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Changing Alexandria Political Landscape May Influence West End Redevelopment

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Daniel Villarroel and Gloria Phunanzita watch neighborhood friends play soccer on a tennis court in Alexandria's West End, which is slated for redevelopment.
Michael Pope/WAMU
Daniel Villarroel and Gloria Phunanzita watch neighborhood friends play soccer on a tennis court in Alexandria's West End, which is slated for redevelopment.

It's late afternoon, and a chill fills the air as West End neighborhood kids gather to play soccer on the tennis courts. We’re standing outside a cluster of garden apartments locals call the Hamlets along Beauregard Street. Daniel Villarroel, whose family came here from Bolivia four years ago, is watching the game. He just learned about a developer’s plan for his neighborhood, which calls for all these apartments to be demolished and replaced with high-end, mixed use buildings.

"The news shocked me and all that. So yes, it's affecting me, like, God, what are we going to do? Where are we going to move? How is the situation going to be?" asks Villarroel. "It's like, putting me in a lot of stress and I'm confused about what my family’s going to do. Are we going to separate or are we going to be living together?”

Several years ago, Maryland-based developer JBG purchased these apartment buildings and started making plans. That’s when the Alexandria City Council stepped in to give JBG the zoning changes it needed to move ahead. Only one member of the City Council voted against the zoning plan: Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg.

“At the time of the vote, I felt that we definitely could have pushed harder and that I wanted us to push even harder to negotiate for more affordable housing units," says Silberberg.

Her opposition to that zoning change and her vote against a waterfront development plan put Silberberg in a league of her own as the only member of the City Council to vote against developers. That created a base of support among people who say big business has been calling the shots for too long. One of those supporters is Jon Liss, director of an advocacy group known as Tenants and Workers United.

“I think if people read the tea leaves as I would read them, the Alexandria city elections indicated if anything that there’s a certain tiredness with developers having their way," says Liss.

Changing political landscape

The debate is not just an academic discussion about tone and priorities. It means that Mayor Bill Euille will not be presiding over the City Council when JBG presents specific plans to demolish existing buildings and start constructing new ones. Mayor-elect Allison Silberberg will. And Liss says he’s hoping Silberberg will use her new position to push for more affordable housing units, to make sure that they are delivered early and that city leaders will analyze who is displaced, what happens to them and how the city can keep them from leaving.

“I think it’s a question of can we cobble together a new majority on the City Council of four votes who will break with the past and try and put more checks on developers so hopefully we can put together four people that will actually make a stand and go in a slightly different or radically different direction," says Liss.

Advocates of the plan say it does have affordable housing — 800 units in fact. That’s not a one-for-one replacement of the 2,500 units there today. But it is an unprecedented addition of dedicated affordable housing units, and it was one of the key points that led council members to vote for the zoning change.

“The reality is that anything is done on City Council and in the city government by four votes," says Councilman Justin Wilson, who is likely to replace Silberberg as vice mayor after the council is sworn in. “One of those four votes can be the mayor. But it doesn’t have to be the mayor, and so we will figure out where we agree and we’ll work together. And where we disagree, we have a process to sort that out.”

JBG has already chosen sides. Company executives gave Euille $1,500 during his primary campaign against Silberberg. Then, after he lost to Silberberg, they gave him another $5,400 to support his write-in campaign.

“In this particular election, the lines were drawn pretty clearly," says Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University. “The developers clearly had their candidate, and they clearly opposed the other candidate.”

Through a spokesman, JBG declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a written statement, the company says it looks forward to working with the new mayor.

Diverse neighborhood at a crossroads

In this neighborhood along Beauregard Street, Census records show, the median household income is about $63,000, about half of the median income in the city. And because rents at the garden apartments are so low, city officials have declared thousands of them “market rate” affordable.

"It's not always about money," says Gloria Phunanzita, whose family moved here from the Democratic Republic of Congo three years ago. "This neighborhood is becoming more and more from, like, immigrants families and those immigrants families just arrived here. And then having them to move again and trying to adjust to another place, this is actually very hard for them."

For now, these families will have to wait and see. Will Silberberg’s election mean a change in direction on the West End? Or will JBG be able to use the new zoning to get what it wants?

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