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JUST IN: Alexandria zoning overhaul gets lukewarm reception from city leaders at public debut

City Council and Planning Commission members reviewing Zoning for Housing/Housing for All proposal (staff photo by Vernon Miles)

The Zoning for Housing/Housing for All project turned out to be less of a revolution in Alexandria’s zoning and — for better or worse — more of a gradual evolution.

After extensive build-up and public discussion, Director of Planning Karl Moritz debuted zoning changes to a mixed response from city leaders.

The core gist of Zoning for Housing/Housing for All is a ground-up effort to rework city zoning to be more affordable, accessible and available. While there was praise around the work that went into the project, several city leaders said they were underwhelmed by the project’s scope.

Zoning for Housing/Housing for All touches on some of the same topics as neighboring Arlington’s similar Missing Middle zoning changes, including expanding housing options in single-family zones, but it became clear during the City Council and Planning Commission discussion that existing zoning limitations might blunt the impact of that change.

The staff recommendation is to add the opportunity to construct two to four-unit dwellings in single-family residential zones. The estimated result would be 66 new residential buildings developed over 10 years and 178 total new units.

An optional alternative is a more conservative two-unit dwelling in some zones and three or four multi-unit dwellings in others.

However, what seems like a significant change is watered down by the fact that the additional units would need to exist within the current limits for lot coverage and height as current single-family dwelling units.

According to the presentation:

To preserve neighborhood compatibility, the proposed new residential dwelling types would have to follow the same limitations for lot coverage and height as any new single family dwelling would. Setbacks, lot frontage, floor area ratio and height requirements would be equally applied to any new residential dwellings constructed in a zone.

City staff also recommended moving to no minimum parking requirements for dwellings with up to four units in the enhanced transit areas along Duke Street, Old Town/Del Ray and the West End.

Housing outside of those areas would have a minimum 0.5 parking spaces per unit for dwellings — with a note from Moritz later that the city rounds those half-space requirements up if there’s an odd number of units proposed.

Other changes included replacing the “family” requirement in zoning ordinance with a simple occupancy limit.

Moritz said changes to lot coverage requirements could be addressed later, but that city staff didn’t want to change too many elements of zoning at once.

“We thought it was important to hang on to the overall amount of building that is permitted when taking this particular step,” Moritz said. “In terms of single-family zoning… the size of the container limits what you can have there.”

Moritz said not touching things like setback requirements was a conscious decision by staff.

“There’s no way to fit more units in there in a way we thought the market would adopt,” Moritz said. “We have chosen to limit ourselves to the development envelope that currently exists.”

Multiple City Council and Planning Commission members said that caution was disappointing.

“I’m a tiny bit underwhelmed,” said Planning Commission Vice Chair Melissa McMahon. “That’s not a criticism, it’s more a sense of existential disappointment that the challenges we face are so large… we’re still barely moving the needle. I want to put that on the table because that’s my heartfelt reaction.”

Elsewhere, the report also put a nail in the coffin of plans to add more density and height to more areas of the city. One of the city’s main tools for getting affordable housing units from developers is trading those units for additional height and density allowances.

The city had considered expanding that trade to areas with lower height limits — between 45-50 feet — but ultimately found that other limits like square footage and setback requirements would likely keep that from being utilized.

Unexpectedly, some of the most substantial changes were proposed for Alexandria’s fairly limited number of industrial zones. Moritz pointed to Eisenhower West as an example of an area of industrially zoned buildings with retail, exercise, performance spaces and church uses compatible with housing.

Zoning for Housing/Housing for All aims to turn these industrial zones into areas with better housing and transit options.

“Most of these industrial buildings are built in an anti-urban way,” Moritz explained. “Our proposal is to regulate new industrial buildings in our industrial zones with some urban design criteria.”

Mayor Justin Wilson said the earlier chicken kerfuffle revealed to many on City Council that industrial zoning was fairly laissez-faire about nearly everything except having residential units.

“You can do literally almost anything in industrial zones except sleep there,” Wilson said. “While single-family zoning gets all the attention in this discussion, I imagine other parts of the proposal will be far more productive.”

But these changes for industrial areas only seemed to rub salt in the wound for those disappointed with the conservative changes to single-family zoning.

“By the time we get to single-family zoning, staff are saying the only thing we’re changing are the number of units; we’re not changing any of the things that create those constraints,” McMahon said. “That didn’t resonate very well for me; that in one part of town, we’re talking about freeing up things, making buildings more dense, in another part of town, we’re retaining it all except for the number of units.”

Commissioner David Brown said he understood McMahon’s concerns but said he appreciated the proposal as an incremental change.

“I have a naturally conservative attitude to fixing what isn’t broken,” Brown said. “This is not a radical proposal, and they would tell you maybe it’s not radical enough. My sense is this is an incremental proposal… The work is not done. There’s going to be more to do. Your approach here has been oriented toward the nuts and bolts and I think it will be fairly easy to put together the statutory language to implement this.”

The proposal will go through an extensive public review process over the next few months before ultimately heading back to the City Council for a vote on Nov. 28.

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