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In the Shadows

Large-scale development is radically changing the face of the Parker-Gray neighborhood.

The area east of the Braddock Road Metro station is in the midst of a dramatic change — a transformation that is demolishing abandoned industrial buildings and replacing them with six-story condominiums. But some neighborhood residents are concerned that the size of recently approved development is out of place with the long-established townhouses. They are worried about the increased levels of traffic scores of new residents will bring to the already clogged streets surrounding Route 1, which runs through Patrick Street and Henry Street through Old Town. And they wonder about a future in which they will become increasingly marginalized by oversized buildings and their new occupants.

It’s a story that dates back to the historically black nature of the neighborhood, which once included Parker-Gray High School. The segregated school was originally built in 1920, and it was the center of black life in Alexandria until the social forces leading to desegregation closed its doors and later demolished the building. The school — and, by extension, the neighborhood around it — was named for two educational leaders in the black community: John Parker, who was the principal of Snowden School for Boys and Sarah Gray, who was principal of the Hallowell School for Girls.

Now, four generations after the school was founded, the legacy of Parker and Gray is in the midst of an identity crisis. In 2004, a 168-unit building known as the “Monarch” was approved in the block bounded by Oronoco Street, Fayette Street, Pendleton Street and Henry Street. Last week, a 146-unit building known as the “Payne Street Condominiums” was approved for the block bounded by Payne Street, Wythe Street, Fayette Street and Pendleton Street. And in the very near future, a plot of open space near the Braddock Street Metro station may also be slated for yet another large-scale development — a prospect that has many feeling troubled over the radical transformation of an existing neighborhood.

“I feel that the Parker-Gray neighborhood is losing all its charm,” said Corrine Dixon, a longtime Parker-Gray resident. “And I would hate to see another large-scale development go up.”

Dixon was born in a small-frame townhouse at the southeast corner of North Henry and Pendleton Street. The year was 1922, and Dixon can recall a childhood before the streets or sidewalks were paved. On the other side of the road, an old feed mill loaded cargo onto the train cars that once rumbled up and down Henry Street. Her father, who bought the house in 1917, used a horse and buggy to deliver baked goods to local grocery stores.

“I’ve had a lot of offers to sell,” she said. “But I’m sentimentally attached to this house.”

Although Dixon no longer lives in the townhouse, she rents it to several tenants and a one-room beauty salon. Her recent visits to the building have become increasingly distressing, however, when she looks up at the six-story tower directly across the street from her two-story townhouse. One of the reasons that she opposed the Monarch back in 2004, when the development was before City Council, was that it would cast a long shadow over her house every afternoon. She now has daily visual confirmation that her fears were justified.

“I am aware a study was prepared which showed the sunlight would not affect my building,” she wrote in a Nov. 9, 2004 letter opposing the development. “But I don’t understand why a two-story building in front of a six-story building would not be affected by the sunlight.”

IN THE SHADOWS of large-scale development, many Parker-Gray residents are questioning the wisdom of increasing density and approving large-scale development. The issue was before City Council last week, when officials were considering the merits of a new 146-unit development with a maximum height of 77 feet. Although city officials with the city’s Office of Planning and Zoning say that the building was designed to look like five different buildings, Parker-Gray resident Steve Carman is skeptical of the scale of developments that City Council members have been approving in recent years.

“Developers tell us that smart growth requires that every available parcel gets built up,” Carman said at Saturday’s public hearing. “But there’s more to it than that.”

Carman explained to council members that many of his neighbors have been opposing the size and scale of developments for years, yet the City Council continues to yield to the wishes of developers who want to maximum their profit margins by raising density. Both the Monarch and the Payne Street Condominum, for example, required special permission to violate the floor-area ratio limitations created by the Department of Planning and Zoning. For Carman and many other neighborhood residents, these kinds of decisions are choking the life out of Parker-Gray.

“I suggest we define smart growth to emphasize the quality of life over the quality of jamming as many people as possible together in an area that already has a high level of traffic,” said Carman. “Few residents bought into this area hoping to see its character transformed in front of our eyes into the impersonal concrete giants of Ballston and Tysons Corner.”

Carman wonders why Del Ray and Rosemont — which are on the other side of the Metro station — have not been slated for any large-scale development. It’s a decision that many neighborhood residents say has put Parker-Gray literally on the wrong side of the tracks once more.

“Why are only the neighborhoods east of the Metro station under scrutiny for high-density development and not the entire 360 degrees surrounding the Metro station including Del Ray and Rosemont?” Carman asked at the conclusion of his Saturday remarks to council. “The answer may well be that these neighborhoods deserve to be protected. But that places an unfair burden on Parker Gray, doesn’t it?”

COUNCIL MEMBERS DID not attempt to answer Carman’s questions, but they were prepared to vote on the project — which received support from all City Council members except Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald. Explaining his objection to the Payne Street Condominiums, Macdonald said that the size and scale of the project were wrong for the neighborhood. Although he voted to approve the Monarch in 2004, Macdonald now says that that project does not have the proper transition between a six-story condominium and a two-story townhouse that stands directly across the street — a mistake that he does not want to make again.

“I think the Monarch is really awful,” Macdonald said Saturday during a discussion of Parker-Gray development. “Just awful.”

With his dissenting vote on the Payne Street Condominium project, Macdonald has placed himself in the center of an ongoing war between residents who are eager to preserve their neighborhood and developers who want to maximize density near the Metro station. The next battle in the war will be fought over a parcel of land at 1261 Madison Street, which is known as Braddock Place. During Saturday’s public hearing, Macdonald said that the parcel of land is so important that city should consider using the power of eminent domain if necessary to acquire it.

“I think this is an excellent piece of land and we should acquire it,” Macdonald said, jutting his eyeglasses forward to emphasize the point. “It’s a very bad development site, and we should not be deterred if a property owner isn’t interested in selling.”

City land records show that the property was purchased by Madison Street LLC on Dec. 14, 2001 for $2 million. In 2005, the owner brought forth a plan to develop the land by building a project called “Braddock Metro Plaza Condominium.” But the plan was eventually scrapped and the open space remains vacant — until the owner comes forth with another proposal or the city figures out a way to purchase the parcel as part of the city’s ongoing effort to preserve open space. The most recent assessment of the property estimated that the value of the land is $3.9 million — although its commercial value could be much more than that.

“I realize that’s a lot of money,” Macdonald responded. “But when there’s no more open space left to buy, it won’t seem like such a large sum.”

Councilman Rob Krupicka said that he has heard that the actual value of the land may be much higher than $3.9 million, a fact that would have some bearing on whether it should be on the city’s list of land to acquire. He also asked the vice mayor if he was suggesting that the city use its condemnation process to take the property.

“Yes, I am suggesting that,” said Macdonald. “I think that’s a perfectly reasonable use of that process for the public good.”

Immediately after Macdonald’s comments, Councilman Tim Lovain jumped in to express what he called a “strong disinclination” to the use of eminent domain. Although the city government made extensive use of the power during the 1980s to acquire land for the construction of Eisenhower Avenue, Lovain said that using the controversial power — recently upheld by a Supreme Court decision — would be problematic.

“I think it’s a slippery slope, and I don’t want people to start wondering if their land is going to be seized to use as a pocket park,” said Lovain. “I just think that’s dangerous territory.”