Panel discussion tackles timeline question for Alexandria’s zoning overhaul

Agenda Alexandria panel discussion on Zoning for Housing (image via Agenda Alexandria/YouTube)

A panel last night on the city’s Zoning for Housing/Housing for All overhaul dived into the back and forth on the issue, including questions about the timeline from proposal to final review.

The proposal includes a number of changes to the city’s housing zoning, the most high-profile being allowing two-to-four-unit dwellings in formerly single-family residential zones. Other substantial changes include making it easier to build housing in industrial zones and eliminating minimum parking requirements for dwellings with up to four units in enhanced transit zones.

The discussion, hosted by Agenda: Alexandria, brought together:

  • Roy Byrd, chair of The Coalition for a Livable Alexandria, which has been vocally critical of the planning process
  • Susan Cunningham, a candidate for Arlington County Board who campaigned in opposition to a similar process in Arlington
  • Stephen Koenig, a commissioner on Alexandria’s Planning Commission
  • Karl Moritz, the planning director for the City of Alexandria

Beyond some of the main points within the specific Zoning for Housing/Housing for All plan, one of the criticisms has been that the planning process has been rushed. Depending on how you’d define the process as starting, the discussion of the zoning changes has been going on since either November 2022 or since 2018/2019, when the City of Alexandria met with other localities to discuss the regional lack of affordable housing.

“In 2018/2019 we first realized, after the 2008 recession, the region and the city had not been producing housing at the same pace as we had been before the recession,” Moritz said. “Each year, [we were] falling further and further behind in meeting the demand for housing. The consequences of not meeting that demand are legion.”

Moritz said in addition to harming those seeking affordable housing, Moritz said staying in a home that’s rapidly accelerating in value has consequences for the homeowner.

“We have a crisis we’re trying to address,” Moritz said. “We’re not just starting the discussion in March 2023; we started this discussion in 2019, and in many ways, we started this discussion a long time earlier.”

But the full Zoning for Housing/Housing for All recommendations weren’t revealed until early September, three months before final review before the City Council, scheduled for Nov. 28. Moritz said those months have been filled with in-depth, thoughtful and considered discussion.

Those three months have been a whirlwind of public discussions, and Koenig said in his view, a delay would cost more time and resources without much gain:

What I’ve observed over the years with Director Mortiz’ work: there’s a tremendous about of effort and responsibility to balance all those resources. So when you come down to something that sounds relatively simple like “why don’t you take another couple months” the questions in play here are: what would we be able to do that we have not already done, not to mention what is the cost of taking that additional time.

My personal take, for what it’s worth, is everything we need to know to make a thoughtful, responsible recommendation as Planning Commission to Council is in front of us now…

I personally don’t feel that another couple of public meetings is necessarily going to add anything to that.

Byrd, however, said there have been changes in the framing of the public discussion over those few months that show more discussion is needed to get the community on the same page. Byrd noted that much of the early conversations were about using Zoning for Housing to create more affordable housing, which has at times been emphasized in other discussions.

“We’re no longer having the conversation we started in July  about how do we create affordable housing; that discussion has moved on and changed,” said Byrd. “The changes have been staggering… We’re concerned that this is really a giveaway to developers. We understand it will enhance revenue for the city, but we’re doing a lot here and we’re doing it fast and we don’t understand ‘why the rush?'”

Cunningham said, when Arlington went through a similar process, there was a similar “morphing” of the public discussion as that went on.

“In our conversation across a similar time period, it morphed across the time and not everyone followed the morphing,” said Cunningham. “I think that, for me, is a call to slow down, even though slowing down has costs, and making sure that everyone is having the same conversation is important. What happened in Arlington, from my perspective, was people were having different conversations [and] we weren’t having those conversations well.”

The full discussion was posted online by Agenda Alexandria.