Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Grand Tour

Readers have asked what the Growler thought of Saturday's bus tour of mixed-income projects in Alexandria and D.C. So here's the Cranky One's take on the tour.

The day started at Chatham Square, which of course is Alexandria's trophy redevelopment project. A few participants immediately bristled when told that the public housing units were not on the street but "inside" the courtyards. But once when we entered Cook Street (which is a public thoroughfare) the perception of discrimination seemed to fade because of the lovely wrought iron fences, green space, and play areas in front of the townhouses flanking the street. The Growler has been around the outside of the Chatham Square in the past, but had not seen the perspective from Cook or Euille Streets. All in all, Chatham Square is a very attractive development, one that the City and ARHA can be proud of.

There was some discussion about early problems with the play areas at Chatham Square. It seems teenagers were hanging out at night on the tot lots and there were also kids coming over from Hopkins-Tancil to play with their friends. But apparently this was an issue that has been cleared up with education (i.e., knowing which kids belong to which homes) and time, and in fact we were told the market rate unit owners were just supportive of the play areas as public housing families.

The question is whether future developments should feature the tot lots on the outer edges instead of courtyards or interior streets. An alternative approach would be to create a little more physical separation between the public shared areas and the homes. (On Cook Street, there is one play area that is immediately on the doorstep of a market rate unit. Presumably the owner bought the home knowing what they were getting into in terms of noise.)

ARHA and EYA also acknowledged the importance of a community association. While ARHA staff have a seat on the home owners association, both organizations agreed that another entity is necessary to bring residents of all income levels together to get to know each other and to work out issues. Another lesson learned, which hopefully will inform the redevelopment of public housing in our area.

We were then off to Quaker Hill, where new housing replaced old World War II era barracks in the 1980s.

The Growler was familiar with the units along the east side of Yale Drive, which seem to scream "public housing," but was unaware that ARHA owned so many individual units in the more attractive condo and townhouse complex to the west. Among other things this development features a community pool and a scenic retaining pond and is nestled at the edge of a very affluent section of Alexandria.

This site was a good illustration of how public housing units can be scattered through a development yet blend in with the surroundings. The Growler was told the townhouses units on the east side of Yale were built at a different time, but there appears to be renovation underway so perhaps at some point they will be a little less obvious in their purpose. The redevelopment of this site was financed in part by the sale of some 40 acres to Hechinger's for the current commercial plaza. The site is attractive because it is so close to shopping (Giant and CVS) as well as transportation.

The buses then traveled to D.C., where we saw the former Ellen Wilson Homes, now the Townhomes of Capitol Hill. This is a cooperative, and its financing and operations make it a much different project than Chatham Square. Nonetheless, most tour participants were impressed by the architecture and detailing of the facades, which were in harmony with but not slavish copies of the late Victorian styles of Capitol Hill. (One person on the tour, however, thought the backs of the homes were unappealing.)

Finally, we were taken to the site of the future Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg redevelopment near the Navy Yard, where EYA will be constructing a large number of mixed-income townhomes and condos. The site has been leveled but there were no buildings to be seen yet. Nevertheless, we were able to look at the models and hear from D.C. housing authority staff how the temporary relocation of nearly 700 public housing residents was handled.

All in all, it was an interesting tour. The Growler suspects the purpose was to reassure some individuals that mixed-income developments can be well-designed and that the public housing units can be made to appear virtually indistinguishable from market rate units.

But the Bland project will have its own dynamics — its own density, architecture, and layout — and unlike several of the projects we saw it will not have the benefit of HUD HOPE VI funds.

So everyone who has an stake in this property needs to come to Ebenezer Baptist's Hargrave-Collins building tomorrow evening for the public meeting and make sure their voices are heard.