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Leading city voices tackle development and single-family housing in Agenda Alexandria discussion

Seminary Hill Association President Carter Flemming and former Mayor Kerry Donley at Agenda Alexandria, image via Agenda Alexandria/YouTube

There are individual developments that can attract controversy but stepping back there’s a broader issue addressed at an Agenda Alexandria discussion last night with city leaders, developers and civic association representatives: whose vision shapes the future of Alexandria?

The discussion, moderated by Board Member Rod Kuckro, tackled a variety of development issues, including the slow death of office and commercial space in projects over the last few years.

For Carter Flemming, President of the Seminary Hill Association, there’s a concern that resident voices are being drowned out by the interests of developers.

“The voices of citizens need to be a better part of this equation,” Flemming said. “Many of the civic associations and the Federation believe over the last few years, the role of our associations and voices has been lessened as voices of developers and urban think tanks have taken a bigger role in our city… Many of us do not believe the City is working together with current residents. They’re building for a future we may or may not be a part of, but we should have a voice.”

On the City side, former Mayor Kerry Donley said there is an inherent incentive towards development for the City, as new development means more tax revenue to fund services.

“The City derives the bulk of its revenue from real property taxes; that’s how we grow and provide services,” Donley said. “It’s not accurate to say the council or the city is always looking in the developer’s favor, but under our way of governing in the Commonwealth of Virginia there is an inherent incentive for this locality and every locality to develop real property because that’s where we derive revenue to provide services.”

Donley and others in the discussion also outlined significant changes coming to what’s developed in Alexandria. Donley said the big push is for residential development, as brick-and-mortar commercial businesses were already facing a difficult battle against online retail pre-pandemic and a shift towards remote work drove a stake through the office market.

“Demand for commercial space is next to nill, but demand for residential is the highest and best use for properties,” Donley said.

Karl Moritz, Director of Planning and Zoning for the City of Alexandria, said the challenges from the pandemic and more force the city to reconsider older plans.

“We are, as Kerry was saying, facing a set of challenges that none of our jurisdictions have faced before,” Moritz said. “There is certainly a desire to ensure that our master plan, which is guiding orderly growth, is reflecting new challenges that are coming.

Moritz also said there’s a much greater emphasis now on bringing additional voices to city meetings beyond just civic associations.

“Our expectation is that people who have never been involved before are added to the mix,” Moritz said. “It’s a stronger system when more voices are heard.”

Austin Flajser, President & CEO of The Carr Companies, said he believes the voice of developers in city policymaking is overstated.

“Fundamentally, [development] starts with the rules in place,” Flajser said. “It starts with a small area plan and that shapes the concepts of what is viable and not viable… If there are developers that have a big voice in the process, I’d like to meet them. I don’t feel like I have a big voice in the process. We follow the rules as laid down.”

The next step, Flajser said, is to look at market demand.

“Just because I’m allowed to build a hotel doesn’t mean I’ll build a hotel if the demand isn’t there,” Flajser said. “I can’t imagine someone building an office building in the near future.”

One of the touchier topics raised in the discussion was single-family zoning. While city leaders have been reconsidering zoning laws in a push toward greater equity, some local residents have expressed concerns that the end goal is the elimination of single-family zoning.

The topic was raised, but only Moritz responded and with a somewhat nebulous answer:

First, because I’m a planner of a certain age: personally I feel I have responsibility as part of the regulatory infrastructure that allowed what started out as an intentional disinclusion of people of color from single family neighborhoods, intentionally keeping families of color from wealth-building opportunities, and that for years we pretended it hadn’t happened and it was okay because we’d legislated that people couldn’t be disciminated against. But that ignores the long-term impact on those families.

It’s a good idea to come together and talk about those things. As for what comes out of those conversations: I have an extraordinary optimism about Alexandria and its ability to talk through issues like that and come up with the right approach. I believe that those conversations would be healthy and I look forward to doing my part.

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