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Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin speaks at the Safeway at the Bradlee Shopping Center on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. (Photo via Eli Wilson)

Gov. Glenn Youngkin hasn’t always gotten the best reception in Alexandria, but recent comments about working with localities to establish better affordable housing zoning could help find some common ground with local leadership.

Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson said a recent Washington Post article about a trip to Michigan included some promising comments about improving housing availability.

In the Washington Post interview, Youngkin said he’s interested in how the state and localities can work together to change zoning and regulatory practices that limit the building of high-density housing.

Alexandria’s been making moves in recent years to expand density options for developers in exchange for greater affordable housing funding, but as Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, Alexandria’s ability to draft regulations on limits like allowable density and how much can be traded for housing is limited by state legislation.

While the generally liberal Alexandria has been frosty toward Alexandria’s Republican governor, it isn’t the first time there have been areas of overlapping interest. Shortly after Youngkin’s election, Wilson outlined several areas of shared interest, like holding Dominion accountable for outages and modernizing the tax structure.

Just one day after Youngkin was in the headlines for a spat at Safeway, staff from his Department of Transportation was in Alexandria with other local and state leaders to assess one of the crumbling Arlington-Alexandria bridges and show support for more infrastructure funding.

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1001 King Street (photo via Google Maps)

An update to one of Alexandria’s oldest housing types is headed to the Planning Commission (item 4) with changes that could make it a little more flexible.

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

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(Updated 4/21/22) Alexandria’s City Council has finalized a list of priorities with some inclusions that could shape city policy in the coming years.

The city announced the adoption of the priorities yesterday (April 19), though their origin goes back to the Council retreat in January and the vote to approve them took place in March.

“Our new City Council will focus on these six community priority areas and accelerate our efforts,” said Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson in the release. “Coalescing around these priorities has been an important initial step to ensure that our work makes a real and noticeable difference in the lives of Alexandrians.”

According to the release, the priorities are:

  • Recover from the COVID-19 Pandemic: Identify the policies, practices and resources needed to ensure a resilient and equitable recovery for all residents and businesses.
  • Provide Diverse Housing Opportunities: Reconsider our zoning model and explore other tools to better facilitate an Alexandria housing economy that provides the necessary range of price points, styles of housing and associated services to meet the needs of a thriving city.
  • Define Our Community Engagement Approach: Use both new and traditional outreach methods to ensure that engagement is efficient, effective and accessible to all stakeholders, creating a clear connection between community input and its effects on policy decision, infrastructure needs and financial considerations.
  • Support Youth and Families: Explore ways to expand academic, social and emotional services and physical support to all youth during out-of-school hours.
  • Foster Economic Development: Seek out and consider budgetary, land use, regulatory and other economic development tools to foster sustainable and equitable development, diversify revenue and allow greater investment in our infrastructure.
  • Develop a Compensation Philosophy: Establish a new compensation philosophy to ensure we are the preferred workplace of choice and that employees feel valued.

For some, the prospect of reconsidering zoning models to the benefit of affordable housing could mean a step toward the elimination of single-family zoning, something some localities like Minneapolis have enacted.

“I was pleased and surprised,” said Luca Gattoni-Celli, founder of a new group called YIMBYs of NoVA. “A number of our members recently attended the city presentation and virtual public meeting on the zoning density change. A few asked about systemic reform and zoning reform, particularly single-family zoning reform. The main person running that presentation was very clear: she considered those conversations out of the scope of discussion.”

Gattoni-Celli said in private conversations with members of the City Council, city leaders expressed an interest in moving towards reforming single-family zoning.

“Most people in our area don’t have a college degree, and those people deserve better,” Gattoni-Celli said. “They shouldn’t have to be begging for the city to build housing they can afford. The priorities reflect this, messages from campaigns reflect this, and the city needs to get out of the way and let housing be built. Of course, we need to invest in flooding infrastructure and schools, but this is a regulatory failure, not ‘oh my gosh it’s so hard to build housing.'”

Around 65% of adults within the City of Alexandria have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Of Northern Virginia localities, only in Prince William do less than 50% of residents have college degrees.

Gattoni-Celli said much of the opposition to density and affordable housing that he’s seen comes from a misplaced fear.

“There’s a lot of the fear and confusion, a fear of change, I think that’s misplaced,” Gattoni-Celli said. “I live next to Southern Towers, it’s fine: no crime, no traffic, hardly any noise. It’s not a burden.”

Wilson said planned changes aren’t as sweeping as eliminating single-family housing wholesale, but that there are changes already made and on the way that could change what single-family zoning looks like.

“I think everyone gets caught up in different terminology,” Wilson said. “When people say they want to eliminate single-family zoning, they assume we’re coming to take your single-family homes. I live in a single-family home, I’m not planning on giving it up: I like my home. But what we are doing and will continue to do is look for tweaks for all zoning in the city to meet some of that housing demand.”

Wilson cited recent changes to the accessory dwelling unit policy as a recent change that impacted single-family zones. Wilson said other changes include a recently-approved co-living policy, looking at housing units in commercial zones, and changes to bonus height trade-offs.

“These are all part of an overall work program that we call zoning for housing,” Wilson said. “It’s looking at various tweaks to the zoning code that can assist us in addressing the housing demand that continues to come to this region. It’s part of our effort to meet the [Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments] commitments that we made.”

Even in Minneapolis, Wilson said what happened wasn’t that single-family homes were swept away, but that multi-family homes were allowed to be built in those zones. Wilson said the goal for Alexandria is to make tweaks that don’t negatively impact the quality of life but do advance housing affordability.

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Development Special Use Permit (DSUP), via City of Alexandria

One of the most brought up terms in Alexandria development discussions is Development Special Use Permit — or DSUP — but despite being one of the building blocks for city planning is also one of the more confusing aspects of development.

Karl Moritz, Director of Planning and Zoning for the City of Alexandria, said a DSUP is a type of permit that comes up whenever a development could be seen as having a substantial impact on the neighborhood around it.

“When we have any kind of development proposal that has a potential impact on the neighborhood or city that is in any way complicated, we require a special use permit,” Moritz said. “That allows staff to do a more in-depth review for the potential for impacts, and come up with a customized approach for how to solve them.”

According to city documents, a DSUP is required for any project requesting:

  • A modification of the parking ratios • A modification to the yard, landscape or open space requirements
  • Increased building height or floor area ratio (FAR)
  • Affordable housing bonus density
  • Special requirements listed in the applicable zone in the Zoning Ordinance

Moritz said these are the cases that go to public hearings, and why they tend to draw discussion.

The alternative to a DSUP is a development site plan — DSP — which Moritz said is fairly rare. DSPs only need approval from the Planning Commission. One of the few notable examples of a DSP was the Alexandria Lighting Store move to the West End, where the project fit within all of the existing zoning limits of the site.

Rob Kerns, development division chief, said if a DSP meets all the city criteria for a site it is considered a by-right development. The Planning Commission would be required to show a deficiency — a requirement not met by the developer — to reject the project.

“That’s a project so simple that they have little potential for impact and we’ve already established a formula for how to handle that impact,” Moritz said. “That’s something like three single family homes, each on their own lot. But an apartment building that’s going to put traffic on the road? Those require special use permits and that kicks them into the special use category.”

Moritz said in the zoning ordinance, there are certain levels of density developers can get away with based on various zoning requirements, but exceeding that threshold requires a DSUP.

Another DSUP trigger is mixed-use development — developments where you’ll typically see residential or office space on higher floors and retail or restaurant uses on the ground floor.

“Some of the more commercial uses, if they want to incorporate them into a project, require a DSUP,” Kerns said. “Valet parking as well. Those are things where we have to analyze that. Mixed use is often one of the triggers for a DSUP.”

Moritz said parking is another DSUP trigger, with projects either supplying more or less parking than the ordinance requires.

Developments can get some allowances on things like density or parking — a longstanding process the city recently codified — but Moritz said there are some limits to that type of trade and the affordable housing swap is already at the fringes of what is allowed.

“But many in the public don’t understand the limitations of things we can ask for,” Moritz said. “There’s a certain legal framework that the state sets out that we need to abide by in processing development in terms of things we can ask from developers. The policies do achieve a lot — but sometimes community members think we can ask more.”

As an example, Moritz said the city is not allowed to ask for a development to contribute to building a sidewalk on the other side of the city. It’s a limit established by the Supreme Court in Nollan v. California Coastal Commission. Read More

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As the city’s zoning ordinance nears the 30th anniversary of its last major overhaul, a new process starting this year will look at whether it’s worth continuing to edit and adjust the 1992 document or if the whole thing should be put to pasture with the city starting over fresh.

The zoning ordinance is the guiding document for the city’s approach to all-things-development, from parking requirements to environmental management.

Karl Moritz, Director of Planning and Zoning for the City of Alexandria, said this year staff will be combing through the zoning ordinance to see how much of the original language is outdated for 2021 standards and if it’s worth continuing to adapt the document or start fresh.

“We proposed and the Council agreed to put that on the work program for this year; to do an analysis,” Moritz said. “We’re… identifying specific elements of the zoning ordinance that we have noted over time aren’t working the way we want to. This year we’re going to do an analysis to see if we should just start over and do a comprehensive re-do of our zoning analysis, or if it makes sense to scour and fix individual pieces of the ordinance.”

The ordinance has been through substantial revisions since it was first approved when Patsy Ticer was mayor. In January, the city approved adding language that allows accessory dwelling units (ADUs), following similar reforms in Fairfax County and Arlington. Moritz said there have already been some applications to create ADUs, which he attributed primarily to “pent up demand” from locals who had been following the topic and waiting to file their applications.

Another change that wasn’t quite as high profile as the ADU debate was the streamlining of requirements for local businesses. So far, Moritz said there hasn’t been an increase in complaints about local businesses, but he acknowledged that may have more to do with circumstances beyond zoning changes.

“We haven’t seen an increase in complaints, but with the pandemic people are a little more tolerant of restaurants and neighbors are more understanding,” Moritz said. “We’ve also had different rules for operations of restaurants, so it hasn’t been a period where streamlining of restaurant approvals has been an issue. As we recover, it might be an issue where some neighborhoods are surprised.”

Moritz said there wasn’t much public input on the streamlining of business requirements, but there has been on other issues. Rob Kerns, development division chief, said the city is hoping to keep some of the public outreach lessons of the pandemic and apply them on a more permanent basis.

“We’re trying to learn from our outreach in the pandemic,” Kerns said. “That means trying to provide a broader array of outreach, particularly online. We want to make sure people are aware and transparent about the process.”

There are other, minor changes put forward on a yearly basis that show how creaky some of the foundation of the city code is. Recent changes have included lifting a ban on pool halls — once seen as a threat to Alexandria’s youth — and language that referred to therapeutic massage parlors as disreputable.

Internally, Moritz said it’s unclear what the outcome of the analysis of the city’s zoning ordinance will be.

“Who knows what the study and analysis will come up with?” Moritz said. “It might be that people are really ready for it, but people might also say ‘there is a lot that people don’t really see needing change.'”

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Rendering of 1117 Queen Street home, courtesy Matt Gray

It will be a cozy fit, but a local home builder is hoping to turn a small, empty gravel lot at 1117 Queen Street into a new single-family home.

The home first went to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) in April where the appeal was approved with the condition that no construction can occur within three feet of a neighboring property. It’s now heading to the Board of Architectural Review on Wednesday, July 7, with questions remaining from the BZA about fire code implementation and setback requirements.

“I’m a little concerned about the setback,” said Lee Perna, a member of the BZA, in April. “It does appear exceedingly close… I’m a little concerned about property lines and having sufficient setback, as well as concerns about fire issues and spacing.”

Matt Gray, the applicant and owner of MSG Properties, said getting a home approved on the lot posed a unique challenge.

“It’s not normal at all,” Gray said. “The problem is: you can’t build a house on it without zoning appeals. Nothing complies.”

Gray said the city has existing plans that push mixed-use development throughout the Parker-Gray area, but it means things like setback requirements don’t match with the scale of a smaller development like this. The lot had once been part of a home. According to the staff report, records show a home existing on the property in 1877, though the original date of construction is unknown. The home was demolished in 1985.

“I’m really happy they let it go through,” Gray said. “It’s been sitting for almost 20-30 years. We took the risk and luckily owners worked with us.”

Gray said he worked with the city architect for months to get the house into a design that would be appropriate. If approved, Gray said the next step will be getting the home built as quickly as possible.

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In what is possibly the ultimate example of making use of the city’s land scarcity, a new application coming up at the Monday (April 12) Board of Zoning Appeals meeting seeks to turn a Parker-Gray alleyway into a new single-family home.

The 2,000 square foot lot at 1117 Queen Street is strip of gravel between two other homes mainly used for street parking.

It isn’t the first time the property has been a home, however. According to the staff report, records show a home existing on the property in 1877, though the original date of construction is unknown. The home was demolished in 1985.

A staff report on the proposal shows that the property meets almost none of the city’s minimum zoning requirements, but the staff report noted that in the broader context of the street those zoning requirements hold little water.

“The request is a reasonable deviation from the provisions of the CL zone of the Zoning Ordinance,” staff said. “The minimum lot area and lot width, front setback and side yard setback requirements do not reflect the existing historic development character of this neighborhood, nor do they reflect the building that was historically on this property for more than a century. The minimum lot area and lot width, and side yard setbacks result in this lot being unbuildable without variances.”

The staff report noted that no other residential lots on the block meet the minimum lot area either, with some of the lots being less than 1,9000 total square feet.

Ultimately, staff recommend approval of the new development.

Photo via Google Maps

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Alexandria’s civic associations came out in force to speak against a loosening of zoning restrictions at public school properties. While the Planning Commission ultimately pushed forward a modified version of the zoning change, there was widespread agreement that the public outreach could have been handled better.

The change had been proposed in 2019 and was docketed for meetings earlier this year, but had disappeared as the pandemic led to those meetings being cancelled until it quietly resurfaced for the Sept. 1 meeting.

The change originally would have allowed Alexandria City Public Schools to build schools up to 0.6 Floor Area Ratio (FAR) by right, meaning without needing public approval, or higher without a set restriction. The version approved at the Planning Commission still allows proposed schools to exceed the density restrictions, but only with a Special Use Permit (SUP) and by no greater than 0.75 FAR.

The proposal had been criticized by the North Ridge Citizens’ Association in the lead-up to the meeting, but was joined by others who protested that the city was quietly pushing the change through without public input.

“When we first learned about this proposal, we had to ask ourselves why our city would be contemplating such sweeping changes to our code without more public notice,” said Kay Stimson, representing the North Ridge Citizen’s Association. “This truly threatens to create a trust deficit between this commission and our residents.”

Stimson said she recognized that schools need greater capacity, but also said the city was pursuing an “increased density” agenda on residents throughout the city.

“If approved, this amendment would be a glaring example of arbitrary, capricious, and unsupportive administrative action by this city with detrimental impacts particularly on low density residential neighborhoods that don’t have the infrastructure to support the massive new buildings you’re proposing,” Stimson said. “The existing baseline should remain the prevailing density of the neighborhood. If someone wants to build something larger, the point of our zoning process is that they must talk to the public and gain permission. There is no justification whatsoever to allow for unlimited density in a school building. This actually calls into question why we would have a zoning code at all.”

Other residents similarly expressed frustrations that ACPS would be seemingly shielded from density requirements local homeowners face. Pete Benavage, representing the Federation of Civic Associations, said the federation had unanimously voted to oppose the change.

“We fell anything that is reducing the public input; the meaningful and timely public input, is deleterious to the benefit of the citizens of Alexandria,” Benavage said. “This amendment has not been properly vetted by the public and we would urge it either not be adopted or at least be tabled until such time as public vetting can be obtained. ” Read More

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Morning Notes

Beyer Supports Justice In Policing Act — “George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and too many others should still be alive today, and the fact that they are not is a deep injustice that should outrage us all. We need reform now. I’m an original cosponsor of the #JusticeInPolicing Act, and look forward to helping pass it soon.” [Twitter]

Mayors and Chairs in Northern Virginia Decry Systemic Racism — “As the Mayors and Chairs of Northern Virginia, we raise our collective voices on behalf of the more than 2.5 million residents of our region to express our sorrow for the decades of injustices that have befallen the African American community in America.” [Gazette]

With Pools Closed, City Advises Against Swimming in Natural Waters — “As temperatures climb and many pools remain closed, a dip in a river, lake, or stream may be tempting, but risky, as shown by the recent drowning of a Loudoun County teen in a local creek. In addition to the potential for drowning, natural waterways may contain harmful bacteria and organisms, particularly after heavy rains or storms. Avoid swimming in natural waters for a few days after a heavy rain event; avoid swimming in muddy water of lakes, ponds and rivers; and avoid swimming in unfamiliar ponds, streams, creeks, ditches and canals.” [City of Alexandria]

City Provides Resources for Coping with Coronavirus and Social Change — “The City’s Coping with Uncertainty and Fear and Multicultural Resources: Race Based Trauma and Support in Times of Civil Strife web pages provide information and resources to help during this difficult time.” [City of Alexandria]

Former Police Chief Cook Opines on Race Relations — “We have not progressed to the point where we’ve changed our institutions. They are exactly at the place they were when I was a teenager.” [WJLA]

Trinity United Methodist Church Thanks Community for Donations — “On behalf of Trinity Church, we want to extend our gratitude to all of you who contribute to the Rising Hope Mission Church food drive!  We started this food drive shortly after COVID-19 hit to try to meet some of the growing needs for food and personal hygiene items for our friends at Rising Hope Mission Church, a mission that serves communities living in poverty south of Alexandria, along the Route 1 Corridor… As of last week, we have donated 2,869 lbs. of food and donated over $1,500 of community contributions! …We will continue this food drive each Wednesday from 4-7 PM through the end of the July.” [Trinity UMC]

Board of Zoning Appeals Denies Seminary Road Sign Appeal — The BZA voted 5-1 on Monday to order the removal of the “Take Back Seminary Road #JustinsTrafficJam” sign. [City of Alexandria]

New Job: Event and Promotions Assistant — “Local event firm is currently seeking an Event & Promotions Assistant to join a rapidly growing team! This firm identifies and develops new streams of revenue for clients through on-site promotions, innovative marketing strategies and advertising campaigns with a personal touch. This is an entry-level position with fully paid training and the opportunity for growth into an executive management role after completion of training program.”
[Indeed]

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Last week the Alexandria City Council voted unanimously to uphold a decision by the Planning Commission to allow a church on W. Braddock Road to expand.

The Alexandria Presbyterian Church’s expansion has faced increasingly pitched opposition from around two dozen neighboring households who worried about increased traffic and the size of the building (~23,000 square feet).

The biggest problem for opponents: the expansion plan was “by-right” under city zoning, meaning the councilmembers, even if inclined to agree with the opponents, had little legal standing to vote against the project.

The exact legal details aside, do you think neighbor complaints like those in this case should be addressed regardless of what zoning allows on a given site?

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