Opinion: Development in Alexandria: A tale of two cities

(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.



  1. Mr. McDonald, running for election will require you to tell the citizens your solutions to problems, rather than just criticizing what the current administration is doing. Your initial position on the CAAWP plan was for the city to buy those properties and turn them into a park. This would truly achieve an Alexandria for only the 1 percent because the debt load of the city would increase nearly 50%.. Do you have similar positions on the issues of affordable housing? How do you handle the rights of property owners? Scattered site housing has been well tested to reduce the need for pubic housing in second and third generations. Density in an urban area is smart growth. Start to enlighten the voter now as to your solutions. Put up a wall around Alexandria and say “No More”? Will your platform be “No Developers Allowed”. For years the City has struggled with a greater than 50% contribution of property taxes being shouldered by residences. Are you opposed to efforts to rectify that by expanding the commercial base? If not the results are truly a 1 percent city with a heavy residential tax burden. Providing good public housing and affordable housing is important to all citizens. Enlighten us Mr. McDonald, what are your solutions? We have problems and our City Council addresses these on a regular basis. You are good at complaints with no backup or real solutions.

  2. Dennis, why would you ask this person to address your numerous questions, which are good questions, and then at the same time tell him he is good with complaints with no back up or real solutions? That puts a person on the defensive, and robs readers of possibly seeing a response that gives more in depth analysis.