Alexandria’s Trail of Tears

Alexandria’s Trail of Tears

This world was made by god for every human being, not only for the rich and other companies like JBG.  – Edwin Pineda, age 10

“This is a watershed moment for the Council,” community activist Ernie Lehmann said in testimony before the Alexandria City Council. “Will they bow to the profit motive of the developers or to the needs of the people?”

Saturday, the Alexandria City Council voted 6-0, with one abstention, to approve a plan that demolishes 2,475 apartments in Alexandria’s diverse West End community in the Beauregard area. The now-approved Beauregard Small Area Plan allows JBG and four other developers to move forward with the construction of 12.4 million square feet of development, most of it upscale housing.

In addition to demonstrations, the all-day hearing in the packed Council chamber saw a woman return to testify not long after she taken out on a stretcher after fainting. The heated hearing also saw two developer representatives at times all but running what was ostensibly a public hearing of the Alexandria City Council.

Developer representatives Catharine Puskar and Kenneth Wire repeatedly and freely interjected themselves into Council proceedings as they saw fit, a privilege not afforded to those opposing the project, nor to those slated to be displaced by it, such as Veronica Calzada.

“If this plan is completed as it’s been designed, my family will no longer be able to continue living in the area,” said Calzada, a member of the Beauregard Tenant Association and Tenants and Workers United, a grassroots group based in Alexandria which has worked closely with West End residents.

Calzada’s son, Edwin Pineda, addressed the mayor and council. “I have the right to live in Alexandria City and be educated in Alexandria City. Please don’t take those rights away from me.” The ten-year-old continued, “This world was made by god for every human being, not only for the rich and other companies like JBG. This is our world that we must share with all classes of people and cultures.”

While the world may be filled with all classes of people, increasingly Alexandria is not, and the Beauregard Small Area Plan only accelerates that trend, explained Aunte Margie Obeng, a 19-year-old student at Penn State University who grew up in Alexandria. “Although this plan is intended to introduce a more fresh and inviting look to the neighborhood, it does not exercise empathy for the tenants who now occupy the 2,400 units that are to be destroyed,” Obeng told councilmembers.

“A city cannot function if all its workers are government middle manager or information technology specialists at some beltway bandit,” testified Katy Cannady, a longtime Alexandria resident. “We need the hotel workers, the landscapers [and] the food service workers every bit as much.”

The reason this issue was before the Alexandria City Council was because the developers, led by JBG, sought an extra 2.4 million square feet of development over and above what they could build by right. In exchange for being granted this extra density, the developers agreed to provide the city with $66 million for traffic measures, $11 million for a fire station, $12 million for other amenities, as well as provide 800 units of affordable housing for at least thirty years. Maybe.

“As a project manager in the federal government I have learned that there’s a big difference between requirements and recommendations,” testified Kathlyn Hoekstra, a West End resident for more than 20 years. “Simply put, one is enforceable and one is not.”

Hoekstra continued, “When I look at this plan I find the word ‘require’ or ‘requirement’ is used 159 times. But when you dig down further you find [it] appears mostly following the words ‘will’ or ‘may.’ These are not true requirements that enable me or anyone else to hold you or the developers accountable.”

“The city got a raw deal here,” community activist Sammi Moshenberg told councilmembers. “In exchange for guaranteed higher density for the developer, we got some promises that aren’t as ironclad, [nor are they] enough to meet the needs of those currently calling the neighborhood home,” said Moshenberg, who’s seeking to win a seat on the city council in the upcoming June 12 primary election.

At the completion of Moshenberg’s testimony, activists with Occupy DC and members of TWU joined with West End residents as they walked out of the Council chamber sporting orange shirts and chanting, “Yes We Can.”

Before the orange exodus, Carol James, a 31-year resident of Alexandria who lives two blocks from the site of the proposed development, said, “It’s not unrealistic at all to envision the Beauregard Small Area Plan as a future military-industrial-residential complex.”

Abutting the 430 acre West End property is the Pentagon’s new Mark Center building, a massive structure that will house the Department of Defense’s Washington Headquarters Service. As part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process, 6,400 defense worker jobs were relocated to Mark Center. A federal report found that the Pentagon used faulty data from a 2008 study to justify moving so many jobs to an already traffic-congested area lacking in transportation options.

Several witnesses at Saturday’s hearing commented on the lack of transparency surrounding the construction of the Mark Center building. Carol James said of the BRAC building, “It dominates Alexandria’s skyline [and] casts its shadow… over the trust in this room, over the facts in this proposal and over the implications of your decision today.”

As a result of the infusion of so many white-collar jobs into the area, the West End’s property value suddenly jumped, if not skyrocketed. West End residents soon saw their rents and utility bills do likewise, which residents said was part of JBG’s plan to get rid of them in order to make way for high-end housing.

In concluding his testimony, Ernie Lehmann pointed out that the development plan fits a troubling pattern. “Over the past years, Alexandria has lost thousands of units of affordable housing… Almost 40,000 people have had to move elsewhere. This could be called the Alexandria tenants’ trail of tears.”

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