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Historic preservationists share concerns about Alexandria’s proposed height change

A proposal that could push the city’s skyline even higher in exchange for more affordable housing is headed to the Planning Commission this week ahead of City Council review early next month.

Leveraging additional height and density in exchange for affordable housing is one of the city’s main tools for getting the private sector to supply more affordable housing. Currently, however, that trade is limited to areas of the city where the maximum height is set upwards of 50 feet.

“The existing Bonus Height regulations allow for a maximum of 25 feet of Bonus Height to be granted to projects providing low- and moderate-income housing units at a number equivalent to at least one-third of the total increase achieved by the bonus, or a contribution to the City’s Housing Trust Fund in an amount equivalent to the value of the units that would have been provided,” the staff report said, “but only in zones or Height Districts with a height maximum of more than 50 feet.”

The report said there are several zones where additional height would be architecturally appropriate, but where the bonus height trade is prohibited because the maximum height is set at 50 feet or below.

A staff report said three options were considered, but the one ultimately are recommending that achievable height bonus stay capped at 25 feet of bonus height, but lowering the height maximum of zones for which it could be applied. In layman’s terms: the overall height won’t go up, but that trade will be applicable to more parts of the city.

The report includes some public feedback, including concerns about how the height change could negatively impact Alexandria’s historic neighborhoods.

“The primary activity of this commission is to acquire easements on open spaces, historic interiors and facades as well as, to protect the fabric of historic structures in general,” the Alexandria Historical Restoration and Preservation Committee wrote in a letter. “We feel that a blanket change of zoning areas presently limited to 50′ and 45′ heights would be harmful to the work of this commission and ultimately to our historic heritage.”

The letter said concerns about the new change include taller buildings reducing the perception of privacy in residential yards, the possibility that the change could drive further development on the open spaces of historic properties, and that it would add more traffic.

“This zoning change has the potential to increase traffic and noise that could encourage owners to further alter historic properties in an attempt to moderate these effects, reducing their likelihood of considering historic easements,” the letter said. “Most importantly, larger buildings will visually dominate our small historic structures and change the character of the area to such an extent that the historic value of preserving the history of our surviving buildings and open spaces may be lost on an already reluctant applicant.”

The letter said the overall concern is that the change would dramatically change the character of historic districts like Old Town.

“Towering buildings that transform our streetscape will be alien to our residents and make it harder for visitors to visually and mentally transport themselves back in time,” the letter said. “The authenticity of the historic districts of Alexandria make our city a uniquely desirable place to live, work and visit. Let’s not destroy our precious heritage. We urge the members of City Council to protect our historic districts by maintaining current height limits in the historic districts.”

Danny Smith, chair of the Historic Alexandria Resources Commission, wrote a four-page letter pointing out areas of the proposed policy that are vague or ambiguous and listed the historic sites that could neighbor sites with increased height.

“All of these historic resources, and their collective importance to Alexandria’s heritage, its character, its economy and its attraction of visitors from across the nation and worldwide would be jeopardized by the adoption of a 70-75′ height limit in and near the Historic Districts,” Smith wrote, “such a proposal should not be countenanced.”

Smith wrote that while affordable housing was a priority, the city shouldn’t neglect the role of tourism to the city’s economy.

“Based on public briefings to date, we must convey our strong concerns about allowing buildings in and near our historic districts and other historic resources to exceed the current, established limits for any reason,” Smith wrote.

The new regulations would only change that maximum height zone by five feet, taking that from 50 feet down to 45 feet, but that opens up large swaths of the city to that trade — including much of Old Town.  A map in a city report showed the areas covered under the new ordinance and ranked the likelihood that the additional height could be applied.

Despite most of Old Town being theoretically covered, the city report said it was unlikely to be applied to most of Old Town, but was likely to be applied to development along King Street and the Waterfront.

A map of where in Alexandria additional height is likely to be traded for affordable housing units, image via City of Alexandria

There are additional regulations at play that might keep the bonus height trade from being utilized in some development. For example, according to the report:

The current proposal would also formally prohibit Bonus Height from being used in relation to single-family, two-family, or townhouse dwelling types. In doing so, staff aims to further prevent the use of Bonus Height in areas of the City and in building typologies where additional height would not be appropriate.

The change is scheduled to go to the Planning Commission for review on Thursday, June 23, then to the City Council on Tuesday, July 5.

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