After public outcry over a rushed plan, the Alexandria Planning Commission deferred a city staff proposal to allow developers to build affordable housing into new apartment buildings up to 70 feet in height in areas where height limits are 45 feet or more.
There were more than 30 speakers at the meeting on Thursday, June 23, mostly residents of Del Ray.
Gayle Reuter has lived in Del Ray for 40 years, and said that the proposal would ruin her neighborhood’s small town feel.
“I understand the city is in need of and has promised increased affordable housing and endorsed the Washington COG Regional Housing Initiative,” Reuter told the Planning Commission. “If this is approved, developers will come to come in and the Avenue with its small town feel of mom-and-pop businesses where Main Street still exists will be gone forever.”
The proposal would allow developers bonus height of 25 feet in any zone or height district where the maximum allowable height is 45 feet.
Planning Commission Chair Nathan Macek asked city staff to present a refined proposal to the community before reintroducing it to the Commission for review again.
“I think it’s an important tool, and I think I think the actual impact would be very modest in terms of when it would choose to be enacted,” Macek said. “I don’t think you’re gonna end up seeing 70-foot buildings and this and that. That is sort of the extreme if every site were to redevelop, but I don’t think that that’s the reality of what would happen. But rather than speculate about that, I think we have a chance to step back and study it or provide some projections, some best guesses about what we’ll see so that we can inform the decision and possibly take it in steps with a pilot for a phased amount of density and we can revisit.”
Under the proposal, numerous areas of the city would be open for developers to move in and increase the height of 45-foot-tall buildings to a maximum of 70 feet in height — specifically along Mount Vernon Avenue in Del Ray, in Arlandria, Alexandria West, the Beauregard area, the Landmark area, Eisenhower West, Old Town North and Carlyle.
The proposal does not apply, however, to single family, two story and town home dwellings.
Alexandria is currently experiencing an affordable housing crisis, and lost 14,300 (or 78%) affordable housing units between 2000 and 2022. Consequently, the city has pledged to produce or develop thousands of units to meet 2030 regional housing goal set by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
“While approximately 800 market-rate and affordable units of housing are currently generated per year in Alexandria, meeting the RHI (Regional Housing Initiative) goal involves the production of an estimated additional 300 units per year, of which 75 percent are recommended to be affordable,” staff wrote. “This represents an estimated additional 2,250 affordable units over the 10-year period…”
Save Del Ray founder Nate Hurto said that the community needs time to understand the potential impact of such a move.
“I think we really need to look at the impact that it could have communities have to the existing housing stock, and to the very nature and character of our neighborhood,” Hurton said. “How will it affect the existing stock of apartments, rentals, condos that are affordable? How will it affect businesses, especially along Mount Vernon Avenue and governed by the small area plan?”
Commissioner Stephen Koenig said that he was swayed by the input of residents.
“I’m certainly persuaded by the sort of breadth and depth of the input that we’ve had tonight,” he said.
Commissioner David Brown said that the City needs to reevaluate its approach.
“We we have a process where we figure out what works in particular places,” Brown said. “It’s called planning. We haven’t done any planning here. We need to look at each one of these zones, figure out what the likely impact is going to be in that zone and figure out whether or not that zone should be considered a candidate for affordable housing.”
According to the City:
At the core of the Bonus Density and Height Program of Section 7-700 is the idea that the affordable housing gained through incremental increases in density and height is a positive exchange.
Additionally, by its nature and in alignment with the City’s All Alexandria Resolution, the initiative provides affordable housing opportunities in locations that might otherwise not receive them, and this specific proposal could increase the likelihood of affordable housing in projects that are more mid-scale. Moreover, each project approved through this proposal would be reviewed rigorously and through a public process to ensure that additional density and/or height is designed in a way that respects the neighborhood.
The requirement that a project using this provision obtain a Special Use Permit means that all impacts of the project are thoroughly reviewed and mitigated as a condition of approval.
As for outreach, City staff noted:
The City undertook the following outreach: established a Bonus Height Webpage; developed and posted Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) in English, Spanish and Amharic; conducted two virtual community meetings–on April 12 (130 attendees) and May 19 (90 attendees); addressed questions during the meetings and posted Questions/Comments/Responses subsequent to the meetings; and advertised engagement opportunities through eNews and directly to Civic Associations and to those who contacted the City by email or other communication.
As Alexandria prepares to launch its new West End plans, some in city leadership are saying the city should do more to take stock of how systemic racism and discrimination has affected housing city-wide.
At a Planning Commission meeting last night, city staff proposed the start of an update to a 1992 plan that outlines land use in the city’s West End.
“We expect that this will be more of a high-level plan, sort of a 1992 plan brought up to 2022 standards,” said Carrie Beach, Division Chief for Neighborhood Planning and Community Development. “We think this is a really high priority for the city. It actually represents a pretty large area: it’s about 1,300 acres, about 17% of the city population. It’s important to look at this area comprehensively.”
A staff report on the need for an update said the 1992 report should adapt to reflect changes in development through the area like plans for Southern Towers the Newport Village plans. As the city leadership starts to reconsider land use in the West End, some on the Planning Commission said the city should consider doing more up-front to look at the impact of discriminatory zoning and how changes in land use policy can start to counteract that.
“I think too few people in this community really fully realize the government-mandated process of discrimination against minority groups drastically affected the housing and settlement patterns across the United States,” said Planning Commissioner David Brown. “I simply do not know how significant that impact was in Alexandria because we haven’t unearthed our past in a systematic fashion.”
Brown said he and Planning Commissioner Melissa McMahon spoke to city leaders last fall about putting together a full study of the impacts of discriminatory zoning but have made little headway since.
“I don’t know whether anyone is really seriously considering using some Covid money or whatever might be around to hire some experts to help us learn about our own community in this area,” Brown said.
Brown found some support from city staff and on the Commission.
“It absolutely plays into thinking about the future,” Beach said. “We agree.”
“I want to concur with the fact that the overall organization and priorities are imminently supportable,” said Planning Commissioner Stephen Koenig. “I want to specifically and strongly reinforce the observations that Commissioner Brown made with his efforts with Commissioner McMahon to seriously and systematically examine aspects of our long-term history and decipher them and distill from them to seriously and meaningfully inform what we plan for the future.”
During the public discussion, one of the two speakers connected changes in land use with efforts to eliminate single-family zoning, something that’s gotten a tepid response from city leadership in the past.
“We need to take a hard look at systemic land-use policies,” said Luca Gattoni-Celli, founder of a group called YIMBYs of NoVA. “In general I want to make the point that we will really have to reform and eliminate single-family zoning and related policies such as setbacks and floor area ratio requirements, otherwise the city is not going to be able to add the housing that it needs and the diverse housing forms that new types of families and households want to address our region’s underlying housing shortage and fix the crippling affordability crisis that we all deal with.”
Currently, the city uses those floor area ratio requirements as leverage for getting more affordable housing units from developers.
Another concern raised at the Planning Commission was conflicts between city plans and those more focused on specific localities.
“We routinely encounter issues with citywide plans having established adopted policy goals and objectives not implemented in small area plans,” said McMahon, “even when small area plans come subsequent to the city plans.”
Karl Moritz, Director of Planning and Zoning for the City of Alexandria, said city planning has been moving more towards “how to implement citywide policy on a smaller scale” rather than using local plans to rewrite city-wide policy.
“I was remembering the Eisenhower West plan… one of the early things we did in this plan was stipulate citywide policy,” Moritz said. “The focus of the plan was not relitigating citywide policy but figuring out how to apply it in Eisenhower West. I do think that’s sometimes easier said than done and there are issues that come up through the public engagement process that demand an answer and solution we have not yet thought of. But overall, I believe our future is to be more oriented toward establishing city-wide policy.”
As part of a yearly look at the city’s long-term plans, city staff says plans for the West End are in dire need of an update.
A memo prepared by Director of Planning Karl Moritz said the city’s West End plans are out of date by a couple decades. The memo is part of a plan update scheduled for review at the Tuesday, June 7 Planning Commission meeting (Item 7).
“Based on feedback from Planning Commission and City Council on the draft work program in January, and considering community needs and priorities, infrastructure, and anticipated future redevelopment sites, Staff recommends prioritizing an Update to the Alexandria West Plan (to include the Beauregard Plan) in FY 2023,” Moritz said. “Last comprehensively addressed in 1992, the Alexandria West land use recommendations need to be updated, particularly to address large-scale properties that have recently requested redevelopment, namely Southern Towers and Newport Village and market pressure to convert existing office space to residential uses.”
The Newport Village development is a proposed plan to replace two garden-style apartment buildings with a new 383-unit residential development.
Moritz said there are other areas of the more recent 2012 Beauregard Plan, including an “Ellipse design” for the intersection of Seminary Road and Beauregard Street that the city said fell by the wayside due to changes in expected development and traffic patterns.
“There are specific elements of the 2012 Beauregard Plan that need updating, including the Seminary Beauregard intersection, requests for some land use reconfiguration, such as on the Monday Properties site, and the developer contributions policy,” the memo said. “Staff believes that a planning update for this area of the City is the highest small area planning priority and should begin in FY 2023.”
The need for another look at the Ellipse plans is included separately in Moritz’s memo.
“The Seminary Road and N. Beauregard Street Intersection Improvement Study will evaluate the previously proposed Ellipse design for the Seminary Road and N. Beauregard intersection, with updated travel data and land use development expectancy, as well as explore other alternative designs that would address the projected traffic conditions while emphasizing multi-modal accommodations and safety,” Moritz wrote. “This project will also evaluate nearby intersections such as Seminary Road/Mark Center Drive and recommend proposed improvements.”
A building in the heart of Old Town could be getting a new residential makeover if it can get a special use permit.
“The Applicant, American Real Estate Partners, requests approval of a use permit, pursuant to section 12-101 (D) of the Zoning Ordinance, to convert a portion of the existing building located at 1101 King Street (the “Property”) from office and parking to residential use,” the application said. “The attached concept plan shows the conversion of floors 2 through 7 into approximately 210 residential units (or the number of units that can be supported by the existing parking spaces).”
The project is scheduled to go to the Planning Commission on June 23.
The current office building was built in 1983, predating new regulations for density in the area set in 1992. The new plans won’t add any density to the building, but still require a special use permit because they aren’t compliant with current limits. The building, once a headquarters for the American Society of Travel Agents, but the application said filling vacancies in the building has been a struggle even before Covid tanked the office market.
“The existing building on the Property is an aging condo office building and has struggled to retain tenants over the years,” the application said. “The building is approximately 80 percent vacant. Due to its condo office status, it is challenging to bring the office space to Class A condition. A major challenge to the building’s occupancy is the step back terrace design which creates an inefficient floor plate for office uses.”
But American Real Estate Partners said the building’s layout would work better as residential use, though the ground-floor uses along King Street will remain as-is.
“Residential use is complementary to the neighborhood and important to the continued retail revitalization along King Street,” the application said. “All shopping and services for the new residents are within an easy walk — including a Whole Foods less than a ten-minute walk away. The King Street Metro Station is less than a ten-minute walk away — offering new residents easy access to multiple nearby employment sectors; including the under-construction Amazon HQ2 which will be four short stops away.”
Image via Google Maps
Alexandria is seeking to update its zoning for accessory apartments in commercial zones, that is: housing typically build above commercial spaces as commonly seen in Old Town and other parts of Alexandria.
“The Zoning Ordinance currently allows for ‘Accessory apartments’ across all commercial zones, so the concept of housing above commercial uses is not new, and in fact, dates back hundreds of years,” a staff report said. “Staff found the regulations could allow for more flexibility while staying within the spirit of the Zoning Ordinance.”
According to the staff report, the current ordinance is very prescriptive with a limited number of apartments in each commercial zone. Staff are hoping for a “slight increase” in the number of those units and the location of those units, opening up more housing options for residents.
Some of those suggested changes are:
- Allow auxiliary dwelling above, below or behind commercial uses
- Allow up to four auxiliary dwelling units
- Continue to classify those units as non-residential for some regulation purposes
- Ground floor dwellings only permitted 50 feet or further from the front wall of the building
According to the report:
Up to four auxiliary dwelling units shall be categorized as nonresidential for the purposes of applying the area and bulk regulations of this zone. Such dwellings shall provide the parking required for a multifamily dwelling unit of equivalent size with the following exceptions: parking spaces may be compact size or tandem; parking shall be located either on the site or within 500 feet of the dwelling. Auxiliary dwellings are allowed behind a first floor commercial use, if the depth of the building is more than 50 feet measured from the front building wall and the building is setback no further than 30 feet from front property line.
Part of the ordinance is a name change that seems deceptively minor. This use is being renamed from “accessory apartments” to “auxiliary dwellings.” That change, though, carries some weight in zoning decisions. In the City code, accessory uses are generally defined as being less than 33% of a building’s principal use or gross floor area.
Photo via Google Maps
New plans submitted to Alexandria’s Planning Commission indicate that a gravel lot and trailer at 3120 Colvin Street could get turned into a two-story commercial building and motorcycle repair shop.
The new Colvin Street Garage building would replace the current A&B Auto lot and trailer. The new location is just up the street from the Halal slaughterhouse, which garnered some controversy back in 2020.
According to the application:
The plan proposes to remove the existing trailer and gravel parking. The plan proposes to build a two-story commercial building and the use for units A, B & C would be for motorcycle repair under “general automobile repair” and warehouse. The use of warehouse is storage, online [sales] and repair.
The Planning Commission will review the project on Tuesday, June 7.
Image via Google Maps
(Updated 4/15) What on paper might seem like a relatively commonplace resubdivision in Del Ray sparked a broader conversation at the Planning Commission over how uniform the historic neighborhood’s subdivisions should be.
The requested change (item 7) to 105 and 107 East Randolph Avenue was relatively small: increasing the square footage of one lot on Randolph Avenue from 8,250 square feet to 8,828 square feet by taking a portion of the backyard from another lot — both obviously with the same owner.
The change would leave one lot larger than its neighbors in the strictly rectangular grid plan and the lot next to it smaller than the others. The impact would be unlikely to be visible from the street, but neighbors and the Del Ray Citizens’ Association (DRCA) voice opposition to variance from the circa-1921 plot outlines.
Staff recommended denial of the change, saying the proposal would bring the lots out of character with other lots in the subdivision.
“Because the proposed subdivision does not result in lots that are substantially the same character as the area of comparison and are not in conformance with the goals of the master plan, as stipulated in the Zoning Ordinance, staff recommends the denial of the request,” the report said.
Members of the Planning Commission were divided on whether the change was out of line with the substantial character of the neighborhood. The Commission split almost evenly between those who saw the change as opening the floodgates to larger disruptions to the neighborhood and others who said the boundary change wouldn’t have a significant impact on the neighborhood.
According to Planning Commission Chair Nathan Macek:
I struggle with this case. I went back and forth over the substantial character definition. Are we changing a lot by changing a lot line? No pun intended. But what really led me to agree with the staff recommendation is because the change in this lot would make one of the lots substantially larger than the others in this same subdivision. If, in the future, there were to be redevelopment on that redefined lot line: the density wouldn’t change, but the overall volume of potential development could be affected by that larger lot because you’re changing the square footage of that one compared to the norm. That’s notable in this case. I do think the irregular shape is noteworthy as well.
Commissioner David Brown said the Commission should hold changing those lines to a fairly high standard.
“I approach subdivision law very conservatively considering that this area has been undisturbed for 100 years,” Brown said. “It’s not like a variance on a garage that’s going to come and go and be there during some of the years, but not with the lasting permanence of subdivision lines.”
Strange zones in Alexandria have had some curious impacts, like a house being developed to fit on a particularly small lot. Commissioner Stephen Koenig said he didn’t take much stock in the argument that the subdivision change would affect the character of the neighborhood, but said he was voting against it on “the character of the geometry” — arguing that the neighborhood’s lot lines were “relentlessly rectangular” and the change would be out of character with the other lots around it.
Others on the Commission argued the change was pretty minor and the “character of the neighborhood” was an ill-defined concept. According to Commissioner Melissa McMahon:
I’m not convinced this change reaches the tipping point of it not being substantially the same character. We see these applications come through, and one of the oddball things to me is sometimes how narrowly defined the subdivision is. Like in this case, the subdivision we’re looking at is a relatively small area next to a bunch of other subdivisions in the same historic district, but even looking inside the subdivision there’s some variety of the depth of lots. The part that’s being cut out at the back still keeps the lot that is shrinking bigger than a whole bunch of shorter lots in this subdivision. So if we’re putting it in a table of sizes overall, I’m not convinced in my gut that this takes this out of substantially the same character of other lots.
Commissioners Mindy Lyle and Jody Manor agreed, saying this boundary line doesn’t change the character of the neighborhood, but in the end the Planning Commission voted 4-3 in favor of recommending the denial of the subdivision.
A private elementary school has gotten the Planning Commission’s endorsement on its plans to move into 424 North Washington Street in spite of concerns at a public hearing that the busy street traffic could make it dangerous for students.
The Potomac Crescent Waldorf School is planning to move into the former daycare facility at the corner of Oronoco Street and North Washington Street this September after getting moved around across a couple locations in Old Town. Paul Nary, Director of Administration, Marketing and Communications at the school, said the school has a current enrollment of 55 students but hopes to grow to 155 over the next few years.
The recommendation for approval was unanimous on the Planning Commission, though several speakers in the public comment portion of the meeting voiced concerns about the school having pick up and drop off on Washington Street.
According to the staff report, pick-up and drop-off would run for a 10-minute time period with cars utilizing five spaces on North Washington Street. School staff members would meet their children at the vehicles during the drop-off period and accompany them to the school and walk them back to their cars in the afternoon.
Nearby residents, however, said they were worried
“I can tell you as someone who walks his dog on that stretch of street four times a day: this plan is going to be a disaster,” said George Best. “During the hours that they propose drop off and pick up, the north side of Oronoco is packed. Those lanes are filled. So to make use of the parking space, you’re going to have cars stopped in the middle lane, that’s going to create danger. Even if you don’t have cars stopped there, you have people pulling out of pick-up and drop-off zone into high speed or heavy traffic.”
Paul Dueffert said he frequently drives on Washington Street and said the school’s proximity to the busy street puts children at risk.
“[Washington Street] unlike any other street in Alexandria,” Dueffert said. “When I’m a commuter driving on it, I don’t look for children. I don’t look for four-year-olds. I don’t look for fourth graders. Is there any other K-5 elementary school that has pick up and drop off on a thoroughfare like Washington Street? This traffic plan is an invitation for U-turns. It’s an invitation for children coming across the street. It’s scary. I’m not saying that as a neighbor, this isn’t NIMBY. I’m a commuter but I don’t want to hit a kid. This needs study. This is a big deal. This is Alexandria saying it’s okay to put a full elementary school on Washington Street and I’m worried for myself as a driver.”
Planning Commission members, however, noted that drivers should always be on the lookout for pedestrians no matter what street they’re on.
“I have no qualms with the concerns that Washington Street is too wide and often driven on too quickly,” said Planning Commissioner Melissa McMahon. “What I struggle with as a planning commissioner is I believe in making the community I want to be living in, and I don’t want a community where people don’t drive down Washington Street looking for children. I want everyone to be looking for children on every street.”
McMahon also noted that there are at least five schools in Alexandria either right on Washington Street or less than a block away, and said the elementary school use isn’t fundamentally different in this regard to the pre-school that preceded it.
After Planning Commission approval, the school heads to the City Council on Saturday, April 23, for final review.
MidAtlantic Realty Partners LLC is scheduled to apply for a development special use permit and other permits at the May 3 Planning Commisison meeting.
The first phase of the development will replace the eastern building with a 367-unit tower, with phase two replacing the western building with a 435 unit building. The development will also include 44 total affordable housing units.
The development will also come with a parking garage built in phase one with a capacity for 775 vehicles and an undetermined number of bicycles.
“In summary, the proposed development will replace two aging office buildings with an urban, 802-unit, high-rise residential building near the Eisenhower Avenue Metrorail station that activates the street and further implements the vision set forth in the [Eisenhower East Small Area Plan],” MidAtlantic Realty Partners said in the application.
The project made the rounds in the design review boards last year. The project received unanimous approval at the Sept. 16 Design Review Board meeting, though Alexandria Living Magazine reported that at the time that Carlyle/Eisenhower East Design Review Board members at a meeting in June said the design was “too busy.”
New city documents outline plans to close the end of King Street until at least November.
The closure of the unit block of King Street — the very end by the waterfront — to vehicle traffic is docketed for review at a Planning Commission meeting on Thursday, April 7.
“The City proposes to temporarily close the unit block of King Street, between Union Street and the Strand, and the northern portion of the Strand, between Wales Alley and King Street, to vehicular traffic between May 28 and November 20, 2022,” the staff report said.
The proposed temporary closure follows the permanent closure of the 100 block last year. Since that time, the report said vehicle traffic on the unit block has declined.
“Following the closure of the 100 block of King Street, an observable decline in through traffic on the unit block resulted,” the report said. “This decline, and the popularity of the new Waterfront Park, has led to an increase in pedestrian volume on the unit block and the Strand. In addition, based on the success of the closure of the 100 block, staff has received requests from the businesses along the unit block to assess the feasibility of closing this block as well.”
After the Planning Commission meeting, the closure will be reviewed by the City Council later in April.