Alexandria, VA

Alexandria’s civic associations came out in force to speak against a loosening of zoning restrictions at public school properties. While the Planning Commission ultimately pushed forward a modified version of the zoning change, there was widespread agreement that the public outreach could have been handled better.

The change had been proposed in 2019 and was docketed for meetings earlier this year, but had disappeared as the pandemic led to those meetings being cancelled until it quietly resurfaced for the Sept. 1 meeting.

The change originally would have allowed Alexandria City Public Schools to build schools up to 0.6 Floor Area Ratio (FAR) by right, meaning without needing public approval, or higher without a set restriction. The version approved at the Planning Commission still allows proposed schools to exceed the density restrictions, but only with a Special Use Permit (SUP) and by no greater than 0.75 FAR.

The proposal had been criticized by the North Ridge Citizens’ Association in the lead-up to the meeting, but was joined by others who protested that the city was quietly pushing the change through without public input.

“When we first learned about this proposal, we had to ask ourselves why our city would be contemplating such sweeping changes to our code without more public notice,” said Kay Stimson, representing the North Ridge Citizen’s Association. “This truly threatens to create a trust deficit between this commission and our residents.”

Stimson said she recognized that schools need greater capacity, but also said the city was pursuing an “increased density” agenda on residents throughout the city.

“If approved, this amendment would be a glaring example of arbitrary, capricious, and unsupportive administrative action by this city with detrimental impacts particularly on low density residential neighborhoods that don’t have the infrastructure to support the massive new buildings you’re proposing,” Stimson said. “The existing baseline should remain the prevailing density of the neighborhood. If someone wants to build something larger, the point of our zoning process is that they must talk to the public and gain permission. There is no justification whatsoever to allow for unlimited density in a school building. This actually calls into question why we would have a zoning code at all.”

Other residents similarly expressed frustrations that ACPS would be seemingly shielded from density requirements local homeowners face. Pete Benavage, representing the Federation of Civic Associations, said the federation had unanimously voted to oppose the change.

“We fell anything that is reducing the public input; the meaningful and timely public input, is deleterious to the benefit of the citizens of Alexandria,” Benavage said. “This amendment has not been properly vetted by the public and we would urge it either not be adopted or at least be tabled until such time as public vetting can be obtained. “

Residents frequently said the change to the zoning ordinance was part of a pattern of cutting public voices out of city decision-making.

“This would have enormous negative impact on the ability or residents and even this body to voice concerns about future school buildings in our neighborhoods,” said Yvonne Callahan. “We know who benefits from this streamlining and it is not residents and neighbors. this text amendment will greatly reduce the voices of the people. It’s yet another example of our city government’s lack of transparency, which further undermines the public trust.”

There was some agreement with at least some of that sentiment on the Planning Commission. Commissioner David Brown, whose substitute motion was ultimately approved, said he had similar concerns about the transparency of the change.

“I want to strongly associate myself with those who complained about the lack of transparency in this process,” Brown said. “There has not been adequate transparency. That’s not to say that I agree that it’s a power grab or effort to conceal what’s going on — I have complete faith in the staff that they’ve studied the recommendation — but we have not brought the city population of those directly affected by these major institutional uses along in the process. That really needs to be done, not only on a school by school basis, but in terms of a clearer understanding on how this major user of city property, ACPS, intends to solve in a long range way the overcrowding problem.”

Commissioner Stephen Koenig said the changes would have significant implications, and merited equally significant evaluation. While Chair Nathan Macek said he agreed with the need to address school capacity in a reasonable timeframe, he agreed the proposal needed more information and outreach. Part of those concerns ultimately manifested in the requirement to keep the SUP process for schools that exceed zoning requirements.

“We need to make sure we need to have public scrutiny,” Macek said. “I think that’s an important protection to the neighborhood so people do have that opportunity to weight in.”

An alternative proposal would have functional eliminated the FAR limit, which several agreed is an outdated and inaccurate judge of density for a project, but the proposal was eventually curtailed.

“[We are] altering the density standards of the zoning when this matter has not been adequately addressed through the planning process inclusive of the community,” Brown said. “Yeah, it may take a while, but these are very important decisions that need to be thrashed out. I don’t think we’re in any position on a top-down basis to be lecturing the community tonight on what’s good for them.”

Image via ACPS

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