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Alexandria taking a new look at one of its oldest types of mixed-use development

1001 King Street (photo via Google Maps)

One of the most defining architectural features of places like Old Town and Georgetown are the buildings with residential units above first and second-story shops.

Now, after the city put together ordinances to more clearly regulate and refine policies for accessory dwelling units (ADU), the city is taking another look at how the units-over-retail type of development fits into the broader scope of housing regulations.

At a Planning Commission meeting on March 1, Alexandria urban planner Marlo Ford laid out what city staff is looking at for that type of unit. A text amendment, Ford said, should be coming back to the city for review in May.

“These are existing in the city currently today, apartments that exist over commercial or retail spaces,” said Ford. “The city is looking to make new rules to make them more consistent across zones and to provide some more flexibility to where these units can be allowed.”

Currently, Ford said those units are classified as “accessory apartments”.  The definition in the ordinance is that these are one or two apartment units on the floors above retail or commercial space and are classified as non-residential for regulations like side yard setbacks or open space.

One of the issues is with the name. Accessory apartments share that descriptor with the new accessory dwelling units use, but there’s an important distinction between the two that may have been overlooked during the ADU process.

“We need to take a look at these changes because last year, with the adoption of ADUs, we had to come up with a definition of accessory,” Ford said. “[The definition states] that it would occupy less than 33% of a structure.  If you look at buildings on Washington or King Street, some have two or three floors above that. If we use that concept of accessory, we would be making those non-compliant structures. It’s best if we to take a good look at the definition and make a new definition for what has historically been used in our city.”

The current suggestion, Ford said, is that the units-over-retail configuration becomes a new classification called “auxiliary apartments.”

Ford said the city is also looking at making the rules about accessory apartments more consistent city-wide. For example: along Mount Vernon Avenue, Ford said zoning regulations currently don’t allow that type of housing in Arlandria but they are allowed on the Del Ray side of the street.

Some of the changes being proposed are:

  • Allow auxiliary dwelling above, below or behind commercial uses
  • Allow up to four auxiliary dwelling units
  • Continue to classify those units as non-residential for some regulation purposes
  • Ground floor dwellings only permitted 50 feet or further from the front wall of the building

Ford said a virtual meeting will be scheduled, but no date has been pinned down yet.

“It’ll be useful to see what sort of question we receive from the community on this,” said Planning Commission chair Nathan Macek, I think it’s an excellent summary of where you are to date with it and I look forward to seeing how it evolves.”

Photo via Google Maps

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