Build to the sky, stay down to earth

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City planners have been urbanizing Alexandria for a long time. The deliberate, progressive strategy to create a vibrant, sustainable cityscape around mass transit while alleviating traffic congestion is the inverse of the urban exodus that helped create Alexandria and other suburbs over the last century. 

Entirely new neighborhoods like the Carlyle area of the city, complete with sky-high residential and low-lying retail space, were created out of a vast parcel of mud before our eyes in just the last 10 years. 

It’s nice to look at, but new development and market pressures have also helped make the city unaffordable for many. The government’s prerogative to guide Alexandria toward such heights represents progress, but only if city planners remain vigilant of affordable housing opportunities for an increasingly unaffordable city and protect and enhance racial and economic diversity. 

In its quest, the city cannot be blinded by dollar signs that development brings in much-needed revenue. It must put a premium on keeping the city affordable for all income levels.

“Since 2000, there have been dramatic declines in market affordable rental units, as well as in opportunities for affordable homeownership by individuals and families earning between 60 and 80 percent of median income despite city loan assistance to subsidize purchase,” states a study done by the city’s Affordable Housing Initiatives Work Group last year.

The government develops myriad plans each year. But there have been few that are as significant as its imminent housing master plan, which kicks off tonight with a community meeting at the Charles Houston Recreation Center, directly across from 34 demolished units of public housing that will be replaced by mixed-use, mixed-income developments.

It’s a little disheartening that the master plan, which seeks to “guide future development with the goals of preserving and enhancing affordable housing opportunities, community diversity and economic sustainability,” is just now being developed especially after major redevelopment plans like Chatham Square have long been completed and the James Bland neighborhood is in the process of transforming from a low-income, physically dilapidated part of town into what officials hope becomes a pulsating city center.

But at least a comprehensive plan to guide the city will be intact as Potomac Yard gets a Metro station and the development that will grow around it; and as the Eisenhower Metro Station gets a renovation complimented by three new high-rises that will change the city’s skyline; and, most imminently, as the Bland redevelopment comes to fruition. The plans for these neighborhoods already exist in one form or another, but a housing master plan should contribute significantly to their implementation.

The housing master plan’s kick off should be welcomed and guided with civic engagement as well, because it will affect everything from traffic congestion to tax rates.

The city’s newest fire station, which provides rental housing affordable to city workers, is a start. The developer building the high-rises near the Eisenhower Metro has planned to contribute up to 55 affordable housing units to its buildings as well, which is also a start.

Residents need to aid the process and induce more drops in the bucket like these, as proactive policy rather than reactive scrambling, lest Alexandria becomes a castle in the clouds only reachable by those who can afford an airplane.

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