses and apartment houses. Those houses were demolished and replaced with an immense expanse of concrete pavement and office buildings. The office buildings encircle the plaza and cut it off from the National Mall. Most of the retail shops are underground. Urban spaces must appeal to people to be successful. L'Enfant plaza discourages pedestrian traffic by having an underground an underground mall and leaving the plaza itself devoid of any human-scale elements. People go to L'Enfant plaza to get to and from the Metro station work.

The National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) recently proposed reviving L'Enfant Plaza by demolishing the Forrestal Building and restoring views of the Capitol building along Maryland Avenue. NCPC's plan recognized the shortcomings of the original plan and sought to rectify them by adding apartment houses in the area to humanize the vast stretches of concrete. JBG, which owns most of the office space around L'Enfant Plaza, rejected the NCPC plan. JBG instead proposed placing a 12-story office building in the center of the space. This would exacerbate the already severe problems of usability and design in the Plaza, but would have the effect of increasing JBG's rents.

The Village, Alexandria VA, 2014.

JBG intends to force Latinos and other immigrants out of their homes. JBG brags on its website that it is committed to giving back to the neighborhoods where it does business. This claim contradicts its intention to evict 2400 families from their homes. The scale of suffering is enormous. This redevelopment process will destroy 30% of the affordable housing in Alexandria, displacing about 7,700 people, including about 2500 children. JBG considers these people a liability because their presence will discourage upscale homebuyers from settling in the area. JBG plans to donate only two buildings, containing about 100 apartments, for affordable housing. These buildings are located at the farthest end of the property. They will not be visible from the main thoroughfare, Beauregard Avenue.

The neighborhood has changed. The new arrivals have displaced whites in the Village over the years. The white-oriented businesses in the area have withered. Landmark Mall is nearly empty of stores and has lost most of its upscale clientele, with a few remaining shops that cater to the new neighborhood.  Other new businesses in the area include a block of African restaurants on South James Mason Avenue at Seminary Avenue and a mall on Little River Parkway that contains a halal butcher, a latino bakery that also serves hot food, a pho restaurant, and the Grand International Market.

A major competitor for this new development project is the massive Kingstowne Town Center and Town Center Mall, only five miles away. The Kingstowne Town Center mall has much more space, a movie theater, and several restaurants. Walmart has located a store there. This area is far more attractive to potential home owners and apartment dwellers than the site JBG proposes to develop. It is likely, therefore, that this property will remain vacant and underutilized for 30 years after the houses on it are demolished.

The current project risks becoming a fiasco. The Planners have designed a city of the future that looks a lot like the past. Their new project will construct a grid system of streets to let residents stay in their cars right up to their doors, very much like every other urban area. The project will bring more cars into an area already jammed with them. The Planners' big idea to handle traffic is express buses with dedicated commute lanes. The wider, busier streets will divide neighborhoods and provide hazards that families with children will want to avoid. Instead of making it easier to get around by walking and bicycling, the plan will make it harder. The Planners fail to explain why the more affluent residents in their city of the future will start riding buses when they never have before.

Finally, the Planners intend to cut down hundreds of mature trees and replace them with concrete structures and pavement. Trees should be preserved and appreciated. The open spaces that contain them should be preserved and appreciated. The families who live in this area should be preserved and appreciated. Nothing in this plan makes any sense. The only reason to adopt it is to improve the bottom line of a corporation that has shown by this plan that it cares nothing at all for the city of Alexandria and the people who live here.

The City Council have given up on the city in the face of corporate bullying. They should fight this project hard starting now. It is not too late for them to preserve their self-respect.

Sources: Beauregard Tenant Survey Report on Survey Results, September 2012. Lincoln Park Strategies.

Beauregard Small Area Plan

Friday, October 5, 2012

Alexandria: Speculators Destroy a Neighborhood

by Allan Masri and Holly Masri

JBG Corp. and the City of Alexandria are planning a huge urban redevelopment project for Alexandria West.   This area, which lies roughly between Beauregard and 395, is bounded by the Southern Towers Apartments on the north, and extends south and east past Holmes Run.  It has no name, so I will call it the Village. 

There is a considerable distance between the Village and Old Town Alexandria, both physically and in attitude. Old Town is prosperous, caucasian. The Village has a rich mix of nationalities and languages; nearly all of its residents are poor. Old Town is a warren of narrow streets and high brick walls. The Village is composed mostly of 3-story brick multi-family structures, interspersed with many lawns, trees, parking lots, and playgrounds. Old Town is aging, with an average of 2 persons per residence; the Village is growing, with an average of three persons per residence, many of them children.

The Village is a green and pleasant place.  Accessed by concrete paths and stairs, the apartment buildings are distributed across the contours of the rolling hills, with areas of trees and grass between them.   Children use the paths for riding bicycles and scooters, and for play.  Residents can use these paths for walking to and from parking lots, or to a nearby mall. Other walkable destinations are Chambliss Park, Dora Kelley Nature Park, and Winkler Botanical Preserve, as well as two schools and adjoining playing fields, a recreation and nature center, shopping center, playgrounds, and swimming pools.    The apartments are sixty years old, but adequate for the people who live here. Many are immigrants with nowhere else to go, but the place is livable and the people are friendly.  

The Coming of BRAC

In 2011, the Department of Defense placed its Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) project at the intersection of Beauregard and Seminary, about half a mile from the northern end of the Village. BRAC brought 6400 jobs to the area, with an average wage of $75,000 to $100,000. Alexandria's city government was gleeful about this, hoping to get $2 million a year in added tax revenues.

JBG Corp. was also gleeful. They manage 7,500 apartment units in the area, including 2,475 in the Villages. They got together with the Alexandria Planning Commission and came up with a plan to demolish the entire Village, leaving (perhaps) 865 "affordable housing" units, and replacing the rest with an unspecified number of "upscale" units . Note that there are approximately 850 ostensibly affordable units in the Village right now, thanks to some quick rent-raising by JBG. Two years ago there were 2,475 affordable units here-- three times as many.

 Not so overjoyed were the families that live in the Village. Many have already been forced out by the higher rents. All will eventually have to leave, although some may come back to rent the 865 affordable units, when they become available. But even these units are only hypothetical. Initially, JBG proposes to turn over 2 buildings with fewer than 100 affordable units to the City of Alexandria. There may be more later on--several years later on--but these may be appropriated by Alexandria City employees, who have a representative on the Affordable Housing Commission.

The Generosity of JBG

 JBG's company motto is "Building Smart, Thinking Green", but this is the company responsible for the concrete wasteland known as L'Enfant Plaza.  This new development they are planning will be less green than the one it is replacing. It will have less green space, thus adding to the urban heat island, and it will increase production of greenhouse gases.  The Village currently has buildings distributed over the rolling hills in a manner that conforms with the topography of the place. The blocks average 900 foot square, while the spaces between the buildings act as common areas with lawns, playgrounds, and trees. JBG's plan claims to preserve open spaces, but it will actually fill most of them with streets and more densely packed buildings. Some open spaces will remain, packed into the centers of the new buildings (on 400 foot square blocks); thus, these spaces will cease to be common areas, as they will only be usable by the residents/owners of particular buildings. 

 JBG's plan promises to provide a canopy of trees, but its initial action would be to cut down nearly all the trees on the property, some of them over 100 years old, as well as removing all trees and shrubbery from a currently wooded area on a steep slope. This plan risks erosion and directs increased runoff from streets and parking lots into the already stressed streams, Holmes Run and Turkey Run. In return for destroying all these trees and paving over another 20-50% of the property with streets, JBG plans to put in a green zone along Turkey Run, and to cede an additional 0.85 acre parcel elsewhere on the property to open space. But green zones already exist, throughout the Village. JBG will need to cut down numerous mature trees to attain the type of green zone illustrated in the plan. In fact, in the plan, the green zone is depicted with no trees at all.  The .85 acres of open space will not make up for the loss of up to 50% of the open space that now exists between buildings and between neighborhoods.

 JBG promises to deliver a community garden area. Such an area already exists. JBG promises to deliver a playing field. There are currently 3 tennis courts in the designated area where young men play soccer continuously after school. JBG will have to demolish the tennis courts to replace them with a field, thereby decreasing, not increasing, the available recreation space. But JBG intends to evict the soccer players, so preserving their tennis court is unnecessary.   

JBG has promised to limit the amount of grading done, but their street grid plan will be overlaid on the rolling hills of the site. A great deal of grading will be necessary to fundamentally transform the site from hills to flats.  But JBG will not consider leaving the site untouched or renovating existing buildings, because it intends to subdivide the property and build town houses. JBG intends to sell the townhouses for about $300,000 apiece, so if they build 3,000 townhouses, the sale should net them $9 billion. Naturally, JBG is ecstatic at the prospect.

The Villagers are Forced to Leave Their Homes  

While the JBG Plan claims that affordable housing in the area would eventually be eliminated anyway by market forces,  this is not true.  Many Villagers have already been forced out by JBG's rapidly-rising rents, but no market pressures are forcing JBG to evict 7,500 residents. The taxes have not been raised. The property is either owned outright by JBG or is being used to generate cash at historically low interest rates.

Like most stereotypical landlords, JBG just doesn't care about the people who have paid them rent for the last 50 years. Many of those people have already left, but some of the Villagers have lived here for 10 years or more. The Villagers have nowhere else to go. The Village contains 30% of Alexandria's low-income housing; when it is destroyed, many of the Villagers will have to leave Alexandria. They will take a part of the city's prosperity with them, for these are the people who do the low-paid jobs that keep the tourist-based industry of the town going. There will be no replacements, since there will be no housing for low-income workers. Without low-income workers, tourism will cease to be profitable. Many local businesses will fail. Ultimately, the downtown area will change from a vibrant place that tourists want to visit into a district of businesses and condominiums.

 The Alexandria City Council has completely failed to protect the Villagers from the predations of this giant corporation. The purpose of government is to protect the weak from the powerful, not to facilitate the eviction of its residents when some corporation feels they are standing in the way of progress.  What JBG intends is not progress, but profit, and JBG's plan is not a futuristic one, as they would have us believe. The plan imposes on the city the same car-oriented non-solutions that have caused urban sprawl all across the nation. The plan solves all problems by installing more streets, more freeway ramps, more expensive homes located far from jobs and markets.

JBG's rationale for their plans makes no sense. BRAC has already flooded the streets with more vehicles and clogged the freeway entrances.  The plan presumes that the 6200 new employees at BRAC will all want to live in the Village, but this is unlikely. JBG's plan will bring yet more people and cars into the area and will make more streets for them. The plan also advertises improved buses and dedicated bus lanes, but middle-class commuters don't use buses.  Poor people do.

The plan includes some shops that it assumes will be used by area residents. These shops will have to compete with existing shops, however. The area has several shopping centers within a mile or two of the Village. No matter what grocery store is installed, four or five competing stores are nearby.

The plan also proposes improvements to the Landmark Mall, only a mile away. This mall, however, has been losing stores for several years. The mall cannot compete with other shopping centers in the area right now. The developers cannot assume that it will suddenly turn around, just because its renewed success fits into their plans.

 The City Council has been sold a bill of goods. When it should have been protecting its own residents, the council has permitted outside investors to move in with a plan that will fundamentally alter the character of the city. The City Council should locate its' conscience, and stop taking money from greedy speculators.

The Victims Protest

A recent meeting of the victim relocation committee (officially called the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee) was interrupted by about 30 Villagers of various ages clad in neon tee-shirts emblazoned with the name of their organization, Tenants and Workers United. These people did not want to wait for the end of the meeting to make comments, largely because many of their children were getting restless. A few young men and women stood up, and each made essentially the same comment: We have lived here for years, our children go to school here, we have jobs here, and we want to stay. The message was delivered with quiet defiance.

 After they left, the committee's chairman was indignant. He had never expected to be considered the enemy, he said. No, the committee was there to help people relocate. But the committee has become the spokesman for JBG, a giant corporation that clearly cares nothing for the suffering it is causing. The committee had better be ready to receive more protests of a similar nature.  

And the winner is...BIG BIRD!!!

It's not easy being green. At the recent debate, Mitt Romney offered to cut just one tiny, useless, inexpensive government program... PBS. Unfortunately for him, it turns out to be a very popular one. Mittens wants to fire Big Bird?!? BAD idea. People will remember that.

Mitt has apparently turned over a new leaf, and rewritten every position he ever had. The day after the debate, he came out and said he was wrong about the 47 percent. He even apologized. But it was too late. Obama, who everyone says lost the debate, had been careful not to let him make his apology in front of 50 million people.

Larry O'Donnell had the best take on the debate, borrowing from a Denver Post writer, who wrote, “Like a bull to a matador, Romney time and again turned toward Obama to deliver attacks on the president's job performance, portraying him as clueless to his policies' impacts and hopeless in trying to turn the economy around."

That is a great description of the debate. Now, I've actually seen a bullfight and I can assure you that this is exactly what happens. The matador pretends not to see the bull. He turns his back on him. He taunts him, getting him to charge again and again, until... until the bull is so tired he can't stand up any longer. Then the matador takes out his sword, walks up to the bull, and plunges the sword into the bull's heart.

During the debate, Obama pretended to be taking notes, just like John Stewart pretends to take notes. Obama acted as if he had an important meeting somewhere else. He scowled. But he never reacted to anything that Romney was actually saying, even when Romney said the most preposterous things. Romney flatly denied that he had a plan to lower taxes by five trillion dollars; he also stated that he had no idea how corporations could avoid paying taxes by using loopholes and overseas accounts. Both of those statements were jaw droppers, which would have prompted an ordinary person to exclaim, "Say, wha?"

Obama didn't bite. But he was taking notes all right-- notes about how best to turn Romney's outrageous statements against him.

Romney has already walked back a couple of his claims. If he truly intends to abandon his tax cut “plan” (now that he has denied that he ever HAD it, on national TV), he has less than a month to explain what, exactly, he will be doing instead. It will be interesting to hear what he comes up with, because that tax cut was the way he proposed to revitalize the economy.

The clock is ticking.