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Planning Commissioners say study of discrimination impacts in Alexandria needed ahead of land use changes

As Alexandria prepares to launch its new West End plans, some in city leadership are saying the city should do more to take stock of how systemic racism and discrimination has affected housing city-wide.

At a Planning Commission meeting last night, city staff proposed the start of an update to a 1992 plan that outlines land use in the city’s West End.

“We expect that this will be more of a high-level plan, sort of a 1992 plan brought up to 2022 standards,” said Carrie Beach, Division Chief for Neighborhood Planning and Community Development. “We think this is a really high priority for the city. It actually represents a pretty large area: it’s about 1,300 acres, about 17% of the city population. It’s important to look at this area comprehensively.”

A staff report on the need for an update said the 1992 report should adapt to reflect changes in development through the area like plans for Southern Towers the Newport Village plans. As the city leadership starts to reconsider land use in the West End, some on the Planning Commission said the city should consider doing more up-front to look at the impact of discriminatory zoning and how changes in land use policy can start to counteract that.

“I think too few people in this community really fully realize the government-mandated process of discrimination against minority groups drastically affected the housing and settlement patterns across the United States,” said Planning Commissioner David Brown. “I simply do not know how significant that impact was in Alexandria because we haven’t unearthed our past in a systematic fashion.”

Brown said he and Planning Commissioner Melissa McMahon spoke to city leaders last fall about putting together a full study of the impacts of discriminatory zoning but have made little headway since.

“I don’t know whether anyone is really seriously considering using some Covid money or whatever might be around to hire some experts to help us learn about our own community in this area,” Brown said.

Brown found some support from city staff and on the Commission.

“It absolutely plays into thinking about the future,” Beach said. “We agree.”

“I want to concur with the fact that the overall organization and priorities are imminently supportable,” said Planning Commissioner Stephen Koenig. “I want to specifically and strongly reinforce the observations that Commissioner Brown made with his efforts with Commissioner McMahon to seriously and systematically examine aspects of our long-term history and decipher them and distill from them to seriously and meaningfully inform what we plan for the future.”

During the public discussion, one of the two speakers connected changes in land use with efforts to eliminate single-family zoning, something that’s gotten a tepid response from city leadership in the past.

“We need to take a hard look at systemic land-use policies,” said Luca Gattoni-Celli, founder of a group called YIMBYs of NoVA. “In general I want to make the point that we will really have to reform and eliminate single-family zoning and related policies such as setbacks and floor area ratio requirements, otherwise the city is not going to be able to add the housing that it needs and the diverse housing forms that new types of families and households want to address our region’s underlying housing shortage and fix the crippling affordability crisis that we all deal with.”

Currently, the city uses those floor area ratio requirements as leverage for getting more affordable housing units from developers.

Another concern raised at the Planning Commission was conflicts between city plans and those more focused on specific localities.

“We routinely encounter issues with citywide plans having established adopted policy goals and objectives not implemented in small area plans,” said McMahon, “even when small area plans come subsequent to the city plans.”

Karl Moritz, Director of Planning and Zoning for the City of Alexandria, said city planning has been moving more towards “how to implement citywide policy on a smaller scale” rather than using local plans to rewrite city-wide policy.

“I was remembering the Eisenhower West plan… one of the early things we did in this plan was stipulate citywide policy,” Moritz said. “The focus of the plan was not relitigating citywide policy but figuring out how to apply it in Eisenhower West. I do think that’s sometimes easier said than done and there are issues that come up through the public engagement process that demand an answer and solution we have not yet thought of. But overall, I believe our future is to be more oriented toward establishing city-wide policy.”

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