Finally, Movement On North Hill?

Finally, Movement On North Hill?

Housing agency seeks proposals for high-density residential development.

— Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland said last week that the Fairfax Housing Department is expected shortly to issue a request for proposals from the housing development industry to build high density residences on part of North Hill, the largest area of vacant land along Route 1.

He said the housing authority decided to accept an unsolicited proposal by AHP Virginia LLC to build apartments for 204 families on the North Hill site in Hybla Valley. AHP’s plan would include providing 9 percent of the apartments for low income residents. Accepting AHP means that it is now in competition with other developers who may have a plan.

Rick Edson, the managing member of AHP Virginia, said his plan contemplates building the affordable units first and then high end apartments in a second phase. He said that he and other developers are watching the experience of the Beacon of Groveton, a 290-unit high end apartment building a mile north of North Hill. The Beacon of Groveton rents range from $1,405 a month for an efficiency apartment to $2,480 for a two-bedroom unit.

The Beacon of Groveton is one of the first of high end apartment residences built along Route 1, long an area characterized aging apartments, car agencies and strip malls.

The AHP firm, located in Bethesda, Md., has developed two other projects in the Hybla Valley area both containing housing for low income residents.

The decision to seek proposals for high density apartments or town houses on North Hill is a major shift for the housing authority which has worked for four years developing a plan to build a community of 67 manufactured housing units.

This latest change comes after 32 years of controversy over what to do with the North Hill which the county purchased in 1981.

HYLAND SAID a developer may also offer plans for the “front” of North Hill along Route 1 to include commercial operations but this would require a change in the Master Plan. The county is still planning to develop a 22-acre park on a portion of North Hill.

Whatever final plans are accepted, the entire project must be approved by the Fairfax Board of Supervisors. Jeff McKay, the supervisor for the Lee District which runs along the west side of Route 1 said several months ago that he thought a manufactured housing community would be a disaster.

When the county purchased the 49-acre tract of land called North Hill it was operated as the Woodley Nightingale Mobile Home Park, a haphazard collection of 550 mobile homes, developed between 1953 and 1968.

The area lacked roads to accommodate fire engines; many of the trailers were dilapidated and had faulty electrical wiring and police said it was a source of crime throughout Hybla Valley.

At the request of citizen groups, Fairfax County obtained $8 million in federal block grants from the Housing and Urban Development Administration and purchased the land and trailer sites under condemnation for $5,250,000. Another $3 million was spent on litigation and $3 million relocating the park’s residents. It took nearly 12 years to remove the mobile homes.

In 1991, the county opened Woodley Hills Estates, a manufactured house site of affordable homes with 115 pads for homes on 14 acres of the North Hill land. Currently there are no vacancies at Woodley Hills. It was under criticism from the start because all the mature trees were removed, leaving the metal homes open to heat and weather and destroying what some said were important examples of tree growth.

Over the next two decades there have been some half dozen plans to redevelop the remaining 34 acres and endless disputes over each of them.

David Versel, executive director of the Southeast Fairfax Development Corporation, said North Hill is the largest piece of undeveloped land between the Beltway and Ft. Belvoir and how it is developed may be important to improvement of Route 1.

Others think North Hill’s tortured history is a symbol of how the Route 1 corridor south of Alexandria became an affordable housing ghetto — an area ignored by major developers and investors.

David Dale, a member of the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens Associations opposes a current plan to build a low income manufactured housing community at North Hill. “It will send another signal that the county does not think Route 1 is a prime investment.” He said the county’s enormous investments in Tysons Corner, Reston and Merrifield were accompanied by major private development.

NORTH HILL LAND belongs to Department of Housing and Community Development (formerly the Redevelopment and Housing Authority, RHA). The land is heavily wooded with scattered home pads and deteriorating asphalt roads. Though the area is fenced, Thomas W. Armstrong, a senior project manager for community development, said that they know homeless people are camping there. The land itself is in Mount Vernon, but across Route 1 Lee District is the managerial entity.

The owners of the various properties in 1981 refused to sell and the county could not make a detailed land study until after condemnation.

In September 1981, Law Engineering Testing Co. reported to the county that development of the northern end of park faced severe limitations where soil slippage combined with steep slopes.

Patton Harris, Rust and Associates were asked to submit a plan for redevelopment. It reported in March 1984 that development of a large commercial facility would be extraordinarily expensive. “The entire property is impacted by marine clay soils which present numerous problems in relation to construction,” Patton Harris told the county. The firm proposed retaining walls “with the average height of 7 feet” to allow the existing slope to be re-graded.

In 1992, the housing authority came up with a plan to sell the remaining 34 acres to developer who would construct 276 unsubsidized, market priced townhouses selling for $160,000 to $170,000 and 60 apartments for moderate income elderly. The authority estimated it could recover $5 million of the millions it had spent.

But then, 18 residents attended a housing meeting and urged the county to develop a park. One of them brought recordings of warbling birds at North Hill which were entered into the public record of the authority. Instead of approving the redevelopment plan, the authority voted to ask HUD if it could give the land to the Fairfax County Park Authority. The letter to HUD did not mention that a half mile from North Hill is Huntley Meadow, a Fairfax County park where birds have 1, 426 acres to warble.

Middle-class home owners in houses east of North Hill have seen the RHA projects as ways to bring more low incomes and moderate income residents into the Route 1 area where there is a high concentration of subsidized housing. In addition to 115 family manufactured home community there 240 public housing units along Route 1, a 52-bed shelter and a group home within several blocks of North Hill.

Affordable housing supporters, like Elisabeth Lardner, chairman of the housing authority, was part of a government task force that found the number of affordable housing units in Fairfax decreasing as developers improved and raised the prices on units. She said she sees North Hill as a vital addition to the stock of available low priced housing.

This argument has swung back and forth for 18 years, keeping the land undeveloped.

IN THE INTERVAL, a gardening business wanted to build a Japanese garden park and several developers have made overtures.

The county has spent thousands of dollars studying the area. In March 2008, Greenhorne & O’Mara, Inc. was commissioned to conduct an “archaeological survey of North Hill” and two months later it delivered a 300-page report that said there was no significant prehistoric artifacts, some chips and other material from the 19th and 20th centuries and it did not recommend further study.

The park department has also conducted extensive tree surveys of North Hill.

The current plans envisage a 22-acre public park fronting in part on Route 1 and a 67- pad manufactured home community facing Dart Drive. And like a nearly a score of plans put forth over the 32 years since the land was bought, this plan too has strong opponents and strong supporters.

Hyland told a citizen committee meeting in December 2010 that North Hill has dominated his political career since before he was first elected in 1987. From the beginning, Hyland said the county committed to build affordable housing for 550 families, but by 2010, he said “We’re down to 66, not even half of what we committed to do.” Calling North Hill “excruciating problem for all of us,” Hyland said North Hill has split the citizens’ councils and split the community.

The county park authority approved its plan on Feb. 24, 2010 for a park with picnic areas, an off-leash dog walking, a basketball court and play grounds for small children. Efforts will be made to preserve valuable trees.

The housing authority gave a presentation at a public meeting on May 6, 2009 that estimated the site development costs of $5,600,000 and “only a 5 percent premium for remediation of marine clay soils.” It estimated $1,100,000 for other development costs.

The plan said 20 units would be rental housing for families with incomes 30 percent of average medium income or below. HUD’s income limit would be $30,000 for a family of four. It would be buy 15 double wide units and five single wide units for this section at an estimated expenditure of $1,600,000.

Another 47 units would for families with incomes 80 percent of the average medium income and below. Most of these units would be for sale. HUD’s income limit would be $64,000 for families of four.

All these figures were issued in 2009 and limits change annually.

The proposal carried photos of several types of manufactured homes priced from $45,000 to $104,000.