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.  

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