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New sign at The Birchmere (image via City of Alexandria)

(Updated 10:10 a.m.) Like Bob Dylan, The Birchmere has switched to electric — at least for its signage. Also like Dylan, it’s a change that’s causing some trouble for the music venue.

It started last summer when famed music venue The Birchmere Music Hall (3701 Mount Vernon Avenue) was finding it difficult to hire someone to change out the letters on the venue’s old sign.

According to a special use permit application:

In July 2022, after having trouble finding people willing to do the manual labor of changing out the sign, trying to think of ways to enhance The Birchmere and attract additional business coming out of a devastating pandemic that severely impacted its revenues, and looking at the modern technology employed by other successful music venues in the region and beyond, the owner of the music venue replaced the changeable copy sign with a digital freestanding sign in the exact same location along Mount Vernon Avenue.

The venue owners built a new sign using the same pole as the original sign, with an additional pole on either side for added stability. The new sign is slightly larger than the previous one and has a new digital display.

Unfortunately for The Birchmere, the change ran afoul of the city’s zoning ordinance.

“Although the sign is constructed using the same sign pole as the original sign and is only slightly larger, the current sign can no longer be approved administratively due to the 2016 revisions to the Zoning Ordinance pertaining to signage requirements,” the special use permit said.

In November, a warning was issued to The Birchmere along with instructions to bring the sign back into compliance.

The venue has since filed an aforementioned special use permit application to waive some of the requirements for the sign.

“This modern sign, which allows for the digital change of copy, is consistent with the use of the Property as a music venue,” the permit application said. “The Birchmere is an iconic venue that has been attracting major artists and their fans to the City of Alexandria, celebrating music and contributing to the City’s tax base, for over forty years.”

The Birchmere argued in the application that the new sign isn’t causing any harm and is vital to the venue’s continued success.

“Given that the old sign and new sign are similar in size, in the same location, and illuminated (albeit through different mechanisms) there will be no negative impact of the new sign on pedestrians, drivers or the surrounding area,” the application said. “Finally, the proposed sign is a critical component of The Birchmere’s continued success as an arts and cultural venue, the value of which has been emphasized in the City’s Master Plans and economic development initiatives.”

The new sign application is scheduled to take the stage at a Planning Commission meeting on Feb. 7.

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Alexandria City Hall was lit up for the weekend of Juneteenth 2021 (via Carol Jean Stalun Photography for Visit Alexandria)

Alexandria has kicked off the new year with a glimpse at some of this year’s biggest priorities.

A memo from Director of Planning Karl Moritz, published ahead of Planning Commission meeting this Thursday, lays out some of the work priorities for the city over the upcoming year.

Planning and Zoning

There are some major items on the plate for Planning and Zoning, most of which involve updating some of the city’s older outdated plans for locations around the city.

  • Alexandria West Plan: With some major developments reshaping the West End over the coming year, the city launched last fall an 18-month planning process for a large swath of the neighborhood. The process includes updates to the 1992 Alexandria West Small Area Plan and the 2008 Beauregard Plan, combining them into a sort of super-plan for the West End. According to the memo, priorities for that plan include “addressing topics such as equity, housing, mobility, land use, parks, infrastructure and safety.”
  • Zoning for Housing/Housing for All: Another major project that started late last year and will continue through 2023 is the city’s Comprehensive Zoning for Housing and Housing for All Package” — a whole-cloth review of the city’s housing policy to try to work affordability into regulations from the ground-up. In a previous memo, Moritz said the goal is to remove policies and regulations that were intended to support exclusion and segregation, as well as creating new more equitable policies and boost the supply of both committed and market rate affordable housing. The goal is to complete the plan by the end of 2023.
  • Vision Plan: This planning process will look at documenting and updating policies established in the various Small Area Plans dating back to 1992. This process is set to start this summer if staffing and resources are available.
  • Duke Street Plan Update: This land use update is set to follow some of the ongoing plans around transforming transportation along Duke Street.

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Alexandria could be on the verge of some of its biggest steps yet in the fight to make housing affordable in a city where housing prices continue to outpace wages.

At a meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 22, the City Council could jump-start a process set to run through next year that could dramatically reshape pieces of the city’s zoning code in an effort to make land use more equitable and inclusive. The “Comprehensive Zoning for Housing and Housing for All Package” involves a full sweep of large swaths of city zoning to look for ways to rewrite them from the ground up with a new emphasis on affordable housing and equity.

“The purpose of the Zoning for Housing Program is to examine potential new regulatory initiatives designed to help the City in its effort to expand housing production and affordability,” a staff memo said, “in addition, it is also intended to examine and address existing zoning provisions which may be regulatory barriers to housing options, affordability and fair housing or which, through remnants of terminology stemming from past discriminatory policy, may add to impediments to fair housing.”

The city has been tackling zoning issues piecemeal for years to make them more affordable, from the codification of more affordable zoning uses to trades of density for affordable housing units. The new package, however, is one of the ambitious “big picture” zoning plans from the city.

A memo to the City Council from Karl Moritz, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said the goals the zoning overhaul are:

  1. removing from City policies and regulations those provisions that were intended to support exclusion and segregation, and intended to deny opportunities for property ownership and wealth creation to persons of color,
  2. create new, more equitable land use policies that improve demographic and economic indicators that show that there are lasting vestiges of exclusionary practices even today, and
  3. materially increase the supply of committed affordable and market rate housing in the City.

In Alexandria, around 20% of households are paying over 30% of their income in housing, and around 10% are spending more than 50% on housing.

“Alexandria’s 2022 population is approximately 163,400 with approximately 71,500 households,” a report on the new package said. “City and federal U.S. Census data documents 15,000 Alexandria households are paying more than the federal standard of 30 percent of income on housing. Additionally, nearly half of those households with incomes up to $50,000 are paying more than 50 percent of their income on housing.”

Along with equity, the new comprehensive package of zoning reforms aims to find ways to boost both committed and market-rate affordable housing in the city.

A staff report identified goals as “to identify the impact of past discriminatory housing practices on quality-of-life factors today for populations of color and/or low income.” The overhaul will also look at the residual effects of past exclusionary zoning and look for ways to counter them with new policy goals and metrics.

An extensive list of zoning sections, from industrial zones to single-family housing, will come under review

The ambitious overhaul is currently in the pre-planning process, with a public launch scheduled for early next year leading into community engagement and analysis review over the spring and summer before heading into public hearings next fall.

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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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