Planning commission approves controversial assisted living facility

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Planning commission approves controversial assisted living facility
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By Susan Hale Thomas (Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)

Several dozen residents addressed the Alexandria Planning Commission last week to oppose a plan to rezone and grant a development special use permit for a 75,000 square foot three-story assisted living facility on the 2800 block of King Street.

The vacant triangular lot is situated between Woodbine Rehabilitation and Healthcare and the Ivy Hill Cemetery. Other large structures in the immediate area are the First Christian Church and the Church of the Latter Day Saints across King Street.

The area is zoned as single-family residential land, but developer 2811 King Street LLC requested the rezoning and permission to construct Alexandria Memory Care, a 66 unit facility for the memory impaired.

John Roberts spoke on behalf of the planning commission staff who felt the proposed development met the goals outlined in the Alexandria Housing Master Plan. An objective of the plan specifies the need to supply “a variety of safe, quality housing choices that are affordable and accessible to households of all ages and abilities.” After reviewing the preliminary site plan, city staff recommended the board approve rezoning the property from a residential to a townhouse zone.

Roberts expounded on staff conclusions: two churches in the immediate area are designated as institutional, the new building would conform to the Small Area Plan which allows for institutional use, and the new building would not to exceed 35 feet as limited under that plan.

“The proposal was in keeping with the wider residential neighborhood. As a long-term care facility for seniors, it has many aspects commonly found in residential neighborhoods,” Roberts said.

In addition, staff concluded traffic would not be an issue given that King Street was already one of the busiest thoroughfares in Alexandria.

Catharine Puskar, the attorney representing the developer, referred the board to the city’s Strategic Plan on Aging and explained there were just 17 facilities within 20 miles of Alexandria, and with senior populations projected to double between 2000 and 2030, the new assisted living development and location seemed justified.

Puskar called the location a “sweet spot” because of the higher concentration of citizens age 60 and above in the eastern half of Alexandria.

“We want the seniors in our community. We do not want to warehouse them in other places on the fringe of the city like has been suggested,” she said. “Residents choose to stay in Alexandria as they age because it is a livable community for all ages. The lack of sufficient senior independent and assisted living facilities impede[s] the ability to age in or near the city.”

Finally, Puskar informed the board the development was supported by North Ridge Citizens Association, Commission of Aging, Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, ALIVE, AARP and the National Capital Area Chapter of the Virginia Alzheimer’s Association.

Despite the support and justification for the new development, neighbors in the surrounding area were divided.

Resident Sarah Pray voiced her concern over the changes that could occur with a structure of this size.

“You cannot plop down a 75,000 square foot building in the middle of a residential community and not have some serious negative impact on that community,” Pray said. “[Are] we going to be able to maintain this same sense of community as before?”

Another resident, Daniel Kotter said the facility would be out of place on King Street.

“When you drive up King Street … there are a lot of houses, there are schools, but Woodbine stands out as completely out of character in the neighborhood,” he said. “And why is it there? It’s there because some prior planning authority made a mistake. It doesn’t belong there. Now we’re going to replicate the same mistake again, but only worse, because this facility is going to be so much closer to the street.”

Kyle Rogers, who lives directly across the street from the lot, wanted to know why the board had a different opinion on the property years earlier.

“In 2008, when this property was acquired by a developer to build four houses, this same body rightly determined that it wasn’t enough land for four houses and scaled them back to three with residential zoning,” Rogers said. “Now here we are today … a developer who wants to do a commercial entity has purchased it, and you tell us, the citizens, what’s fundamentally changed about the definition of that land?… It’s the same land this same body addressed in 2008 and determined it was too small for four houses. Now, if it was too small for four houses in 2008, it’s too small for 75,000 square foot of cement in 2014.”

But Carolyn Griglione, a longtime resident of Alexandria, supported the proposed construction.

“As the population changes, needs change,” she said. “Zoning will have to change.”

Griglione also shared that her grandmother’s Iowa town placed her retirement community at its center. Griglione hoped neighbors would embrace and get involved with the new memory care facility.

The Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve the zoning change and special use permit to make way for the construction of the new Alexandria Memory Care. The project will have a hearing before city council February 21.

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