Council considers zoning issues, restaurant SUPs

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By Arya Hodjat | [email protected]

Alexandria City Council members discussed a number of issues related to zoning requirements, including the need for a comprehensive approach to concessions from developers, at its May 28 legislative meeting.

During the discussion, Mayor Justin Wilson also stated his desire to eliminate the requirement for restaurants to obtain special use permits in areas that are zoned commercial.

The discussion took place during council’s public hearing for the fiscal year 2020 Long Range Planning Interdepartmental Work Program. The program is a plan approved by council annually that examines the city’s current and future developments, according to the city website.

One major discussion point was open space requirements in developments. When considering the requirements, several councilors said open space in residential developments was related to the amount of affordable housing developers can be asked to provide.

“A change in open space development will have a direct trade-off with affordability,” Wilson said. “We ask for more open space, we potentially drive up the cost for housing.”

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Wilson said this was because construction costs for developers have increased in recent years, and there’s a limit on what developers will agree to provide and still build projects in the city.

Alexandria’s goal is 7.3 acres of open space per 1,000 residents, as stated in the 2002 Open Space Master Plan that was updated in 2017. The city continues to meet this goal, but as Alexandria has become more densely populated in recent years, maintaining that ratio has become difficult.

The 2017 plan revision acknowledges this difficulty and states that a new metric may be necessary by 2025. Councilors said the desire to maintain open space at previous levels is increasingly colliding with efforts to replenish the city’s stock of affordable housing units, which have declined precipitously in the past 20 years.

As for whether the city should prioritize open space or affordability, Wilson, as well as Councilor Mo Seifeldein, appeared to favor loosening the city’s open-space code.

“When we have an advocate [who] comes in, and they’re advocating for open space only, they may not realize the totality of the circumstances, what they’re giving up,” Seifeldein said.

As the city further develops, council’s debate will likely center around what to do with the city’s dwindling supply of undeveloped property, and what factors — including open space and affordability — will have to be prioritized, Seifeldein said.

“The pie is now getting to the point where’s there’s not much slices left … they’re not getting bigger,” Karl Moritz, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said.

Councilor Del Pepper was less sympathetic to the plight of developers or the notion that they were being unduly squeezed by the twin requirements for open space and affordable housing units. She argued that the city needs to take more of an authoritative approach on the development process.

“We are getting this puny amount of one or two [affordable housing] units in a new development, and we’re supposed to be very happy about that for 40 years?” Pepper asked Moritz. “Is that what you’re talking about? They are going to dictate what we get in affordable housing?”

Wilson and Councilor John Chapman argued that a citywide discussion about which is a higher priority, open space or affordable housing, is needed. From that discussion, a set construct needs to emerge to guide negotiations with developers, they said. They argued this would be preferable to the current case-by- case status.

“I think part of the challenge I’m having is that we’re having some of these conversations in isolation,” Wilson
said. “I still feel like we haven’t yet taken a look at the overall payload of what we ask for from the development community and that it’s appropriately rationalized.”

“Developers have a number of things that they’re paying for, and that they have to do,” Chapman said. “I think that’s the disconnect that comes from having things in a certain silo.”

In the discussion about restaurant SUPs, Wilson suggested eliminating the requirement that restaurants obtain a special use permit in a commercial zone, noting that Arlington County does not require SUPs for similarly situated restaurants.

City code currently requires restaurants, among other types of establishments, such as apartments, hotels and private schools, to receive an SUP in order to build in the city. These SUPs must be approved by the council.

“There’s no reason why a restaurant in a commercial zone should require an SUP,” Wilson said. “When was the last time we rejected a restaurant in a commercial zone?”

Council did not vote on either topic.

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