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King Street redevelopment approved, but earns Council scorn for lackluster affordable housing contribution

615-621 King Street development proposal (image via City of Alexandria)

The Mansly, a redevelopment of the Walgreens and a bank at 615-621 King Street, got its approval from the City Council — but not without some heavy side-eyeing and one “nay” vote after the Council criticized the underwhelming affordable housing contribution.

Technically, affordable housing didn’t and legally couldn’t have anything to do with the Council vote. The city has a trade set up, securing affordable housing units or contributions in exchange for extra density, but the staff report said the development wasn’t requesting density or height above what’s already recommended in the Old Town Small Area Plan and applicant The Silverman Group hit the bare minimum requirements for affordable housing contribution.

According to the staff report:

The applicant is providing a voluntary monetary contribution of $45,178 to the City’s Housing Trust Fund. This contribution is consistent with the City’s Procedures Regarding Affordable Housing Contributions, including the 2020 housing contribution policy update that established a new contribution rate for non-residential to residential conversions. Dedicated affordable units are not part of this project as the applicant is not requesting increased density, FAR or height through City Code Section 7-700 nor an increase in density beyond that recommended in the Old Town Small Area Plan.

The new development will add 24 residential units to the site along with 6,414 square feet of ground-floor commercial space into the property.

The application also included a request to take the parking requirement for the residential units down to zero, which the City Council had no objections to, but city officials did note that the $45,178 contribution was pitifully low.

“This project does do a lot… my only concern goes back to housing in general within our region,” said City Council member Canek Aguirre. “We know that we have an issue, especially around affordability. If we look at ‘well we’re building more units at market rate is that really bringing down the price for everybody else?’ Not really. Especially because the majority of the housing we need to see built is for 50% of the area median income and below.”

Aguirre was the sole City Council member to vote against the project. While Aguirre’s comments on the development focused solely on the affordable housing aspect, Aguirre said he found enough cause in city ordinance 11-504 — involving adverse effects to the neighborhood — to vote against the project.

“I believe we need to be giving options and availability across our entire city,” Aguirre said. “This just doesn’t do that for me. Of course, that’s not a reason to vote against this, but I believe for some other reasons under 11-504 I will be voting against this.”

While other members on the City Council voted in favor of the project, many added similar comments of disapproval at the lackluster affordable housing contribution.

“There are rules to the game,” said City Council member Alyia Gaskins. “They didn’t come in requesting additional [floor area ratio] so that doesn’t trigger the conversation for on site [affordable housing]. At the same time, when I hear us talk about who this project is going to be marketed to: there are low-income residents in our neighborhoods who fit that description, who want to live near where they work and want to make their lifestyle cheaper and more manageable, who want to have greater access to transit.”

Gaskins said the city should try to do more to push affordable housing more in projects like The Mansly.

“Whatever we can do to be thinking about how do we not limit ourselves from having these conversations,” Gaskins said. “There’s a big difference between saying ‘you’re required to do something’ and saying ‘let’s figure out maybe what we can do to help us reach those goals.'”

Council member Sarah Bagley agreed that the applicant abided by current requirements, but echoed the sentiments of others on the dais that it doesn’t advance the city’s goal of creating diversely priced and inclusive housing.

“There’s a lot of room for a lot of improvement here,” City Council member Amy Jackson added. “All contributions are voluntary and we appreciate the contributions being made, but $45,000 wouldn’t even buy you one of those units if we were really looking at it and they’ll make that in a month’s worth of rent.”

Still, the project was approved in a 5-1 vote.

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