Opinion: Development in Alexandria: A tale of two cities

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(File photos)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…

Development in Alexandria tells a tale of two cities. One is an Alexandria that is fast on the way to becoming a place where only the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans can afford to live. The other is exemplified by public housing and housing that is still affordable to a professional work force, like teachers, firemen, retired government workers and maybe a hardworking taxi driver with a very hardworking spouse.

The reality is we are already at a tipping point, as evidenced by two redevelopment projects in the city. In historic Old Town, the tearing down of public housing and its replacement with what is called “scattered site public housing” is promoted as the most (only) economical way, advocates say, to preserve housing for the city’s poorest residents.

The replacement of public housing comes at a high price, however. It effectively destroys any chance to preserve an existing community by tearing down low-density housing, with its valuable open space and trees, in order to attract wealthier residents, who are often unhappy living near even smaller pockets of lower-income housing.

Instead of addressing serious social issues, this latter form of gentrification seems to accentuate the divide between income groups in the city. It fits, however, with the view of elected officials and developers who consider the revenue generating potential of land to be much more important than creating and maintaining a diverse community.

In the West End, the fable of the “one Alexandria” the mayor refers to in his political slogan is being brought into stark relief in the wake of the construction of the BRAC-133 building. Elected officials knew full well that this traffic-creating eyesore would be their cover for fulfilling the wishes of developers who want to gentrify the West End by increasing density here. Indeed, everyone who was on city council at that time bears responsibility for this ongoing debacle.

If the Beauregard area plan is approved, we will convert a relatively affordable part of Alexandria into a quasi-Reston Town Center, with artificial greenways rather than real, honest-to-goodness public recreation and natural areas — places where you might actually play ball with your kids and spot a migrating songbird in spring.

We will also lose most, if not all, of the extensive, moderately affordable “aging” housing, which will be replaced with about 700 units that will be affordable only to the lowest-income groups. Oh, and then there is that nifty ellipse that will allow all those new upscale residents to commute between home and work more easily, advocates say.

The elected officials, city planners and developers who claim there are no other viable alternatives to such mega-development are actively orchestrating a socio-economic transformation. Indeed, with the exception of council members Frank Fannon and Alicia Hughes, the majority of the members of council are behaving more like the aristocrats of the French Revolution rather than the residents they claim to represent.

If this autocratic trend continues, Alexandria will become more and more the home of the only very wealthy. We will all be poorer for it and far less green too.

November is the best of times for a revolution.

The writer is former vice mayor of Alexandria.