City grapples with potentially competing affordable housing and arts needs in Old Town North

(Updated 7:15 p.m.) For a while now, there’s been a fairly straightforward trade between the City of Alexandria and developers: if you want more density, you need to build affordable residential units.

New development in Old Town North, however, has thrown a wrinkle into that system by opening up a second option. Now, developers can also get bonus density by opening up sections of new development to arts use — part of the city’s efforts to establish Old Town North as an arts district.

In theory, the two bonuses stack, trading greater levels of density for both arts and affordable housing. Housing advocates raised eyebrows when two of the initial developments only pursued the arts district bonus density, though newer developments have since pursued both types of density.

Karl Moritz, Director of Planning and Zoning for the City of Alexandria, told ALXnow the goal is to balance the two density trade-offs.

“There are multiple goals and objectives in every small area plan,” said Moritz. “[We’re] trying to balance objectives, and sometimes they aren’t competing, but sometimes they’re more competitive in the sense that everything takes money.”

Moritz said that if the standpoint is that housing should be a sole priority of new development, it would follow that density traded for anything else is space and funding taken away from housing.

“Are these conflicting goals? I think there are people with legitimate points of view on both sides of that question and I want to honor both perspectives,” Moritz said. “We are seeing both being maximized. That is at least a little bit of evidence that they are not competing so much as the market in Old Town North is strong enough that both are being maximized. But for anyone that feels affordable housing is a more urgent problem: that’s density that could have gone to affordable housing because they’re maximizing the affordable housing bonus.”

Moritz said the goal is to create a neighborhood that includes a variety of attributes, including both arts space and affordable housing. Part of that balance is ensuring that there’s not a significant cost difference between the two trade-offs.

“Our goal is, among other things, to make sure they are balanced so it’s not significantly cheaper over the long run to provide arts density bonus over affordable housing bonus,” Moritz said. “It is more expensive to provide affordable housing than an arts shell, but an affordable housing project gets up to 60% of rent whereas arts use is zero, so it costs more in the long term. We’re still looking at that issue.”

Eric Keeler, deputy director of the Office of Housing, said it’s a balance that his office and the Alexandria Housing Affordability Advisory Committee (AHAAC) are monitoring closely.

“It’s a definite balancing act, and AHAC… let the [City] Council know from the very beginning that the only bonus density in place before was housing,” Keeler said. “As projects come in, it’s a continuing analysis to make sure we’re maximizing and utilizing these tools.”

Keeler also said the city is looking at national models from other localities, like Baltimore, and seeing how they balance density trade-offs. Still, Moritz said the balance is new for both Alexandria staff and some developers. There are additional challenges around the logistics of new art spaces, both with finding the right arts anchors and getting them built into the ground floor of the new developments.

“It’s complicated,” Moritz said. “We have a long history and everyone understands how to do affordable housing contribution aspect. In some ways, it’s been up to the developer to find someone, but staff is also working through specific issues. The arts uses also have to do their own tenant fit-out.”

Under the current rules, developments providing an arts anchor of 100,000 square feet can get a bonus density of up to 30%, but that art space must be free to use for a period of 30 years. The art space also doesn’t count against the development’s floor area ratio (FAR) requirements and there aren’t parking spaces required for the arts uses.

Moritz said early on, one of the goals of redevelopment in Old Town North was to ensure art spaces like Metro Stage and the Art League were both able to remain in the area and wouldn’t be driven out by redevelopment. The goal of the city’s plans is also to focus those art spaces around Fairfax Street. While the former GenOn Power Plant area wasn’t fully integrated into the Old Town North plans initially, Moritz said the priorities for that site are similarly focused on affordable housing and ground floor arts and cultural uses.

“Both are emblematic of what we were trying to accomplish,” Moritz said,” and a high priority was to make sure at least both got to remain in Old Town North.”

Both have found homes in new development, along with the Levine School of Music and City Dance.

So far, staff says they’re optimistic about the potential for arts and affordable housing density trade-offs to co-exist. Tamara Jovovic, a planner with the Office of Housing, said the city’s goal is to provide a broad geographic distribution of affordable housing, with a particular focus on areas with greater access to public transit.

Keeler said housing in Old Town North, along with the broader implications of splitting that density trade-off, will be considerations as the city moves forward with planning for the future of local affordable housing.

“When we did the Housing Master Plan, we didn’t have percentages, but we have tracking and pieces we’re looking at to make sure there is a good mix of incomes,” Keeler said. “We’re not that far away from the end of the Housing Master Plan, so as we’re working on new housing and new policies with the new City Council, we’ll see where some of that goes.”

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