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Del Ray’s Jesse O’Connell is running for the Alexandria City Council (courtesy photo)

Del Ray’s Jesse O’Connell has thrown his hat into the City Council race.

O’Connell launched a campaign website this morning and announced his intention to run in an email.

“I have been really lucky to work across a wide variety of city departments and issues,” O’Connell told ALXnow. “I think I have really good perspective on how all these things fit together. Fundamentally, I’m somebody that likes to solve problems. I think I’m really good at listening to people and sort of building consensus. I’m a collaborator, and I hope to bring that to Council.”

The married father of two is chief advancement officer at the American Council on Education, and has served for more than a decade on a number of city boards and commissions, including as chair of the city’s influential Budget and Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee. He sees himself as a collaborator, a “servant leader” who believes that the city’s Zoning for Housing policies don’t go far enough in expanding affordable housing opportunities. He also says he’s excited about the potential for a good deal with the controversial $2 billion Potomac Yard arena.

“I think a good deal looks like the opportunity to fundamentally change the city’s revenue projections,” O’Connell said. “We’ve made investments in our public safety workers, we are working on stormwater infrastructure, we are spending a lot of money on stuff that we have to spend money on, and a lot of that revenue burden is borne by our taxpayers. I think the chance to get kind of a transformative commercial-oriented source of revenue is a really exciting one for the city.”

O’Connell is a New Jersey native and moved to the area to attend Georgetown University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in social and public policy. He is also a former All-American track star, who placed fifth in the U.S. Olympic trials in 2004 in the 800 meters. He and his wife moved to Alexandria in 2012.

“The whole time we’ve lived here, I have looked for ways to give back and to contribute,” he said.

Since last August, he’s also co-authored an Alexandria-focused blog, ALXtra. It’s a satire blog, O’Connell says, humorously intended for millennials.

“I think the newsletter is very informed by kind of a millennial sensibility,” he said. “I think it’s very informed by kind of a literacy with internet culture.”

On Zoning for Housing, O’Connell said that the city’s elimination of single family zoning is a good start.

“I think where the city landed at the end of this first phase was the right place to be,” O’Connell said. “People want to live here because it’s a great place to live. If we don’t have the housing supply to meet that demand, prices are going to go up. I’ve been really encouraged to see the city think more holistically more creatively about giving this broader set of tools to meet that housing demand.”

O’Connell is also a running buddy with Mayor Justin Wilson, who is not running for reelection. He also said that the next mayor will have to be a collaborator.

“I think we’re losing somebody that is tireless and dedicated,” O’Connell said of Wilson. “I genuinely can’t think of a better example of constituent service. He’s responding to people and interacting with people at all hours of the day and night. It’s clear that he deeply cares about Alexandria and wants to ensure that Alexandria is able to be the city for a whole sort of wide set of people.”

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Alexandria City Hall (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Alexandria has identified dozens of racially restrictive zoning covenants, many of which have been on the books for more than 100 years.

Next Tuesday, City Council will review a report on racially restrictive covenants that, during much of the 20th century, prohibited non-white residents from moving into subdivisions and neighborhoods throughout the city. City staff are also asking Council to review a process for a property owner to get the illegal covenant by filing for a certificate of release from the Alexandria Circuit Court.

The research was part of the city’s Zoning for Housing/Housing for All initiative, which ultimately resulted in a citywide zoning overhaul approved by City Council last month.

City staff said in a memo that they were aware of only three subdivisions that racially segregated residents:

  • the W.I. Angels West End subdivision, which includes Angel Park
  • the Abington subdivision, which includes city land on Randolph Avenue
  • and the Eagle Crest Subdivision, which includes a portion of Fort Ward Park

“Soon after we became aware of these properties, we went through the Circuit Court’s process for removing the covenants from the City owned portions of these subdivisions,” city staff said. “This process was completed for these three properties in November and the certificates of release have all been recorded.”

Krystn Moon of the University of Mary Washington, who the city hired to gather information on the history of the covenants, found dozens more properties, in Alexandria as well as Arlington and Fairfax counties. This includes 33 properties owned by the city — for fire stations, parks or the public right-of-way — and city entities, such as the Alexandria Redevelopment Housing Authority or Alexandria City Public Schools.

At least 20 city properties in the Del Ray, Rosemont and St. Elmo’s subdivisions will require additional research.

According to Moon’s report, the covenants were commonly used in the 20th century by local governments, developers, and property owners to maximize real estate values with racially restrictive language. They are now illegal in Virginia and unenforceable after the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968.

“(C)lass politics informed the inclusion of certain types of restrictions and ordinances, which overlapped with racial attitudes among many white residents,” Moon wrote.

“Instead of ensuring housing accessibility for all residents, they became one of the many tools in the racial segregationist toolbox to control where African Americans and other minorities might live,” she continued. “As such, they privileged the production of wealth for white, middle- and upper-class homeowners by prioritizing single-family dwellings and their property values over all other types of development.”

City Council Member Alyia Gaskins directed the City Attorney’s Office to research and detail a process for removing these covenants from city properties.

“Removing these covenants is one way to further demonstrate our commitment to building a more equitable city,” Gaskins said. “Furthermore, the City has an opportunity to be a model for homeowners who might not know that there is a restriction on their property and/or how to remove it.”

Covenants commonly made the property exclusive to the “Caucasian Race” to exclude not just African Americans but also Jews, Native Americans, Seventh Day Adventists and persons of Armenian, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Persian and Syrian ancestries, she said.

A Rosemont deed, for instance, says that “no part of the said premises nor any interest therein, shall be sold, leased, rented, or in any way conveyed to anyone not of the Caucasian race,” while a George Washington Park deed singled out the property could not be sold or conveyed to anyone of “African descent.”

According to the report:

In 1912, Rosemont became the first subdivision in Alexandria to include racial restrictions on specific lots. A year later, an unnamed development on Oronoco, Fayette, Princess, and Payne Streets in the Uptown neighborhood included similar language in its deeds. George Washington Park, which Alexandria annexed from Fairfax County in 1915, had restrictions as early as 1909.

By the 1920s, new subdivisions that were either part of or adjacent to George Washington Park and Rosemont inserted restrictive language into their deeds. Mount Vernon Park, Temple Park, Glendale, Brenton, and the Adams Estate (a development west of Rosemont along King Street) either limited renting and owning to the “Caucasian Race” or excluded African Americans.

In Alexandria, African Americans faced systematic discrimination throughout this period and were increasingly subjected to restrictive covenants that impacted where they could live, work, and own property. Other restrictive covenants, such as the one for Rosemont, stated that only Caucasians were permitted to own or inhabit a particular property. Interestingly, the deed from Uptown even barred corporate ownership. The inclusion of this language was most likely a reference to Peoples Pleasure Park Co. v. Rohleder (1908), in which the Virginia State Supreme Court Case ruled a corporation “is not a person” and “had no ‘color’ or race.” This decision allowed African American-owned corporations to buy properties with race-based restrictions unless they were specifically barred. Finally, the restrictions in Rosemont included a sunset clause, allowing them to end on January 1, 1928. The restrictions at George Washington Park and the unnamed development in Uptown excluded African Americans in perpetuity.

Moon found that real estate lawyer and Congressman Howard W. Smith (in office from 1930 to 1966) was an ardent segregationist, and inserted restrictive covenants into deeds targeting “all non-white owners and/or occupants,” and that on said property “any building that may be erected thereon shall never be sold, rented, or let to any person not of the Caucasian Race.”

The following is the list of city-owned properties that have a racially restrictive covenant:

Westover Subdivision (Alexandria Deed 152-272)

  • 900 Second Street (Fire Station)
  • 1028 Powhatan St (Fire Station’s Parking)
  • 1024 Powhatan St (Fire Station’s Parking)
  • 1010 Douglas St (Powhatan Park)
  • 1009 Douglas St (Powhatan Park)

Monticello Park (Arlington County Deed 261-50)

  • 2908 A Richmond LA (Monticello Park)
  • 2801 Cameron Mills Rd (Fire Station)
  • 2601 Cameron Mills Rd (George Mason Elementary School)

Threadgill (Alexandria Deed 121-299)

  • 1607 Suter St (Metro Linear Park)
  • 1614 Suter St (Metro Linear Park)
  • 1625 Princess St [possibly 1629 Princess too, which is the right of way along the railroad tracks] (Metro Linear Park)

Baggett Tract (Alexandria Deed 167-350)

  • 340 Buchanan St (Metro Linear Park)
  • 300 Buchanan St (Metro Linear Park)

Fagelson’s Addition to Dempsey (Arlington County Deed 201-269)

  • 810 Chetworth Pl (Chetworth Park)

Rosemont (Properties Restricted on Specific Deeds)

  • 4 Sunset Dr (Alexandria Deed 65-449) (Sunset Mini Park)
  • 201 Rucker Place (Alexandria Deed 106-105) (Beach Park)
  • 701 Johnston Pl (Alexandria Deed 106-105) (Maury School Land)

Wapleton (Fairfax County Deed G-15-45)

  • 530 Cameron Station Bv (Armistead L. Boothe Park)
  • 270 S Reynolds St (Park-Open Space)
  • Beverley Plaza (Properties Restricted on Specific Deeds)
  • 3909 Bruce St (Four Mile Run Park) (Alexandria Deed 156-290 and 157-333)

Cameron Park (Properties Restricted on Specific Deeds)

  • 20 Roth St (Park-Witter Fields N of Business Center Dr) (Fairfax Deed 192-193)
  • 3224 Colvin St (Parking Lot) (Fairfax Deed U-9-128)

Waverly Taylor (Alexandria Deed 193-182)

  • 3000 Fulton St (Island between Roads)

Oakcrest (Alexandria Deed 162-278)

  • 1521 Dogwood Dr (Sheltered Homes of Alexandria)

Beverley Park (Properties Restricted on Specific Deeds)

  • 610 Notabene Dr (Hawaiian Garden Apartments) (Alexandria Deed 181-436)
  • 3910 Old Dominion Bv (Glebe Park Apartments) (Alexandria Deed 181-436)
  • 3902 Old Dominion Bv (Glebe Park Apartments) (Alexandria Deed 181-436)
  • 3961 Old Dominion Bv (Old Dominion Housing Limited Partnership) (Alexandria Deed 176-455)

Veach Tract (Properties Restricted on Specific Deeds)

  • 27 S Bragg St (15 Townhomes) (Fairfax Deed 449-127 and Fairfax Deed 421-42)

Fort Ward Heights (Fairfax County Deed Q-13-400)

  • 4560 Strutfield Ln (Palazzo at Park Center)

Brenton (Properties Restricted on Specific Deeds)

  • 5 W Braddock Rd (Park) (Arlington County Deed 233-229)
  • 1005 Mt Vernon Av (George Washington Junior High School) (Arlington County Deed 255-588 and Alexandria Deed 90-90)

Dunton Property (Fairfax County Deed W-14-171)

  • 5325 Polk Av (Polk Park)
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Single-family-only zoning is no more in Alexandria.

Alexandria’s City Council voted unanimously at around 1 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 29, to approve the Zoning for Housing/Housing for All initiative.

The plan includes zoning changes that aim to encourage the development of more housing units. Notable changes include allowing residential uses in industrial zones and reducing parking requirements, but the big headline-getter and conversation-starter was the elimination of exclusively single-family housing zones.

The City Council vote came after three months of public discourse on the plans, including two lengthy public comment sessions that included calls for affordable housing for “deserving Blacks” and the spanking of public officials.

When the plan debuted at a City Council/Planning Commission meeting earlier this year, several city leaders expressed disappointment at the underwhelming change to single-family zoning. Notably, the zoning change doesn’t affect requirements like setbacks and density for those units.

But the single-family zoning change set off a significant public discourse, as a similar proposal did in Arlington nearly a year ago.

Opponents of the plan, including a group called The Coalition for a Livable Alexandria, said the change will create more density and negatively affect the quality of life for residents while doing very little to create affordable housing. One opponent described the plan to this reporter in an elevator on the way to the meeting as a “Trojan horse,” disguising a giveaway to developers as progressive policy.

But supporters of the policy proposals say adding new residential units around the city will help add much-needed residential units to the city’s stock of housing, eventually decreasing the demand that’s been at least partially responsible for driving up prices.

Vice Mayor Amy Jackson suggested splitting the single-family zoning section off from the rest of the initiative. Jackson said that many residents didn’t receive adequate warning from the city about the zoning change and said a mailer should have been sent out. But while some others on the City Council acknowledged criticism that a mailer should have been sent out to residents, the suggestion to defer the single-family zoning piece of the initiative didn’t gain traction with others on the Council.

Most of the City Council spoke firmly in favor of Zoning for Housing.

“The question we’re facing as a Council, and as a city, is whether we’re willing to commit the effort and resources to make Alexandria an inclusive city — one where low and middle-income families and seniors aren’t driven out by skyrocketing housing costs — or if we will continue down a path of exclusivity, where only those among us who have the most are able to remain,” said Council member Kirk McPike. “My values, driven by my own life experience and my faith, demand the former.”

“I don’t think of it as density for density’s sake,” said Council member Alyia Gaskins. “I’m proud and happy with where we’re ending tonight. I’m going to vote for this. I don’t think it’s doom and gloom, I think the research and the data are things we can manage and support.”

Council member Sarah Bagley said the Zoning for Housing initiative also ties in with some of the city’s climate change goals with an emphasis on transit-oriented development.

“The more we can embrace Alexandrians in ways our infrastructure can support, that we can infill, that we can create housing near transit,” Bagley said, “[the more we] build a better future for people who are going to live to see 2053 and 2073.”

The conversation on the dais was sometimes as much about some of the public debate around Zoning for Housing as it was about the initiative itself. The Alexandria Times reported conversations between advocates for Zoning for Housing and members of City Council, though Council members characterized those meetings as standard for any public discussion.

“I’ve been frustrated with the rhetoric and how this has been discussed in our community,” said Council member Canek Aguirre. “Nobody up here is having meetings with Satan or his disciples. We’ve been having meetings… with residents and groups that represent residents.”

Aguirre said he was approached for meetings by advocates for Zoning for Housing and would have met with opponents if they’d asked to meet.

“I’m disturbed by a local paper saying there are secret meetings: it’s called a constituent meeting,” Aguirre said. “I’ll meet with anyone that asks for a meeting. You know who didn’t ask me for a meeting? The Coalition for a Livable Alexandria.”

Some members of the Council had qualms about Zoning for Housing but still ultimately voted in favor of the initiative. Council member John Chapman said there are positive aspects of Zoning for Housing, though he had little faith in the market providing affordable housing without other incentives.

“I’ve seen the market destroy my generation,” Chapman said. “People are not able to stay here and live here. We’ve lost 90% of market rate affordability in the city over the last couple of decades. The market has not been kind to Alexandria’s middle and working class. The challenge is getting me to be excited about the little tiptoe step into the market when I know that what we’re trying to obtain in single-family homes isn’t attainable.”

While Jackson said she still believed the city should have postponed the vote, she said she supported the initiative.

“As much as I did want to defer the single-family housing part, for the rest of this, it shows that Alexandrians want progress,” Jackson said. “We want to be able to help people wherever we can.”

Mayor Justin Wilson said that Zoning for Housing won’t fix the city’s housing problems, but it’s a start.

“Never going to be able to spend enough dollars up here to really impact this, but our zoning authority is a powerful tool that gives us the ability to shape the supply,” Wilson said. “The [initiatives are] modest, but I believe they’re good.”

As city leaders started to turn their attention to a potential future Phase 2 of Zoning for Housing/Housing for All, which could see more ambitious reforms regarding density and allowances on the former single-family home parcels, Wilson said it was important to give the issue, along with the public and city leadership, a breather.

According to Wilson:

Let’s pause, take our breaths, let’s see how some of these changes are taken, and then let’s discuss whether and what we would possibly do next.

There are other things I want us to look at too that touch housing in other ways. Some of these things in Phase 2 recommendations that we heard from people who opposed this effort — like looking at neighborhood conservation districts to protect historic properties.

There are going to be possibly things here we’re going to want to have a conversation about, but I think everyone needs to take a breath and see what’s next here.

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Anti-Zoning for Housing sign in Alexandria (staff photo by James Cullum)

(Updated 11/26) In true Alexandria fashion, a contentious debate over city zoning policy led to some unorthodox and occasionally offensive arguments, from calls for public officials to be spanked to an argument that affordable housing should go to “deserving blacks.”

Almost all of the five-hour public comment period, a follow-up to a six-hour public comment session from last week, was a civil — if heated — discussion over the merits of Zoning for Housing/Housing for All.

The goal of Zoning for Housing is to reshape city ordinances to create additional housing, one of the most notable changes being the elimination of single-family zoning.

Supporters of the zoning change say an increase in units could plateau, if not decrease, housing costs in the area, while critics say the change is too much, too soon, and could have a detrimental impact on the quality of life for city residents.

“Alexandria is already one of the densest housing cities in the United States, comparable with New York City and Philadelphia,” said Frank Putzu, vice president of the Seminary Hill Association, “with one of the lowest rates of home ownership, lowest share of single-family home units, and the highest share of multi-unit buildings according to the census bureau and city financial reports.”

Putzu said the thrust of arguments against Zoning for Housing is that the zoning changes won’t substantially impact housing costs, but will be detrimental to city residents. Putzu said city reports found development under the proposal would replace currently affordable starter homes with costly duplexes.

“The supply side theory that building more luxury, multi-unit buildings will eventually trickle down to middle and lower income has not worked,” Putzu said. “The proposed policies will make home ownership more difficult and inflate the value of homes.”

Real Estate Agent Ann Shack said city officials deserved to be spanked for their role in Zoning for Housing.

“You deserve to be spanked,” Shack said, “and the Planning Commission too. We care a great deal about this city and we thought you did too when we elected you… Why do you want to change and destroy the historic district by removing the requirements so the tourism and tax revenue will disappear? Don’t allow this to happen. Postpone this voting.”

One store for selling accessories to that end on King Street closed back in 2019, though Lotus Blooms at 1017 King Street remains open and has similar implements.

Meanwhile, advocates for the zoning change said the reforms would help create new housing for a city that has struggled to keep up with the housing demand.

“Affordable housing and the broader issue of housing affordability are issues metropolitan areas are struggling with around this country and around the world,” said former City Council member Tim Lovain. “I admire the proposal before you for its breadth and depth… it uses every tool in the toolbox and goes to look for more to see what works.”

Some advocates said housing costs in Alexandria are inextricably tied to systemic racism in the city’s history.

“This year marked exclusionary zoning’s 101st birthday,” said Loren DePina. “Exclusionary zoning and jails are the direct result of abolishing slavery. It’s a new way to keep us ‘over there’ and them ‘over here.'”

DePina said exclusionary zoning segregates schools, communities and more. DePina noted that the average rent in Alexandria $2,034 for an efficiency or one-bedroom, which is unaffordable for most working-class Alexandrians.

“Alexandria is more segregated today than it was 50 years ago,” DePina said. “You have to build homes that are accessible to people.”

Others, however, took the discussion of race and housing in directions that caused discomfort on the dais. One real estate agent said he supported affordable housing, especially for “deserving Blacks.”

Jud Burke, a local real estate agent, said:

I’m opposed to passing all of the programs at this time. I support the idea of affordable living, especially for deserving Blacks. I would hope that such programs are complemented by efforts to help them to work their way out of such housing and be full participants in the economy. There’s enormous goodwill throughout the country for such efforts that was unleashed in the last couple of years. My concern is that you may misjudge it or misuse it.

Burke’s comment drew some pushback from City Council member John Chapman, who asked Burke what qualified as “a deserving Black?”

“We’ve been talking about the Blacks all my life who have been pushed, or not allowed, to participate in our economy and normal life in the way they are freely able to today,” Burke said, “but there are an awful lot that aren’t grabbing hold of it. We want to encourage them to do so and make sure they know we want them there and enable them to seize the opportunity.”

The comments drew a rebuke from city leaders at the end of the City Council meeting.

According to Mayor Justin Wilson:

With maybe a couple exceptions, everyone was very respectful of everyone’s opinions and opportunities to say their peace, and I really appreciate all of that.

There was a comment earlier that was downright offensive, it has no place in that chamber, and I repudiate that comment and the sentiments behind it. We don’t make decisions based on what minority groups are more deserving and what makes them more deserving.. that’s not the way we make decisions in this chamber or on this dais.

That’s an offensive comment and has no place in this debate. I was saddened to hear it.

Chapman told ALXnow that, beyond just the concerns about the “deserving Blacks” comment, he thought there was a misunderstanding among both opponents and advocates for Zoning for Housing that the program was about supplying specifically affordable housing.

“The idea that this is a giveaway program to the needy is not what this is,” Chapman said. “This is a zoning change, a policy change, for everyone and for the free market to try to help with housing production. That’s what this is… it’s not targeted at making housing directly affordable, but hopefully, with the production of housing, you slow down rising costs and plateau things.” Read More

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House display outside an Old Town business, staff photo by Vernon Miles

Few speakers at a six-hour City Council meeting last night seemed fully satisfied with the Zoning for Housing/Housing for All initiative, but the public comment was divided between those who saw the proposal as a good first step and those who thought it threatened the city’s character.

While nearly all speakers at a six-hour public hearing last night said they supported affordable housing, opinions on the city’s Zoning for Housing/Housing for All initiative varied widely.

Zoning for Housing/Housing for All is a proposed overhaul of the city’s zoning code that would, among its changes, allow the construction of multiple units on lots currently zoned for single-family homes.

The plan got a frosty reception at a joint Planning Commission/City Council meeting by city leaders who didn’t think it was ambitious enough, particularly because the proposal doesn’t touch setback requirements and similar issues, meaning new homes built on single-family lots are likely to be no larger than current ones.

Some of that concern was reflected in the public comment yesterday, though housing advocates said they still expressed support for the project as a start.

“I would also like to see the city enact further reforms to the zoning code to allow for even more housing to be built, [but] this is a good start,” said Rosemont resident Joe Fray. “I am excited for new neighbors to move in, for old neighbors to be able to stay, and for our city to grow in ways that will enhance current residents’ lives.”

Fray said he hopes the change starts creating more dense, walkable neighborhoods around the city.

Jonathan Krall, a steering committee member with Grassroots Alexandria and a Del Ray resident, said he supported these “small reforms,” particularly after learning more about the history of segregation in Alexandria.

Others said they believed past concerns about segregation in Alexandria residential neighborhoods don’t reflect the reality of the city today. Fran Vogel, President of the Strawberry Hill Civic Association, described her neighborhood as “multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-generational.”

“People move to our neighborhood because it provides green space as well as a place to raise a family,” Vogel said. “There is nothing exclusionary and anyone can buy here. One can buy a smaller home that can be expanded to accommodate a growing family; it’s a matter of choice.”

Vogel said she’s particularly concerned about reductions in parking requirements in Zoning for Housing/Housing for All, saying it could exacerbate parking overflow problems in Strawberry Hill and other neighborhoods.

“It’s conceivable a fourplex could have anywhere from zero to twelve cars depending on the number of residents,” Vogel said. “Bringing more people into our small area will only exacerbate this issue.”

Tack Richardson, a lifelong Alexandrian and President of the North Ridge Citizens Association, said he was concerned about the impact Zoning for Housing/Housing for All could have on Alexandria neighborhoods.

“We believe increasing density can adversely impact the quality of life in neighborhoods such as North Ridge,” Richardson said. “We hope the City of Alexandria will listen to… North Ridge and our fellow civic associations.” Read More

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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.

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Roy Byrd, chair of the Coalition for a Livable Alexandria, speaks at a rally at City Hall on Aug. 28, 2023 (staff photo by James Cullum)

Discussion panel program Agenda: Alexandria is hosting a panel tonight to bring advocates and opponents of the city’s housing reform together for a showdown.

The chosen dueling ground will be the Lyceum (201 S. Washington Street) at 7 p.m., though onlookers can also view the panel online.

Tonight’s program is called “Shaping Alexandria’s Future, One Home at a Time” and will dive into the Zoning for Housing/Housing for All proposal.

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.

Tickets are $10.

According to the program’s website:

As the cost of living continues to rise in Alexandria, there is a growing consensus about a long-term need for more affordable housing options, especially housing that can be purchased to foster wealth creation.

This event promises to be a pivotal conversation addressing the urgent need for more affordable housing in Alexandria and proposed sweeping changes to the city’s zoning code. As the cost of living continues to rise in Alexandria, there is a growing consensus about a long-term need for more affordable housing options, especially housing that can be purchased to foster wealth creation.

However, critical questions still need to be answered, such as the size and location of these units, the potential necessity for additional infrastructure, and the potential impact on historic districts.

Panelists tonight include:

  • Roy Byrd (Coalition for a Livable Alexandria)
  • Susan Cunningham (Candidate for Arlington County Board)
  • Stephen Koenig (Commissioner, Alexandria Planning Commission)
  • Karl Moritz, Planning Director for the City of Alexandria
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Single-family homes in Alexandria’s Seminary Hill neighborhood (image via Google Maps)

Alexandria staff returned to the Planning Commission one month after Zoning for Housing/Housing for All’s debut, but city leaders remained tepid in their support for the project.

Of note during the work session, however, was a concise breakdown of how Zoning for Housing/Housing for All might affect the city’s housing stock.

The report, delivered by Director of Planning Karl Moritz, said the City of Alexandria currently has around 80,000 units of housing. Moritz said the changes brought about by the zoning changes would create an estimated 2,838 units.

“I regret the precision of a number like that implies,” Moritz said, “because of course these are estimates and based on a number of assumptions.”

Moritz said there are around 50,000 new housing units allowed across the city under approved small area plans, with an anticipated 11,000 that would have been built prior to the approval of Zoning for Housing/Housing for All.

“So that 2,800 is in addition to the 11,000,” Moritz said, “a 25% increase.”

Net new housing units allowed under Zoning for Housing/Housing for All changes (image via City of Alexandria)

Experts previously told Alexandrians in a panel discussion that the city’s increase in housing supply hasn’t been keeping pace with the demand, leading housing prices to continue to increase.

Planning Commissioners said they’re still “underwhelmed” by the number of units created in the proposal, particularly with only 178 units of additional housing added with the elimination of single-family-only zoning.

“I’m still underwhelmed by the number of units generated in this first phase and I wonder if there’s a way we can add to that as this moves forward,” Commissioner Mindy Lyle said.

Planning Commission Vice Chair Melissa McMahon said, in the future, the city should consider more radical steps like eliminating floor-area ratios (FAR) or parking considerations when it comes to building approval.

“As we talk about more ways to make it cheaper, easier and faster to do housing development, it seems to me that taking us out of the process of deciding how much parking is necessary is a really good idea, if only because it makes it less annoying for everyone developing it,” McMahon said. “That doesn’t mean a single family home won’t have a parking space off-street, it doesn’t mean a townhouse will be built with zero parking instead of a one-car garage, it means there will be options and people developing that unit at that location can decide what’s best for them.”

Moritz said city staff set limits for themselves before Zoning for Housing/Housing for All started, but that those limitations had an unexpectedly large impact on the recommendations.

“Staff did create some parameters around our work: that we would not change FAR, heights or setbacks as part of going into this with the anticipation that creating that boundary would also give us room to make important policy changes without changing what people would see on the ground,” Moritz said. “We learned that things like setbacks and FAR, in particular, is an extraordinary limit and it’s a big factor on why that overall number is low, but changing FAR is a more complicated analysis.”

Planning Commission Chair Nathan Macek said his hope is that moving forward, Zoning for Housing/Housing for All is a first step in the discussion about zoning changes, rather than the end.

“We’re all a little underwhelmed by the numbers we’re seeing… but I do think it’s healthy to look at this not only as one and two phases, but a continual process going forward we revisit continually, not a one-and-done thing in a great to-do now,” Macek said. “It has to be part of our regular routine and something we think about that way.”

Image via Google Maps

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(Updated 9/19) The next public discussion for Alexandria’s Zoning for Housing/Housing for All is coming next week.

The second of three fall community meetings is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 28, from 6-8 p.m.

The proposal debuted at a joint City Council-Planning Commission meeting earlier this month. While the plan includes some significant changes, like the removal of single-family-only zoning, there were widespread concerns on the governing bodies that the practical impacts of these changes would be negligible without other significant alterations to zoning requirements like setbacks or density.

“Staff will summarize draft recommendations presented during the September 5 joint City Council-Planning Commission work session, review the schedule of additional engagement opportunities, and answer questions from the community,” the release from the City of Alexandria said.

The last meeting was on Thursday, Sept. 14, and was fairly uneventful. As with the upcoming meeting, there was no real public comment section, with a few public comments read aloud off note cards by city staff.

The meeting will be held in-person at the William Ramsay Recreation Center (5650 Sanger Avenue) or can be viewed online. In-person and virtual interpretation services will be provided in Amharic, Arabic and Spanish.

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House display outside an Old Town business, staff photo by Vernon Miles

A little over a week after the City of Alexandria debuted its new Zoning for Housing/Housing for All plans, the city is inviting the public to the first community feedback session.

City staff presented the draft recommendations earlier this week at a City Council-Planning Commission work session. The big headline recommendation was ending single-family-only zoning, though beyond that city leaders were skeptical about the plan’s ability to make a substantial impact on affordable housing supply.

The meeting next Thursday is the first in a series of community meetings. The City is embarking on a whirlwind tour this fall of public meetings and town halls regarding the plan before a final vote on Nov. 28.

“On Thursday, September 14, from 6-8 p.m., the City will hold the first of three fall community meetings on the Zoning for Housing/Housing for All initiative,” the event listing said. “Staff will summarize draft recommendations presented during the September 5 joint City Council-Planning Commission work session, review the schedule of additional engagement opportunities, and answer questions from the community.”

In a poll earlier this week, roughly 53% of respondents said they thought the zoning changes go too far, while 32% said didn’t think the changes went far enough. Only 14% said they thought the city struck the right balance.

The meeting can be attended in person at the Charles Beatley Central Library (5005 Duke Street) or online.

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