The Planning Commission unanimously approved the controversial Heritage Old Town project on Tuesday, clearing a path for it to go to City Council for a vote on Feb. 20.
The decision was made after hours of public comments from more than 40 people in support and opposition to the project.
The project was sent back to the developer last June and September for lacking an Old Town aesthetic. New York-based property owner Asland Capital Partners wants to replace the four-story 1970s-era urban renewal buildings in southeast Old Town along South Patrick and North Washington streets with three apartment buildings that will be up to seven stories in height. The plan preserves all existing 140 housing assistance units on-site and would add 57 units, according to a city staff report.
Alexandria is under an affordable housing crisis, and the city has pledged to produce or develop 2,000 affordable housing units by 2025. The city has also agreed to produce an additional 1,950 units by 2030 in order to meet its regional housing goal set by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which aims for the region to produce 320,000 affordable housing units.
Like many of his neighbors, Old Town resident Stephen Sweeney opposes the project because it will add hundreds of cars to roadways and increase traffic.
“The affordable housing component of this is a Trojan horse to get more market rate units in there,” Sweeney told the Planning Commission. “There’s gotta be a better plan. It’s got to be a compromise here to get a development in here that works with a community that doesn’t impact traffic as bad.”
Even former Mayor Allison Silberberg weighed in, and told a community group that the project has too much density.
“Just because you can do something does not mean you should,” Silberberg said. “If the developer can make a profit with a smaller number of market-rate units, then we as a city should look for that middle ground.”
Jim Simmons, a managing partner with Asland, said that his project is the victim of a disinformation campaign.
“I’ve been in a lot of different domiciles and cities, but I don’t think in any of them would characterize a seven story building as a high rise,” Simmons said.
Asland attorney Cathy Puskar said that it was the city that approached Asland for help with affordable housing, and that the plan has gone through community meetings for more than a year.
“My client did not come to the city,” Puskar said. “The city came to my client. The city encouraged my client to redevelop using a new tool that the city created in its small area plan to incentivize redevelopment or the provision of deeply subsidized housing, without any city funding. And so I would ask the Planning Commission to understand that we have done our best to work with the community, that there have been changes to this project, and that we understand that they wish that it was two stories lower, but that is just not possible.”
Image via City of Alexandria