By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Landmark Mall, Alexandria’s major West End development project, took a significant step forward, as city council approved a revised master plan for the long-gestating site during its public hearing on Saturday.
According to the Department of Planning and Zoning staff report, the new master plan, deemed a “refinement” of the 2009 master plan, features a transportation hub to connect the Landmark Mall area with the rest of the West End transit corridor, a revised plan for the site’s Duke Street crossing to improve safety, an emphasis on affordable housing and open space for the West End community – including 3 1/2 acres of public open space – and recommendations for a potential fire station and school.
“While our speaker list doesn’t show it, this is a pretty momentous occasion here … and I think it’s a testament to the hard work of staff as well as the community group and planning commission who have worked so hard for so long to get to this place,” Mayor Justin Wilson said. “We still have a lot of work to do, but this is a big moment.”
Certain aspects of the amended master plan, like the emphasis on open space, came out of an extended period of community input from West End residents, Jeff Farner, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said.
“This is also something we heard early on and consistently throughout the process, [which] is, ‘We want a place where the West End can gather, where we can meet, where we can have a farmer’s market and we get together as a community in the West End,’” Farner said.
The preliminary design of the site, with its mix of architectural styles and building heights, came out of the community’s desire to distinguish the West End visually from Alexandria’s more traditional urban centers.
“Where the community is located, they said, ‘We’re OK with additional height, we just want it to be attractive. We want it to be well designed,’” Farner said. “There was also a lot of sentiment that, ‘We’re not Old Town and we are OK with different architecture.’”
“We want to make this a very vibrant, walkable urban village here,” Mark Bulmash, senior vice president of development at the Howard Hughes Corporation, said.
While members of council generally approved of the plan as a whole, several councilors raised questions about staff’s approach to affordable housing and the shift in focus from commercial to residential property.
Councilor Del Pepper questioned changes made by the planning commission to the language around affordable housing, expressing concern that the new language was less defined.
According to staff, the changes were made to give city council flexibility as the development process continues over the next two decades, instead of setting a target for affordable housing from the outset.
Members of council urged staff to define a target percentage of affordable housing on-site before moving forward.
“Staff understands the current crisis we’re in with housing and I would say that, in my perspective, it is better for us to set what that goal is going to be for this area and have the development community understand that,” Councilor John Chapman said.
Councilors Chapman and Mo Seifeldein raised questions about the amended plan’s focus on residential property. According to the staff report, 80 percent of the site would be dedicated to residential property, while 20 percent would be dedicated to commercial property.
“I know that we have talked about trying to get away from residential property taxes as a focus of our revenues, so we are looking now at taking one of our biggest commercial spaces and, not necessarily diversifying that, but flipping it on its head in terms of the makeup on this site,” Chapman said.
Chapman asked staff to clarify why they decided to shift focus on the site to residential property.
According to Farner, staff made the shift in order to adapt to the changing market of residential property, which is quickly evolving to include more mixed-use office spaces. Farner also clarified that the site features a dedicated retail row that does not factor into the 20 percent.
“We wanted to make it very clear that regardless of how much commercial space was provided, it was not being [taken] from the required retail,” Farner said.
According to the staff report, as part of the requirement for retail properties in this section of the site, the first floor must be built to a height and depth that could support commercial use in the future, even if it is dedicated to residential use, depending on the needs of the market and city. Flexibility is part of the plan at every stage of development, Farner said.
Pepper made a motion, seconded by Chapman, to approve the master plan with an amendment made by Seifeldein to change the language around affordable housing to be more defined about a target percentage on-site. The motion was approved unanimously.