New ordinance could take Arlandria and Old Town developments to new heights

The city government could be opening up new swaths of Alexandria to taller buildings and more affordable housing.

Currently, the city trades bonus density in developments for more affordable housing, but only in areas with a height limit of 50 feet or above. Developers are allowed to exceed established height limits to a degree in exchange for affordable housing units or an equivalent contribution to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Now, the city is hoping to drop that to areas with 45-foot height limits, which would open up new heights and housing options in places like Old Town, Arlandria and the West End.

At a meeting yesterday (April 12), the Office of Housing officials provided an overview of the proposed change along with a glimpse at where this change could affect the housing stock and height. Developments can not be increased more than 25 feet above previously permitted heights.

The change would open up the possibility for more height in several new areas, though staff warned that height isn’t the only factor determining which developments make that trade. Pre-existing limits on density, for example, make it unlikely for the trade to occur in some parts of the city where it would technically be allowed. Urban Planner Patrick Silva said, for example, that parts of the Parker-Gray neighborhood have site-specific limits rather than zone-wide regulations. Along Washington Street, there are federal rules limiting height in new construction.

But some of the areas likely to be opened up under the policy change would include: parts of Arlandria, some areas of the West End, particularly in the Van Dorn corridor. Some areas of Old Town, particularly along King Street and the Waterfront were listed as likely spots for the height-affordable housing trade in new developments.

City Architect Tom Canfield said the appropriateness of added height would vary by the site and would have to factor in the conditions of nearby buildings. One main consideration would be how the buildings scale with their surroundings. Canfield cited the new Sunrise Senior Living development at the corner of Washington and Princess streets as an example of a recent development that scaled well with its surroundings while throwing shade at Taco Bell Cantina and the former Irish Walk building at 415 King Street as an example of one that scales particularly poorly.

Examples in Alexandria and DC cited as “inappropriate stylistic relationships”, image via City of Alexandria

“There are still plenty of cases you can find around Alexandria where there are cases that just aren’t appropriate,” Canfield said. “Either for extreme variations in height or very oversimplified and non-contextual architecture. Where judgment comes in… are situations where there could well be that adding two floors could be acceptable to everyone and cases where no floors or one floor is the sweet spot.”

For some background on the affordable housing situation in Alexandria: the median household income in Alexandria is $102,227 and the per capita income is $64,835, according to the 2020 American Community Survey. Around 9% of individuals in Alexandria and 12.4% of families live in poverty. In terms of cost burden: 44% of renters spend more than 35% of their income on rent.

The city’s goal established in the 2013 housing master plan was to create 2000 affordable housing units by 2025. Between 2014 and the end of 2021 the city has created 1,266 new affordable units. Around 113 are under construction and 399 are in the development pipeline, leaving the city with a 222 unit gap to close by 2025 to meet the goal. However, it’s a goalpost that continues to shift, with the City Council endorsing a regional initiative in 2020 that involved producing or preserving another 2,250 units by 2030.

“We are very much on track,” said Helen McIlvaine, director of the Office of Housing. “This bar chart shows we were close to meeting goal in December 2021. Subsequently we’ve had more units delivered through the development process and two big preservation projects completed in the Arlandria neighborhood. We have functionally met the housing target [but] there is still obviously a gap we need to work hard on.”

Nancy Williams, a principal planner for Alexandria, said the city has set a target of 200-300 more affordable housing units than the 800 per year currently being produced. A handful of initiatives have come out of city staff turning over stone and trying to find new options. Some of those so far have been:

In addition to the bonus density discussion, the city is also looking at codifying auxiliary dwelling units in commercial zones.

Williams said it’s currently unknown how many new units could be developed under the changed ordinance, but said it’s something that the city would be tracking. The proposed change is scheduled to go to the City Council for review in May.