Gentrification fears fuel debate in Arlandria

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If approved, Arlandria Center, depicted in a rendering above, will tower six stories over the low-lying neighborhood of Arlandria-Chirilagua.

City planners and developers have long viewed Arlandria as a neighborhood in need of a facelift, but as two massive, six-story buildings move closer to reality, local residents worry gentrification is on the horizon.

Arlandria, a working-class neighborhood also called Chirilagua, is known for its diverse immigrant population. Residents from Latin America, Africa and Asia comprise the bulk of the district, living alongside lifelong Alexandrians on the northern edge of the city.

It won’t be that way for long, say opponents of the buildings, which would house 478 apartments — including 28 “affordable market-rate” units — and ground-level shops. Totaling about 636,000 square feet on five acres of Mount Vernon Avenue, Arlandria Center, if approved, will replace Mount Vernon Village, a low-lying strip mall from the 1940s.

Gabriel Rojo, executive director of the Arlandria community organization Tenants and Workers United, says the mixed-use buildings would replace the neighborhood’s current residents with wealthier ones. He believes market forces will drive up real estate values and force out low-income residents whose paychecks suddenly won’t go as far.

“We never said that we didn’t want development in Arlandria,” Rojo said. “We want the community to be a better place. But the plan right now is not going make things better for the local community. It’s going to make it worse.”

Rojo, who has headed TWU for about a month, claims community outreach from the city government was lackluster. City Hall was too technocratic — using email and other online modes — in reaching out to a low-income, mostly Spanish-speaking population, he said.

City officials say planning has been inclusive since 2003 when the Arlandria urban renewal concept was approved.

“I don’t buy the argument that people weren’t included, because there have been meetings … for a long time,” said City Councilman Rob Krupicka. “Actually, there’s a more regular process about what’s happening in that neighborhood than in other neighborhoods in the city.”

If approved, Arlandria Center will make the neighborhood more "walkable," planners say, but low-income locals worry they'll be priced out of their homes as property values rise.

The developer, PMI, has agreed to add 28 “affordable” apartments to the stock of new rentals in exchange for the right to build two extra stories. Residents making $51,000 a year will be able to afford them, according to the city’s formula. Most Arlandria residents make between $25,000 and $50,000 annually, according to Rojo.

The other 450 rental units don’t have price tag yet but are not considered “luxury” apartments by Alexandria’s standards, city officials said. The median household income in the city is about $80,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“This plan is going to make Arlandria a better place? For who? Not the current community,” Rojo said. 

FEELING MARGINALIZED

Arlandria residents and sympathizers occupied City Hall last week for a planning commission meeting where officials recommended city council approve the development. Despite the city’s efforts to reach out to the community, many of its members felt disenfranchised.

“Wherever we go, you take our roots and you keep moving us. Where do we go?” Arlandria resident Sheila Bell Cliffords asked. “We’re just asking to be involved. We want to live just like everybody else. And it’s so unfair that we’re being treated this way in Alexandria in 2011.”

Former City Councilwoman Joyce Woodson, who helped conceptualize the future of Arlandria in the ’90s, said Arlandria Center does not represent the work she did while on council.

“I have some lingering doubts about the agendas for Arlandria,” Woodson said. “… And I have to ask you, are we going to end up as just one, homogonous group as we just dismiss anyone who doesn’t really fit into that group, and just have a few specimens that we can point to and say, ‘Yay for us?’ Because that’s the direction we’re headed.” 

MANAGING GENTRIFICATION

City officials say they are — and have been — protecting against gentrification by securing the affordable housing units.

The city also has forgiven loans to the Arlandria-Chirilagua Housing Cooperative and contributes to government-subsidized housing in the neighborhood, which shows City Hall’s sensitivity to retaining the neighborhood’s culture, said Gwen Wright, a top planner with the city.

When all is said and done, urban planners want Arlandria to be a lively, safe, mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhood. Redevelopment is the spark to make it happen, Wright said. The alternative is to do nothing at all.

“The diversity of the residents of Arlandria is a wonderful thing and it’s something that the city, I believe very strongly, wants to retain,” Wright said. “On the other side of the coin, are we saying we don’t want to have a desirable place to live? I think the goal is that we need to find a middle ground.”

Wright believes redevelopment in and of itself won’t “magically” gentrify Arlandria. She points to Adams Morgan in D.C., where a Harris Teeter grocery store anchored development of the neighborhood and diversified the population without gentrifying it.

City Hall must tread carefully to protect against a homogenous city, Krupicka admitted. But trying to kill development altogether won’t help ensure that, he said. He supports the residents of Arlandria but believes working within the framework to preserve affordable housing — and culture — is better than trying to kill development all together.

“I don’t buy the argument that we don’t want investment in the neighborhood because we don’t want the population to change,” Krupicka said. “We’re not going to tell residents that we don’t want them to invest in their property.

“But I do think we have to be really careful about taking advantage of the things we have, to preserve diversity in Arlandria. I agree with the issue [Tenants and Workers United] is fighting. I just don’t agree this is the right way to tackle it.”

The project goes before the city council for a public hearing and possibly a vote Saturday.