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

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