Council approves zoning and development changes

Council approves zoning and development changes
A new multifamily residential building is set to go up on the site of the North Royal Street Bus Garage, or "bus barn." (Photo/City of Alexandria)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

Conversations around parking dominated the public hearing on Saturday, but city council also approved several zoning changes along with a number of development projects.

Proposed changes to the height and front setback regulations on houses resulted in passionate testimonies from community members and extensive conversations among council members.

Under current regulations, a house cannot exceed 25 feet in height unless the homeowner goes through a special exception process. The proposed changes would allow homeowners to go up to a 30-foot maximum and increase to 35 feet through the special exception process.

Several residents and representatives from the North Ridge Citizens’ Association expressed concerns about the new height regulations.

“Our community is all residential and we have had a lot of contentiousness in past times between neighbors about higher, larger residences,” Jeanne Snapp, former president of the NRCA, said.

John Fehrenbach, a resident of North Ridge for 30 years and member of the NRCA, said he was worried that the new height changes could impact the character of the neighborhood.

“It’s stable; it’s beautiful; it’s visually appealing,” Fehrenbach said. “I fear the proposed relaxation [of regulations] would change the neighborhood for the worse.”

Council members echoed Fehrenbach’s concerns.

“It’s just not a matter of visual disparity,” Councilor Mo Seifeldein said. “It could block someone’s view or sunlight and things like that.”

Both community members and members of the council asked staff to provide more data on height increase requests moving forward.

According to Karl Moritz, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, the increase of five feet is enough to allow homeowners to add a small attic or roof peak, not add a third story to their homes. There are still regulations in place that take into account the average height of houses on a given block and other factors when determining whether homeowners can increase the height of their houses.

“Along with our changes in how height is calculated as well as existing height-to-setback ratio requirements we felt there are still plenty of protections to make sure there’s not a new home that sort of looms over its neighbors,” Moritz said.

Council members approved the proposed changes unanimously.

Two new development projects were also approved: an outdoor food and crafts market on the waterfront by the Torpedo Factory and a multifamily residential building on the site of the former Royal Street Bus Garage, or “bus barn.”

The new multifamily residential building will house 287 units, with 12 units dedicated to affordable housing, and will feature publicly accessible and private open spaces and a two-story underground parking garage.

“It’s obviously long-awaited and I think there are some folks that would have taken anything here, but the fact is we’re getting a really, really good project on this site,” Mayor Justin Wilson said.

The new development wasn’t the only time affordable housing came up at the public hearing on Saturday.

Council unanimously approved a zoning text amendment that would create a new Residential Multifamily Zone and incentivize developers to include affordable housing units as part of their plans in exchange for an increased floor-to-area ratio. The new residential multifamily building’s 12 units of affordable housing are proof of that strategy in action.

“It’s a whole new world and we’re trying to adjust to it the best we can, and this is one of those steps forward,” Councilor Del Pepper said.