By Erich Wagner (Photo/Erich Wagner)
City officials and developers hailed the completion of the redevelopment of the James Bland public housing project as a prime example of using public-private partnerships to preserve affordable housing.
Although the first phase of Old Town Commons, a mix of townhomes, condos and affordable apartment units, opened in 2010, builders are putting the finishing touches on the last piece of the massive five-block development in the Parker-Gray neighborhood.
The development, which surrounds the Charles Houston Recreation Center, consists of 134 affordable units and 252 market rate homes, has been a success for the experimental model of mixed-income housing, said Roy Priest, CEO of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
“It’s been very good so far, very few incidents or any issues,” he said. “We’ve heard a lot of positive stories from residents so far. A business owner [in the development] got to meet an [affordable housing] resident’s family and their children, and eventually offered them internships at his company.”
Priest said the reason Old Town Commons has worked so well from the outset has been officials actively working to get residents to bond.
“We hold a lot of events to bring the community together, get people to learn and get to know their neighbors,” he said. “The other thing is: Be very responsive. Address any issues immediately. You can’t let things fester and grow into something worse.”
On the private sector side of the project is local developer EYA, who also worked on the city’s Chatham Square mixed-income development. Senior vice president Brian Allan Jackson said it’s rewarding finally to see this project come to fruition, after eight years in the making. Jackson said developers and city officials had to make a number of tweaks since it was first proposed in 2006 because of the housing market crash.
“It’s just nice to see the neighborhood finally coming together and really be part of the community,” he said. “We made sure that one each block, the homeowners and the ARHA residents always move in together, and since then, the community has just grown organically.”
Mayor Bill Euille said the new development should be a model of innovative ways to tackle the growing issue of affordable housing. As rents in the Port City rise and city budgets shrink, officials must work with developers to preserve enclaves so Alexandrians of all incomes can stay in the city.
“For someone like myself, having grown up in public housing, I recognize that giving people a hand or a leg up is something Alexandria and ARHA have done for a number of years,” he said. “It helps keep families together and it uplifts lives.
“I’m very impressed [with this model.] I can bring new residents on a tour of the city, and they’ll ask: Where’s your public housing? And I can say, ‘It’s right here.’ And they’ll say where, and I’ll respond: That’s the beauty. You don’t know.”