Alandria development vision from the 1998 plan.

After a decade of planning, a proposal for mixed-use development in Arlandria will finally go before the Alexandria City Council this Saturday. The dedicated Arlandria community has spent years fighting the perception that new development there was unfeasible.

The Arlandria community has been planning for change longer than any other neighborhood in Alexandria. It is now a decade into the implementation period of the Arlandria Revitalization Plan, which was the result of a long planning effort from 1998 to 2003.

The goal of the plan was to build on the strength of an existing pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use place by redeveloping underutilized sites nearby.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t been easy.

In the decade since the plan, shops have closed and turned over at an alarming rate. Others have barely been able to hold on. Absent a large outside investment, the community pursued modest improvements on its own. But without a developer to put buildings in the ground, the opportunities to make significant impacts were limited.

A marketing strategy was adopted to advertise Arlandria businesses, and guidelines for storefront facade improvement were established. Despite these efforts, many businesses were barely breaking even.

A 2008 follow-up feasibility study determined that conditions in Arlandria made development unfeasible. The study pointed to an on-going perception of crime, a poorly built environment, and lack of economic diversity as the three major impediments to economic development.

Study inspires grassroots efforts

The city attributed the stagnation to a lack of community involvement.  That comment combined with the negativity of the feasibility study inspired a community led, grassroots economic development effort.

The overarching goal of the new effort was to achieve economic sustainability, while maintaining the ethnic and economic diversity that define Arlandria. Without outside investment, a group of volunteers took on this challenge.

Working hand-in-hand with neighbors and social service providers, residents created the Four Mile Run Farmers and Artisans Market, which works as a small business incubator and is the only market in Northern Virginia to accept food stamps.

The community improved streetscapes and parks, and participated in service provider and quality of life meetings.

Working in coordination with the city, Arlandria established relationship with third party organizations to preserve and enhance conditions in the neighborhood. These included Community Oriented Police (COPS), ARHA, Community Lodgings, Wesley Housing, the Community Services Board, the Chirilagua Coop, and most recently Arlington Housing Corporation.

According to Census figures, Arlandria’s population is highly transient. It has a 30% turnover annually, and 90% rate for every 5 years. A big reason is the limited diversity of housing in Arlandria, which results in residents leaving the neighborhood whenever they move into a different type of home.

The city and grassroots organizations have aimed to provide a wider range of housing. To do so will require something more than very low rent and very high cost properties. Broad economic diversity and livability are key to a sustainable community.

In part 2, we will look at the realization of the plan.

Kevin Beekman, Melissa Garcia and Nick Partee contributed to this article.

Kevin Beekman is an economist living in Alexandria, Virginia whose work focuses on travel and transportation forecasting. Long of advocate of environmental issues, smart growth, and social justice, Kevin had been involved in community building projects for a decade, in Arlandria, standing up for the neighborhood that Alexandria almost forgot. A member of the Four Mile Run Restoration Task Force and co-founder of the Four Mile Run Farmers and Artisans Market, he is also the editor of the Arlandrian a blog about the long neglected cluster of neighborhoods between Del Ray, Arlington Ridge, Shirlington and Crystal City. Bounded by Glebe & Glebe, Rt 1 & Four Mile Run, Arlandria is where Arlington and Alexandria meet (and try to get acquainted).