Controversial topics slated for council hearing

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By Denise Dunbar and Missy Schrott

Although at 14 items the docket is fairly slim, Saturday’s city council public hearing is shaping up to be contentious.

One issue on the docket with long-term repercussions that’s been discussed for almost a year is a proposed reduction in parking requirements for development. Also slated for discussion is the Karig Estates project, which pits neighbors — including the Beth El Hebrew Congregation — and environmentalists against owners of the property and the Alexandria Planning Commission.

The Parking Standards for New Development Projects Task Force began meeting in March 2017 to consider what types of parking reductions should be made and how large they should be. Task force members and city staff were up-front from the beginning that increasing parking requirements or leaving them the same were not up for discussion.

Recommendations that were approved unanimously by the planning commission and now come before council include significant reductions in the minimum amount of parking new developments must provide and a new limit on the amount of parking businesses can offer. While the parking restrictions were met with enthusiasm from city staff and most of the task force, some observers at the meetings voiced reservations about the changes.

Eden Jenkins, member services director of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, said at the Nov. 29 task force meeting that capping allowed parking would harm restaurants.

“We are concerned about having a maximum parking cap. It’s a big issue for our restaurants … If something is not convenient to diners, they’re just not going to eat there,” Jenkins said.

Task force member Melissa McMahon defended the maximum parking cap at the meeting, explaining that the task force’s rationale was data-based.

“We created the minimums and maximums based on what we see and think. We support less parking where … there are other options to get there,” McMahon said at the meeting.

Jenkins disagreed that alternatives to driving were equal options.

“You may not incentivize people to Uber,” Jenkins said at the meeting. “They might just not go.”

Task force and planning commission members as well as city staff argued the recommendations are based on data, particularly citing a city-commissioned study of more than 60 locations throughout the city. According to the study, surface parking is significantly under-utilized in Alexandria, using a utilization threshold of 85 percent. In particular, the city’s study showed that, of the 10 restaurants surveyed throughout the city, 267 out of 416 parking spots were filled, a 64 percent utilization rate.

However, when the Alexandria Times conducted its own parking survey in early December of seven lots in Del Ray connected to or near restaurants, 76 of 83 parking spaces were full, a 92 percent utilization rate. Like the city’s study, this Times survey was done during peak hours of operation.

A plan to utilize shared parking in new development projects is also part of the task force proposal. Under the new recommendations, off-site shared parking as much as ¼ mile away could be counted toward an establishment’s parking requirement.

Another docketed item likely to spark debate is the appeal of a development site plan at Karig Estates, at 3832 and 3834 Seminary Road.

The development behind Beth El Hebrew Congregation has drawn opposition since its early stages. The plan involves constructing four single-family homes and a new public street on a several-acre wooded plot. Since the planning commission approved site plan changes in November, six appeals have been filed regarding the project.

Much of the contention has stemmed from environmental concerns about the site.

“This site has very special geological and environmental characteristics,” said city resident and geologist Andrew Macdonald at the planning commission’s Nov. 9 public hearing. “I don’t feel that they have been adequately understood, studied, evaluated and placed into the context of this plan.”

Lonnie Rich, former city councilor and attorney for Beth El, said in November it was rare to appeal a site plan.

“I don’t know if there’s ever been an appeal to council from a site plan,” Rich said. “Maybe there has, but it’s rare. It doesn’t happen very often, and the reason there’s gonna be an appeal is because there’s a lot of people that just feel very strongly that the environment got short-handed in this hearing.”

Attorney Mary Catherine Gibbs rebutted the environmental argument against the proposed project at the Nov. 9 planning commission hearing.

“This property is not city open space. There is not one specimen tree located on this property. The applicant is agreeing to a tree preservation covenant on the property where none exists today,” Gibbs said. “The plan provides for approximately two thirds of the property will actually remain in open space — 87,067 square feet will remain in open space. That’s over two acres.”

Another development project to be discussed at the hearing is the Church of the Resurrection’s affordable housing project. If the city approves a loan of $9 million to the developer, AHC, Inc., the project can move forward an application can be made for low income tax credits to fund its remaining costs.

The public hearing takes place Saturday at 9:30 a.m. Check back in next week’s Times for follow-up stories.

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