Council approves Route 1 South density increase

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Townhouse units at Olde Towne West, one of the properties that is slated for redevelopment (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)
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By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected] 

City council unanimously approved a master plan amendment that puts the city’s affordable housing strategy east of Route 1 into motion on Saturday at its first public hearing of the fall.

The initiative, led jointly by Planning & Zoning, Transportation & Environmental Services and the Office of Housing, aims to retain 215 affordable housing units in the city’s Southwest Quadrant at developments Olde Towne West and the Heritage.

The project began as a proactive effort to keep the units affordable after the developments’ HUD contracts expire in 2019 and 2020. The potential redevelopment has brought forward concerns about density and traffic just two blocks from the intersection of Duke and South Patrick streets – one of the most congested spots in the city.

In order to retain the 215 affordable units, city staff estimates that there would be a
ratio of 3 to 1 market rate units to affordable units, meaning a projected 460 market rate units, an increase from the existing 104 market rate units.

Redevelopment of the privately owned housing developments poses a new challenge for the city, which typically only participates in the redevelopment of affordable housing developments it owns through the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

The planned expansion also creates logistical challenges, as it coincides with Alfred Street Baptist Church’s proposed block-wide expansion project, which would add 2,065 seats and remove 22 units of affordable housing on the historic church’s two-acre site.

The renovated church would encompass a block bordered by South Alfred, Duke, Wolfe and South Patrick streets. Councilor Paul Smedberg was concerned about the implications the planned redevelopment and density increase could have for traffic.

“Everyone is trying to get to one spot … the Beltway or the [Woodrow Wilson] Bridge. It creates all kinds of problems and issues,” Smedberg said. “It’s going to be a real challenge.”

T&ES Division Chief Christopher Ziemann countered that most of the traffic in that area is regional traffic that is neither coming to nor leaving Alexandria. He said not proceeding with the redevelopment could mean more housing density in Fairfax County.

Mayor Allison Silberberg said redevelopment was already underway in Fairfax County along its portion of Richmond Highway, to the south of the redevelopment. She said a parking study should have been conducted as part of the planning effort.

Ziemann said a parking study wouldn’t have been effective because the redevelopment is expected to take place over 15 years.

“As a whole, it makes more sense to look at each individual [development special
use permit] because there are various things that may happen,” Ziemann said. “Density could change, they may decrease their parking ratios. We may have autonomous vehicles by then.”

Councilor John Chapman also expressed concerns about what more development could mean for traffic. He urged city staff to be vigilant about development to the south of Alexandria’s portion of Route 1 as more development comes online in Fairfax County.

“We already have a situation here and we have hot spots in the city where we know all commuters, all travelers, are coming to. We need to be looking at that, regardless of any development,” Chapman said. “If we’re adding redevelopment, it’s going to exacerbate the situation.”

Planning & Zoning Deputy Director Jeff Farner said staff is working to collaborate with Fairfax County throughout the process.

Silberberg expressed skepticism about Alexandria City Public Schools’ enrollment projections. ACPS estimates that the redeveloped properties will generate 23 students over the next 15 years: 12 elementary school students, seven middle school students and four high school students.

The first phase, which would take place over the next five years, is expected to generate four students, while the second phase, over the next six to 10 years, is expected to generate 18 students.

The third phase, between 11 to 15 years from now, is only expected to generate one additional elementary school student.

ACPS Senior Planner Erika Gulick said that the calculations are as accurate as they
can be.

“We do our best to estimate. We know it sounds insane that only 23 students would be generated. But there are entire apartment complexes that have no ACPS students. Many students are coming from apartment complexes that are further west,” Gulick said. “With the best information we have, we are estimating 23 students over the course of the 15-year plan.”

Another projection in the presentation estimated that the redevelopment would
generate 20 additional vehicles per hour during morning rush hour and 25 additional vehicles per hour in the evening rush hour during the first phase (between zero to five years). According to the projection, phase two (between six and 10 years) would
generate 60 additional cars per hour in the morning and 30 additional cars per hour during the evening rush hour. The final phase (between 11 and 15 years) would generate 90 additional cars per hour in the morning and 70 additional cars per hour in the evening.

A long list of residents – some of them in favor of redevelopment, some of them in
opposition – spoke during the meeting.

Resident Brian Scholl criticized the process, saying that it didn’t truly protect residents. He said the project would displace residents of the affordable units, including seniors and residents representing diverse populations. He also said the project would cost the city more than what’s estimated.

“The city estimates the cost will be $0 for this project. That doesn’t take into account any needed school expansion, traffic improvements, transportation improvement,” Scholl said.
“If you believe the city’s estimates for this project, residents will not have children, will not go to work and will generally not leave their house.”

Sally Birmingham, who lives in a condo in Old Town Commons, said redevelopment would help surrounding residents like her.

“For the last four years, I have looked out of my window at a low-income area that is really aging and decaying,” Birmingham said. “It brings no, no incentive to anyone looking at our units [at Old Town Commons] to want to buy. … I’m concerned and I believe in support of this initiative, this strategy, that the city is going to start somewhere in being able to improve all of the things I just spoke about. I think they’re all interrelated. I think the time is now because our HUD contracts are coming to an end.”

Janice Kupiec, who lives in Old Town and has children enrolled in Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy, said the planned redevelopment would exacerbate the school’s already swelling enrollment.

“I learned that the school year started with 478 students enrolled in a building that’s designed for 322. There are five kindergarten classes and one of those classrooms is the former art room. … The impact of existing development on enrollment doesn’t appear, to me, to have been fully considered,” Kupiec said.

Many residents said there hadn’t been enough time to learn about all the impacts of the redevelopment, including the displacement of residents of Olde Town West III and The Heritage.

Zalikatu Cole, resident of The Heritage, said she hadn’t been informed of the charette process and the relocation.

She said she had moved in anticipation of Alfred Street Baptist Church’s redevelopment, only to be informed that she would be displaced again.

“My husband is legally blind and my mother is 82 years old and my daughter is in [her] third year in college. It’s also affecting my daughter, knowing we just moved
… and now we are going to move again,’” Cole recalled. “We’re not understanding fully what’s going on. … It’s very, very scary for us not to know where we’re going.”

Planning & Zoning staff present at the meeting said there had been engagement of residents at all levels, including by distributing flyers door-to-door with upcoming meetings listed. Staff also said the city is offering relocation counseling and resources and that residents would have first right of return.

“At a certain point, once the DSUP is submitted, there is going to be a relocation plan. At that point, there will be a hearing at all levels. We will talk to all the tenants so they can come and voice their concerns. Even before that, we’ll meet with tenants to clarify issues,” Office of Housing Analyst Caridad Palerm said at the meeting.

Private developer Aries Capital Partners wasn’t present at the meeting. Councilor Paul Smedberg said the lack of representation was concerning, especially as the redevelopment hinges on their cooperation.

“For something this important, of the scale, money, effort that’s going to go into this, the fact that the main development beneficiary doesn’t have a representative here – because I had a couple of questions I’d like to have answered from them – it’s, again, really poor,” Smedberg said. “There’s no guarantee they’re going to be here to carry this out. They could turn around and sell this property in two weeks. The fact that they’re not here today, it’s not good.”

Vice Mayor Justin Wilson praised the effort and said that, though there were still many issues to be addressed, incentives were the best way to retain Route 1’s affordable housing.

“Big picture, in response to some of the questions, this is a question around tradeoffs and how do we preserve affordable housing. In this case, committed affordable housing. … Ultimately, we don’t own these properties and we’re going to have to dangle some incentives. We’re going to have to make a trade-off to make this happen,” Wilson said. “Staff has done a good job on trying to arrive at a suggested package.”

Councilor Tim Lovain said, though all the details aren’t hammered out about the redevelopments just yet, that they will become solidified in time.

“This is not a DSUP, not a concrete development plan. It’s a long-term strategy. The details will follow,” Lovain said. “It’s a way to guide us and point us in the right direction.”

Councilor Del Pepper said, though the plan had flaws, it was worth supporting.

“I’m going to be supporting this – not because it’s perfect, but because it’s good,” Pepper said. “Charles Beatley always said ‘Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.’ We have worked so hard with developments just to add maybe two units of affordable housing. We fought long and hard to partner with organizations and churches to get affordable housing and here is a chance for us to save some. It’s unfortunate that there aren’t more details. I had many of the same questions residents have. We’ll have all of those firmed up.
The intention is not to get into the grass, as it were.”

Council also voted to rename the project from Route 1 South Affordable Housing Strategy to the South Patrick Street Housing Strategy, which councilors said better represents the project’s redevelopment area.

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