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Alexandria considers extension of public comment period for controversial zoning for housing plan

What two additional stories looks like on a 45-foot-tall structure. (Via City of Alexandria)

After a request from the Del Ray Citizens Association, Alexandria is leaning toward extending a public comment period by two months after it releases its controversial zoning for housing plan later this year.

The massive plan would upend a number of zoning ordinances. One of them is a bonus height amendment that would incentivize developers to add affordable housing to projects in exchange for two additional stories of construction in areas where height limits are 45 feet or more.

Many Del Ray residents are opposed to 70-foot-tall apartment buildings along Mount Vernon Avenue.

“The Del Ray Citizens Association requests the Planning Commission and City Council provide a 60 day review period between the release of the analysis/findings and the first public hearing to ensure the public has adequate time to review and comment on the Zoning for Housing proposals,” DRCA wrote. “This 60 day period gives the DRCA sufficient time to analyze the proposal and have our membership vote on the initiatives.”

The proposal is in the community engagement phase between now and June. City staff recommendations will be made in July and August, followed by more community engagement sessions in September and October and then public hearings in November and December with the Planning Commission and City Council.

Karl Moritz, the director of planning and zoning, said that the city will work with DRCA to accommodate their request.

“(DRCA) suggested to us that they would find it very helpful if there was at least a 60 day period between the release of staff’s recommendations and the first public hearing,” Moritz said at a public meeting last week. “It’s top of mind, and something that we’re taking a serious look at.”

Areas of the city that would be impacted by the proposed change to height restrictions. (Via City of Alexandria)
The Planning Commission deferred a vote on the bonus height proposal last summer after protests from Del Ray residents. The move would impact properties along Mount Vernon Avenue in Del Ray, as well as in Arlandria, Alexandria West, the Beauregard area, the Landmark area, Eisenhower West, Old Town North and Carlyle.

City leaders, including Mayor Justin Wilson, say that the proposed policies will desegregate Alexandria, which passed a number of zoning ordinances in the 20th century that resulted in dividing the city by race.

“That reality was enforced by a patchwork of ordinances, restrictive covenants, intimidation and lending practices that served to effectively segregate our City for generations,” Wilson wrote in his newsletter last month. “While de jure policies that explicitly enforced segregation were made illegal long ago, the legacy of these policies live on today. In fact, in recent years, Alexandria has grown MORE segregated.”

Nancy Williams, the assistant director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said that the city is evaluating whether racist zoning ordinances still exist.

“I just want to underscore that what we’re doing here is research,” Williams said. “We did not make a claim that there is racism. We’re trying, with everyone’s support, to generate an understanding of past laws and how they may influence land use patterns… It is worth our while, I think, to take a look to research whether or not any of these barriers still exist, and can prohibit us from moving forward in a way that provides opportunity for everyone.”

According to the city, the initiative includes:

  • Bonus height text amendment — This initiative would incentivize more use of Section 7- 703 of the zoning ordinance that allows additional height in new residential projects in exchange for affordable housing. Current law allows the provision to be used in areas with a height limit greater than 50 feet, and the proposal is to allow it to be used in areas with height limits of 45 feet or more. A goal of the initiative is to expand housing choices and dispersion throughout more areas of the City in a manner that is harmonious to the surrounding physical context of the visual depiction of community
  • Historic development patterns —  The purpose of this initiative is to identify land use patterns, such as the mix of uses and building types found in historic neighborhoods (Del Ray, Rosemont, Old Town, and Parker-Gray) that can no longer be built under existing zoning. Characteristics of historic land use patterns that are desirable would be identified along with recommendations for changes to the Zoning Ordinance to allow these patterns to be considered
  • Coordinated Development Districts and affordable housing — CDDs establish the zoning for large tracts of land planned for redevelopment. The purpose of this initiative is to ensure that the creation of affordable housing is supported in each new CDD. The recent CDD for the Potomac River Generating Station site is a model that staff will examine for potential application in future CDDs
  • Expanding housing opportunities in single family zones — This initiative will propose a zoning framework to expand housing options in single family zones by enabling new typologies in neighborhoods where they don’t exist now. These options may by their nature be less expensive than the typical new single family home, but this initiative will not be examining the potential for these new units to be “committed affordable” as we have interpreted that without specific tools or public investment to make them so
  • Analyses of industrial, townhouse and multi-family zones — These initiatives will seek to create a common set of rules for industrial, townhouse and multi-family development and reduce unnecessary regulatory barriers to construction
  • Expansion of transit-oriented development — This initiative will review existing permitted densities within the walksheds of existing and planned Metro stations and bus rapid transit stations. It would further analyze any existing barriers currently in place that limit increased densities around transit stations
  • Office-to-residential conversions — This initiative will review Alexandria’s recent experience with office-to-residential conversions, including an evaluation of the impacts of conversions from a variety of perspectives, including housing supply, economic development objectives, and fiscal impact. The project will determine whether the Zoning Ordinance includes impediments to office-to-residential conversions and whether there are areas where we want to encourage or limit conversions
The city’s upcoming public meetings on the issue are on Wednesday, May 10, from 6 to 7:45 p.m. at the Charles Beatley Central Library (5005 Duke Street) and on Monday, May 22, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Lee Recreation Center (1108 Jefferson Street).