Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Bottom Line

Greetings, readers! The Growler is back from an extended vacation, and launched right back into the throes of the public housing debate.

Tonight (October 7) at 7:30 PM at City Hall, the Planning Commission will consider two important docket items. The first is the Braddock East report, which will be incorporated into the City's Master Plan. The second is the SUP for the James Bland public housing redevelopment project.

Some in our neighborhood have been frustrated with the Bland process as it unfolded this year. Why so much density? Why can't we have more open space, more centrally located? Why do the buildings behind Columbus Street have to be so high? Why can't more public housing units be off-sited?

Where has there been any give or take?

The Bland project has seemed like an unstoppable 16-wheeler plunging down the highway, with ARHA refusing to make any significant changes to accommodate the Parker-Gray community and City leaders utterly and abjectly caving to every whim. Our neighborhood wants to know why, if ARHA has to come hat in hand to Council every few years for a bailout, the arrogance is allowed to continue.

But the Growler is coming to the conclusion that in the end what it's all about is money. Despite the posturing and touchy-feely about Resolution 830, about "compassion" and "income diversity," Alexandria's leaders don't really want to put taxpayer money into public housing unless a gun is placed to their heads. While ARHA's got that trick down perfectly, in fact the City is forcing ARHA to bootstrap itself by selling off its valuable properties one by one.

That's not a bad thing for the long term, but in the here and now it appears our neighborhood's desires regarding the Bland project are being ignored. Unfortunately, we're simply road kill on the path between the dysfunctional housing authority and a spend-thrift City Council that is suddenly forced to put the brakes on some of its promiscuous spending.

The City isn't willing to off-site more units from Bland because they would have to pay for the land. ARHA claims it can't do it because the financials for the Glebe Park and Bland projects are so delicately balanced any further expense would topple the house of cards.

As it is, staff have been hoping desperately that they could squeeze developers to pony up for for the 16 Bland units that won't fit on the Glebe Park, units which the City pledged to pay for. The City would rather use OPM (other people's money) rather than spend taxpayer revenue on the land. But those months-long efforts have been fruitless to date with the slump in new development.

What's intriguing is that in the end the City might have to cough up cash for the 16 units and/or the land to build them on. And in this economic environment, does the City have the funds? Will it have to issue bonds, and is this even remotely feasible — even with a great Moody's rating — given the crisis in international credit markets right now?

Another interesting angle: when the Glebe Park redevelopment was first proposed, there was discussion about the City advancing money first to developer EYA, and then (after someone had a fit of propriety) to ARHA to forward to EYA to get construction started. Someone has to prime the pump so that the first units can get built and sold.

Will we see ARHA come back to the City with hat in hand once again? Or is it all being financed on the back of our community?