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'I Just Want To Die Here'

Hunting Creek residents are caught in a development crossfire.

When Carl Ruthstrom moved to Hunting Terrace in the late 1950s, the complex was about a decade old. It was a red-brick oasis in the midst of a changing world for Ruthstrom, whose adventures with the American Merchant Marines took him all over the world. When he returned to Alexandria after serving in Vietnam from 1965 to 1970, he settled at Hunting Terrace for good.

"This is my home," said Ruthstrom, who has lived in a Hunting Terrace apartment for more than 45 years. "I've had pleasant memories here and some sad memories. But the pleasant ones outnumber the sad ones."

Unfortunately, the recent past has seen its share of misery for Ruthstrom. In 1997, doctors found several cancerous growths on Ruthstrom's head. He lost his right eye and part of his skull. Treatment has left him short of breath and unable to walk for more than a few minutes. The constant surgeries — 13 so far — have left him weakened and unable to attend St. Paul Episcopal Church, where he used to be an usher at the 8 a.m. service.

When construction began on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in 2002, his life was thrown into a tailspin — and he has yet to regain his balance. The piano that sits in his living room has been moved in and out of his apartment so many times — a result of living in a construction zone — that it's badly out of tune and unplayable.

"I haven't touched it in more than a year," he said, adding that he can't afford to have it tuned.

Ruthstrom is caught in the middle of a development soap opera, an extended controversy between city officials, the Virginia Department of Transportation and IDI, a development company based in Northern Virginia led by Giuseppe Cecchi.

"I am too old to start over again," he said. "I don't have the energy or the strength."

HUNTING TERRACE'S FUTURE is uncertain. Three of its buildings have already been torn down to make way for the massive new Woodrow Wilson Bridge — the widest bridge in the United States — and the remaining buildings are now owned by the Virginia Department of Transportation as part of a temporary arrangement that facilitates an uneasy coexistence between residents and construction workers.

But the arrangement may soon be coming to an end. The Department of Transportation may sell the property back to Jack Kay, who owned Hunting Terrace before the bridge tore its way through the landscape. Kay is working with Cecchi, a developer whose portfolio includes Watergate, Techworld Plaza, Carlyle Towers and Porto Vecchio. Ruthstrom fears that he does not have the means to live in the kind of development that might replace Hunting Terrace.

"I live on a very limited income — very limited," he said, adding that his Social Security check is his main source of income.

If Kay and Cecchi decide to demolish Hunting Terrace, "I don't know what I'll do," Ruthstrom said. "I have absolutely no idea."

ARTHUR WENTOWSKI and his wife moved into Hunting Towers in 1971 — shortly before being deployed to Vietnam. At that time, the towers were a glamorous place with flowers in the lobby and a concierge ready to respond to every whim. Wentowski says that airline pilots and stewardesses used to add color to the buildings.

"This was a regular passion pit," he said. "They used to have wild parties on the roof."

The mood these days in Hunting Towers is decidedly more subdued. Although the two remaining buildings are still standing — one was torn down to make way for the bridge — Wentowski believes Kay and Cecchi are unlikely to redevelop his apartment in a way that he could afford to live there on his military pension.

"I'm just waiting to die and be buried at Arlington," he said. "I don't want to move. I just want to die here."

In 1996, Wentowski was diagnosed with prostate cancer. In 2000, his wife died. In 2001, Hunting Towers was sold to the Virginia Department of Transportation. Suddenly, Wentowski lived in the midst of a giant construction project. When the jackhammers began, Wentowski's life was cast into turmoil.

Like so many other residents of Hunting Terrace and Hunting Towers, Wentowski doesn't know what his future holds.

ARDITH CAMPBELL DENTZER, president of the tenants' association at Hunting Terrance and Hunting Towers, says that residents like Carl Ruthstrom and Arthur Wentowski deserve better. She worries about the residents in the Hunting Creek area, visiting them frequently and acting as an advocate for their interests.

"These buildings should not be touched. They should be left exactly as they are," she said. "A bridge is not worth disrupting these lives."

She is particularly concerned with the elderly residents, whose lives are often complicated by medical problems and confined by limited incomes.

"We are supposed to be a country of the middle class," she said. "But middle-class people can't afford to live here anymore. Why don't we just put a 'for sale' sign on City Hall?"

Dentzer is frustrated with what she sees as complacency on the part of the City Council, whose members recently declined to require potential developers to set aside a specific amount of affordable housing properties. At the Sept. 27 City Council meeting, Councilman Andrew Macdonald offered a motion that would require a developer to set aside 50 percent of any future development for affordable housing. The motion received only two votes: those of Macdonald and City Councilwoman Joyce Woodson.

"Why can't we be specific? We've got somewhere approaching 8,000 units that are rental that are going to be converted over the next couple of years. At least 60 percent of those 8,000 units are affordable, and they are not going to be available any more," Woodson said at the Sept. 27 meeting. "We're looking at residents who live there who are worried, and significantly worried, about where they are going to go."

WITH NEGOTIATIONS to purchase Hunting Towers and Hunting Terrace now underway, it is unclear what will happen for residents who live there. Kay and Cecchi have until March 1 to finalize the sale.

"The market demand right now is unprecedented," said Brian O'Sullivan, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation. "No matter who the new owner is, demolition is available to anyone."

Residents are concerned that demolition may not stop with the physical structures, bringing a wrecking ball to their ability to live in Alexandria. According to the Hunting Creek Area plan, passed by City Council members without a specific percentage of set-aside affordable housing properties, the future may hold major changes.

"Both Hunting Towers and Hunting Terrace are of an age at which many structures become obsolete as a result of changing needs, tastes and economic conditions," the plan states. "They are at an age when major building systems often require significant maintenance or replacement to remain functional and economical. While the physical structures are apparently in good condition and have an indefinite future life provide they receive attention to some deferred maintenance in the future, the characteristics of the individual units and the building systems that support them make them less desirable in the marketplace than new developments in similar locations and of similar density."

Dentzer says that residents are "being sold down the Potomac River," caught between a city that is unconcerned with preserving affordable housing and a development interest that is concerned with profit.

"Residents of Hunting Towers and Hunting Terrace are middle-income residents or retirees living on fixed incomes," she said. "They are retired and active military, young couples starting out with college loans to pay off, little old ladies and old men who have lived in the complex for over 50 years, government workers, self-employed and nonprofit employees. Those residents are now being told that the equal rights and protections that the Founding Fathers set into law — including George Washington, Alexandria's most famous resident — just do not apply to them."