Alexandria, VA

A long public hearing — and extended public debate in online forums and city meetings — over the controversial Heritage project ended with an unanimous vote approving the project.

Many on the City Council expressed reservations, including issues of size, increased traffic and additional burden on schools. Ultimately, however, the addition of new affordable housing units was an offer the Council felt it couldn’t refuse.

The Heritage is a project that will replace four buildings in southeast Old Town along S. Patrick and Washington Streets with three new apartment buildings. The project attracted controversy for its height and density — up to seven stories tall with 750 units — and earlier renderings were described by the Board of Architectural review as “lipstick on a pig”.

The project was widely criticized by members of the community, to the point of some residents creating a webpage dedicated to opposition and former Mayor Allison Silberberg weighing in against the project. Opponents said the buildings were too large for the site and would add more residents than the local infrastructure could support. Over 62% of respondents to an ALXnow poll on the topic had an unfavorable view of the project.

(Note: much of the public comment on the project was not available online at time of writing)

These criticisms found some support from the Council. City Councilwoman Amy Jackson expressed many of those same concerns, though she ultimately voted in favor of approval.

“You have [Historic Alexandria Resources Commission] and other commissions coming to us saying they don’t agree,” Jackson said. “It’s a mega-sized environment being placed on a footprint that is much smaller than what we are about to put on it. We have enrollment issues, [children here] will be in learning cottages. You have a bigger footprint showing that we now have stormwater and drainage issues.”

Jackson said that a pre-COVID traffic study done early last January did not reflect the perspective of many, herself included, who sat in heavy traffic already near the site.

“We’re going to have a lot of problems concerning traffic,” Jackson said. “I’ve sat in that line for 5-10 minutes trying to get off Gibbon street to get on Route 1. I don’t know how you’re going to put another 400 units on that property and have it all go well.”

But others, like City Council members Canek Aguirre, Del Pepper, and John Chapman said the opportunity to gain 57 units was too rare to pass up.

“This is an opportunity for the city to save housing in this area,” Chapman said. “There are issues in that neighborhood with stormwater and traffic… [but] it needs to be on us to make those areas ready for development. We’re struggling to capture [housing], to retain it, so [having] the oppurtunity to create?”

Jackson called into question whether the gain in affordable housing was worth the concerns expressed by members of the council and the community, but the answer for other members of the governing body was: yes.

“This is a difficult vote to make,” Pepper said. “I think of all the times we’ve been excited to get two units, teeny weeny units. But here we have a chance to add to what’s here. We desperately need every affordable unit we can get, that is for sure. I have friends who are not able to stay in the city and they don’t know what to do. They need to be in the city because of their jobs and they stay awake at nights wondering how they are going to pay their bills. Here is one more opportunity to help not those folks individually, but in general.”

Image via City of Alexandria

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Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority reopened its waitlist for affordable housing in the city and within two days the organization said around 45,000 individuals had applied.

The surge in demand for affordable housing comes after months of job loss and high unemployment. Those numbers are gradually recovering, but are still significantly higher than pre-pandemic figures. The opening also comes after almost a decade of the organization sorting through a backlog.

ARHA said in a press release that it last opened its waiting list for one week in August 2011 and receiving 10,000 applications.

“People are hurting,” said ARHA CEO Keith Pettigrew. “I receive emails every day wanting to know if housing vouchers or ARHA housing is available. These are not just people who are out of work. These are primarily people who have jobs but can’t afford to live in Alexandria right now.”

ARHA said that of the 45,000 applications, approximately 32,000 were for ARHA administered units while 13,000 were for housing choice voucher programs — programs that help subsidize rents in privately owned homes.

Notably, the total number of applications includes those that will be disqualified for coming in at an income above ARHA levels.

“But even after that process, a very long waiting list will remain,” ARHA said.

ARHA is early in the process of redeveloping many properties, though some like the Andrew Adkins development have hit snags along the way even as nearby private developments move forward.

“In each case, the ARHA goal would be to include a one-for-one replacement of current units for low-income households and an equal number of new units for working families and market rate apartments,” the organization said. “The idea is to create sustainable developments where lower-income families live in the same communities as those with middle-class incomes.”

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Old Town residents have banded together against what they say is overdevelopment with the planned construction of the 750-unit, seven-story Heritage apartment buildings.

Made up of more than 80 neighbors, the Citizens Association of the Southwest Quadrant (CASQ) launched a website, sent emails to news organizations and created an online petition against the development, which they say will result in hundreds of additional vehicles on area streets, affect property values and destroy the historic charm of the area.

“CASQ is launching an aggressive public information campaign to fight the City’s initiative in the Old and Historic Alexandria District which is the third oldest urban district in the United States after Charleston and New Orleans,” the group said in an email. “Specifically, we will urge the City to require the developer to redesign the project, and significantly scale down its building height.”

The project, which was sent back to the developer in June and September for lacking an Old Town aesthetic, is set to go before the Planning Commission once again on Tuesday, Feb. 2, followed by a City Council decision on Feb. 20. New York-based property owner Asland Capital Partners wants to replace the four-story 1970s-era buildings in southeast Old Town  along South Patrick and North Washington streets.

Mayor Justin Wilson said there is no question that the development is a tradeoff to increase density in exchange for furthering the city’s affordable housing goals. The plan preserves all existing 140 housing assistance units on-site and would add 48 units.

“Council will determine how to achieve our goals for the site,” Wilson told ALXnow. “The old Council adopted the master plan for this site back in 2018. This is committed affordable housing stock that is privately owned. The affordability commitment has expired and the Council approved a plan that traded density in exchange of preservation of the affordable housing. Without some agreement with the landowner, the site can be redeveloped by-right, with loss of all of the affordable housing.”

Alexandria is under an affordable housing crisis, and the city has pledged to produce or develop 2,000 affordable housing units by 2025. The city has also agreed to produce an additional 1,950 units by 2030 in order to meet its regional housing goal set by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which aims for the region to produce 320,000 affordable housing units.

Image via Citizens Association of the Southwest Quadrant

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Morning Notes

Winter Weather Advisory in Effect for Alexandria — “A Winter Weather Advisory is in effect through 9 am Tuesday with expectations of mixed precipitation and possible accumulations of 1-2 inches of snow and ice. Expect slippery roads. Be prepared, slow down, and use caution while traveling.” [Twitter]

More Contagious Coronavirus Variant Found in Northern Virginia — “The Virginia Department of Health said in a news release Monday that the B.1.1.7 variant was confirmed in a Northern Virginia adult resident who reported no recent travel. As of Jan. 22, VDH said almost 200 cases of the variant have been found in the U.S. in 23 states.” [Patch]

Beyer Calls Incoming Treasury Secretary ‘Crisis-Tested Trailblazer’ — “Warmest congratulations to @JanetYellen, the first woman to hold the office of Secretary of the Treasury, on her bipartisan confirmation. Secretary Yellen is the kind of experienced, crisis-tested leader the country needs overcome this historic economic crisis.” [Twitter]

Levine Bill Banning Guns in Polling Places Passes House of Delegates — “My Safe Elections Bill (HB2081), banning guns at polling places, vote counting centers, and recount centers, has passed the House! This bill protects both voters and election workers from intimidation. Those with guns don’t make the rules. Voters do. [Twitter]

School Board Considers Affordable Housing on School Property — “At a work session Thursday evening, school board members discussed at length whether school properties, specifically the Minnie Howard Campus of Alexandria’s high school, could be a good place to build affordable housing.” [Alexandria Living]

Former Del. Van Landingham Endorses Bennett-Parker for 45th District Seat — “Today, I’m incredibly honored to announce Marian Van Landingham’s endorsement. She served the 45th District for 24 years as a Delegate, and has been a champion for better schools, better childcare services, and for a thriving and inclusive Alexandria.” [Twitter]

ALIVE! Food Distribution is this Saturday — “On Sat, Jan 30, 8:30-10:30 am, @ALIVE4AlexVA will distribute food in Cora Kelly Elementary School parking lot (3600 Commonwealth Ave) and parking lot B-1 of NOVA-Alexandria Campus (via Dawes Ave; map at alive-inc.org).” [Twitter]

Casa Chirilagua Needs Volunteers — “VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITY: Fill grocery bags at our food pantry every other Tuesday from 4 to 6 pm (changed from Monday mornings). Email [email protected] to join in!” [Facebook]

New Job: In-Person After School Tutor — “Our current after-school instructor opportunities are for students of financially challenged families that are in need of affordable academic assistance.” [Indeed]

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The Alexandria Redevelopment & Housing Authority (ARHA) is opening the Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) and Public Housing waitlists, according to a press release.

From Jan. 11-Jan. 13, Alexandrians can submit applications for public housing. due to the pandemic, ARHA will only accept applications electronically. Exceptions can be made for those who are disabled and unable to fill out applications electronically.

ARHA faced some criticism from residents early in the pandemic from threats of eviction for violating quarantine, though ultimately the resident association praised ARHA leadership for swift action and clear communication with local residents.

According to the ARHA website:

  • You must be at least 18 years of age to apply.
  • There are no fees for applying to ARHA’s wait lists.
  • Applications will be placed on the waiting list by preference, then by the date and time the application is submitted.
  • All information provided is subject to verification. Therefore, applying does not guarantee that the application will be accepted.
  • ARHA does not provide emergency housing.

Staff photo by James Cullum

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Morning Notes

Local Housing Alliance Says Rent Assistance is Underutilized — “It is estimated anywhere between 263,000 and 384,000 households are at risk of eviction in Virginia. NVAHA Executive Director Michelle Krocker said local governments have been so busy aiding that they have not been able to compute proper data, but she predicts thousands of tenants and landlords in Northern Virginia are missing out on funds meant for them.” [WUSA9]

Zebra Profiles Alexandria Gazette GoFundMe — “Ask any group of people in town about the historic Alexandria Gazette Packet, and voices will quickly rise up, volunteering things like “I used to deliver the Gazette”, “My dad delivered the Gazette on his bicycle in Rosemont”, “My birth was announced in the Gazette” or “I remember when they merged with the Port Packet back in the eighties.” [Zebra]

Metrobus Resumes Fares, but DASH Remains Free — “With other regional bus systems preparing to resume fare collection in early January, Alexandria’s DASH Bus will remain fare free.” [Patch]

Drive-In First Night Sells Out — “Usually a crowded street affair, First Night Alexandria was celebrated with two drive-in events instead because of the pandemic. And at a $60 admission charge, both the 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. events sold out.” [NBC4]

COVID-19 Cases Hit New High in Virginia — “Virginia and two of its five health regions hit new highs Saturday for average daily COVID-19 cases reported, the state wrapped up one of its worst weeks yet in terms of deaths from the virus, and test positivity rates are rising rapidly.” [Inside Nova]

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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Starting on New Year’s Day (Jan. 1) the City of Alexandria joining in the relaunching an online program aimed at helping locals get better access to housing support.

The new 2021 Northern Virginia Housing Expo will focus on offering workshops related to COVID-19 related housing issues, location options, where to buy or rent, improving credit scores, energy efficiency and more.

The expo is a partnership between Alexandria, its neighbors, and other legal and housing-related support services.

“The virtual expo will also offer confidential individual financial counseling,” a press release said, “and provide a 24-hour Exhibitor Hall featuring lenders, property management companies, developers, contractors, real estate agents, service providers, local jurisdictions and more.”

The expo is entirely free. This is the 11th year of the housing expo, though it’s experiencing some changes due to COVID-19.

According to the expo website:

Browse dozens of exhibits featuring government assistance programs, home-buying opportunities and professionals, mortgage information and assistance and much more! Take advantage of helpful free work- shops and one-on-one personal financial consultation with a trusted nonprofit designed to help you get where you want to be in Northern Virginia, whether you need to rent or are ready to buy.

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Morning Notes

ALIVE! Emergency Food Distribution This Saturday — “The nonprofit will next distribute emergency groceries at a ‘Truck-to-Trunk’ on Saturday, Dec. 19 from 8:30-10:30 a.m. There will be two locations for the event: the Cora Kelly Elementary School parking lot at 3600 Commonwealth Ave. and the Northern Virginia Community College-Alexandria Campus B-1 parking lot.” [Zebra]

Lena’s Converts Rooftop to Winter Lodge — “Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza & Tap is expanding its dining experiences by announcing the debut of The Loft at Lena’s — Winter Lodge.” [Alexandria Living Magazine]

Waterskiing Santa Goes Virtual This Year — “One of Alexandria’s unique holiday traditions is the annual Waterskiing Santa show. The show won’t be canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there won’t be a live show with spectators unlike past years.” [Patch]

New Alexandria Affordable Housing Given Awards — “The @ULIWashington has awarded 2 Alexandria affordable housing projects a 2020 “Trends” Award. The @AHCInc St. James Plaza development was recognized for “Excellence in Housing Affordability” and the @AHDCHousing Parkstone project was “Juror’s Choice.” [Twitter]

Holiday Inn Express to Open at Site of Towne Motel in North Old Town — “A representative of Reston-based Architecture Incorporated confirmed that the new five-story, 50,000-square foot hotel being built at the site will open as a Holiday Inn Express. Renderings of the new hotel were also provided courtesy of the architecture firm.” [Alexandria Living Magazine]

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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At the finishing line for the mandatory affordable housing requirement for development, the policy hit some stumbling blocks as the City Council and a representative of the developers clashed over last minute changes and additions as Saturday’s City Council meeting.

Several proposed changes have been in the works for years that would essentially codify an existing voluntary contribution for additional density in developments into a mandatory requirement.

Staff, affordable housing advocates, and developers have worked for months to craft language for the new policy, and suggested amendments from Council members Mo Seifeldein and John Taylor Chapman irked development attorney Cathy Puskar.

“The reason you didn’t see us sign up is because we thought, while not everyone is happy with everything in this policy, everyone who participated in this process could agree we struck the right [tone],” Puskar said. “It’s kind of unfortunate to be seeing that language was sent out late last night that we didn’t have time to consider. We don’t even have the language you guys are discussing.”

The general gist of the amendments was changes that would mostly streamline the contribution to a flat 10% requirement with developers required to pay for studies that might be able to indicate a lower figure should be required for the development — but with no requirement that the Council adhere to that suggestion.

“The reason we have had the success with developers agreeing to abide by voluntary affordable housing is because we all agreed on process,” Puskar said. “It’s a little disappointing you guys are now changing what was discussed and negotiated with that group at the 11th hour.”

Seifeldein argued that the language changes don’t fundamentally alter the substance of what was agreed to. Karl Moritz, director of Planning and Zoning, said the typical process is that the city contracts out analysis and other requirements like a traffic study and bills the applicant separately, to ensure the study is not swayed by being hired directly by an applicant.

Puskar also protested that the burden of the study was being put onto the applicant without any guarantee the council would be required to adhere to its results, but Mayor Justin Wilson pushed back against the assertion that the council should craft policy that would tie the city’s hands on future developments.

“I have some agreement with your concerns about the language, but there’s no circumstance where council is going to say ‘this is going to be determinative,'” Wilson said. “The council can’t bind a future council. If future councils wants to ignore pro formative analysis, they’re free to ignore whatever they want.”

The council agreed to meet with developers to discuss the new policies before coming back for final approval next month.

Staff photo by Airey

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Morning Notes

New Torpedo Factory Art Features Local Waste — “The AlexRenew Wastewater Treatment Facility treats a mix of sewage and storm water. The facility runs the wastewater through a series of settling tanks and treatment processes to remove nutrients before discharging it to tributaries of the Potomac River. The brown-colored media was crowdsourced from thousands of area toilets, according to Len.” [WWD Magazine]

Work Resumes on the Fairfax Building with the Massive Fire — “It’s been 10 months since a devastating fire at the South Alex construction site near Alexandria, Virginia, but the project is back up and running.” [WTOP]

New Cafe Vía Volcán Profiled — “Twenty-plus years after buying a farm in the Volcán Barú area of Panama and a little over one year since they began selling roasted beans, Chris and Janina McCausland have opened a brick-and-mortar store for Vía Volcán Coffee in the Old Town neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia.” [Daily Coffee News]

Officials Celebrate Big Week for Alexandria Affordable Housing — “We broke the ground on the Wesley Housing Waypoint project, bringing 81 units serving 30-60 AMI and… We cut the ribbon on Bloom by Carpenter Shelter & AHDCHousing with a new shelter and 97 units (40-60 AMI)!” [Twitter]

Zebra Profiles Local Jeweler Who Changed Christmas in Old Town — “For 32 years, David Martin has made jewelry sparkle in his Alexandria shop, Gold Works, but his iconic charms aren’t all he has done to beautify our city. Take a walk up King Street at this festive time of year and you’ll see firsthand how Martin has beautified Alexandria.” [Zebra]

Local Nonprofit and VT Alum Build Desks for Students — “Building Momentum, a local “problem solving organization,” has been providing easy-to-assemble desks to Alexandria students since the start of the fall 2020 school year, and now some Virginia Tech alumni have joined the project…” [Alexandria Times]

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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