Demo cluster in Alexandria: why tear down respectable homes in a prosperous city?

Alexandria, Virginia, a place I cover frequently in this blog, is a medium sized city of considerable affluence.  Sitting directly across the river from the District of Columbia, it predates the founding of our nation’s capital by a good forty years, meaning it never intended to function as a suburb.  Neither a national capital nor a sovereign nation were even a twinkle in the eye of Alexandria’s founders.  Washington only absorbed Alexandria as its urbanization pattern expanded outside the 61-square-mile District into surrounding lands: first Maryland, then increasingly Virginia as ferries and bridges expedited travel across the Potomac’s considerable breadth.  Today, Alexandria is a densely populated city all its own, with a historic center (Old Town that I’ve featured multiple times), a modern downtown of high-rises (the Carlyle district), and a variety of other neighborhoods and commercial nodes.  And while it can easily assert itself as a bedroom community for federal workers (either across the river or employment hubs like the Pentagon nearby), it definitely claims a character of its own, as one might expect from a place surveyed in part by none other than a young George Washington. Alexandria’s median household income in 2021 dollars is about $105,000, which is quite high for a city of 160,000.  Though the city has pockets of moderate income areas, as well as a fairly high quantity of public housing, it is and has long been a mostly well-off city.

Given Alexandria’s prosperity, I was more than a bit surprised earlier this winter to see a cluster of seemingly boarded-up homes at an intersection of two minor streets.  

demo cluster at West and Braddock, Alexandria

But no, this isn’t conventional urban blight.  Come on now: this is Alexandria.  But if the incomes aren’t enough evidence, a few details in the photo above should make it clear.  Here’s a close-up of one of the houses:

It’s a pretty mediocre mothball job: plywood on only a few windows, some horizontal beams tacked up across a few more, and not a single window sealed off on the upper floors.  For an abandoned place, it doesn’t look that rough either.  But none of those cues are quite as strong as the detail in the foreground: that tall chain link fence.  It’s around everything.

demo cluster at West and Braddock, Alexandria
demo cluster at West and Braddock, Alexandria

It’s a security fence to cordon off a forthcoming demolition site.

Every one of the homes in this cluster was just weeks away from a demolition, and some of the deconstruction had already begun.

demo cluster at West and Braddock, Alexandria

At the time of my photo tour, the area was an absolute wreck.  But these did not look like economically devastated homes.  While some in the demo cluster were clearly more modest than others, why should they all face demolition at the same time?  Did the Department of Environmental Quality discover some groundwater contamination?  A long neglected sacred burial site?  A plague of locusts?

Nope, nothing that apocalyptic.  It’s just good old fashioned market forces.  Ten adjacent houses in this part of Alexandria face demolition, not because the land had any real problems or setbacks.  Quite the opposite; it was too valuable.  A developer bought out the demo cluster.  The zoning in this section of Alexandria is RB/Townhouses, which might seem unusual, given that every structure in these photos is a single-family detached home.  And Alexandria has plenty of multifamily and single-family attached housing (rowhomes).  The map below, which outlines the demo cluster in purple (all are demolished as of April), might offer some insight on what’s going to happen.

Yes, they’re all contiguous. The demo cluster ultimately comprises about one-third of a block, bounded by Wythe Street on the south, N. West Street on the west, Madison Street on the north, and an alley on the east.

demo cluster at West and Braddock, Alexandria

The zoning ostensibly supports a medium-density development: townhomes are customarily higher density than single-family detached, allowing considerably more individual units than the ten modest homes in these photos.  According to the provisions of the RB/Townhouse classification, “each dwelling unit shall be located on a lot with a minimum land area of 1,980 square feet”.  Thus, the developer bought out the owners of each of these ten parcels, merged them into one, and now prepares to initiate a series of micro subdivisions to accommodate a much larger number of townhomes—or at least that’s what one can presume, given the stipulations within the zoning ordinance.

demo cluster at West and Braddock, Alexandria

But that doesn’t appear to be what is about to transpire on this portion of the block.  Instead, the developer CRC Companies has proposed a seven-story mixed use structure called Braddock West, hosting 174 rental units (a small percentage committed as affordable), with retail on the first floor.  Hardly townhomes.  It’s a comparatively massive use, not without controversy.  The Alexandria City Council voted against it in March 2021.  But they rescinded their original rejection two months later, in a move that is tantamount to zoning map amendment, which in turn prompted a lawsuit from a neighbor due to the fact that less than one year transpired between the developer’s application and the decision.  But the demolition equipment present this winter proves that the project has continued.

What might have prompted this contentious judgment from the City Council?  Look no further than land uses immediately surrounding the ten homes.

Immediately opposite Madison Street to the north of the demo cluster is a large multi-story commercial/office structure, housing the United States Senate Federal Credit Union, among other things—a complex that the green star in my above map partially encapsulates  I will concede that this opposite side of the street falls within a more compatible classification: CRMU/H (Commercial Residential Mixed Use – High), reflected in the zoning map.  Regardless of the difference between the two sides of Madison, a seven-story apartment building on the south side of Madison isn’t exactly a developmental anomaly.  But a more important factor, immediately west of N. West Street, justifies the inordinately high land values.

It’s the Braddock Road Metro station—one of three (soon to be four) stations on the WMATA blue and yellow lines that pass through Alexandria.  And most of these ten to-be-demolished homes could look out at the station from their windows.  Such proximity to a major transit route in the traffic-choked Washington DC metro is a huge selling point, a perk that more than offsets the nuisance noise of the train lines (which many people don’t even find all that unpleasant).  In short, the developer-driven zoning ordinance amendment demonstrates a textbook example of transit oriented development (TOD): the deliberate up zoning of land near prominent transit stops, commensurate with the land values, to concentrate population and activity where mass transit routes most justify it.  To be frank, the comparatively low density RB/Townhouse classification that constrained development on the site of this demo cluster was an anomaly.  I’ve already featured the parcel immediately north: the credit union building.  Here’s the parcel to the southwest, a pink circle on the map:

The sunset doesn’t help visibility, but it’s still obvious.  At the horizon stands a multi-story residential building (condos I believe) with a restaurant or two on the ground level, perched right where Braddock Road terminates at N. West Street.  It’s a similar edifice to the one that CRC Companies is proposing at the demo cluster, and it dates from the 1990s.  Judging from the aesthetics, I’d guess about the same age to the credit union building, if not older.

In other words, the development team didn’t need to make a terribly elaborate case to the Alexandria City Council.  The fundamentals of TOD already speak for themselves on two sides of the Braddock Road metro station.  In fact, it’s surprising it took this long to “up-zone” from the comparatively moderate density of RB/Townhouse at the site of the demo cluster.  But it’s all reflective of the City’s efforts to increase population density in areas rich with bus and subway lines, bringing in numerous new multifamily buildings.  Just a few blocks northeast of the demo cluster, one encounters this site:

People are used to big multifamily buildings.  As development pressures grow, Alexandria apparently has its sights set on becoming an important city on its own right, even if it owes most of its desirability to its proximity to the nation’s capital right across the Potomac.  I wouldn’t hold my breath to see other demo clusters in the future.  In a community this prestigious, plywood on the windows almost never indicates blight; it just means speculators are tearing down the old to build opulent new.

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