Our View: Is development a net positive?

Townhouse units at Olde Towne West, one of the properties that is slated for redevelopment (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)
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We all make tradeoffs every day. Some are deliberate, while others are almost subconscious. We prioritize work tasks, with some items getting done first while others are left for another day. We make decisions to spend or save our money and time.

There are also tradeoffs within communities and government at all levels. What’s painful is when important priorities compete for finite resources.

The issue of tradeoffs was raised at the May 28 city council legislative meeting, when Mayor Justin Wilson and Councilor John Chapman, among others, urged a comprehensive conversation around whether we as a community prioritize open space or affordable housing. The discussion took place during a debate about long-range planning and what should take precedence in negotiations with developers.

We agree that this conversation is needed and think a component of the discussion should not only be what’s most important, but which competing interest is most appropriately tackled by government versus the private sector.

However, we think the conversation Wilson and Chapman proposed is too limited in scope.

The larger issue isn’t whether affordable housing or open space should be emphasized in negotiations with developers. Rather, it’s the question, “How much development is too much, and how do we start saying ‘no’ to increased housing density in Alexandria if we decide we’re on the wrong path?” Both of the competing priorities raised at the May 28 legisla- tive meeting — open space and affordable housing — are made worse by excessive housing density. Let’s examine them one at a time.

The city’s 2002 Open Space Master Plan, which was updated in 2017, sets forth a goal of 7.3 acres of open space per 1,000 residents. This plan is aspirational, rather than strictly enforceable. The city has thus far been able to meet the open space goal. As the 2017 revision states, at the present rate of population growth, this goal may become unattainable within six years.

Alexandria’s affordable housing supply is even more negatively impacted by our recent surge in dense development projects. Low rent, often low-rise complexes throughout the city have been replaced in most instances by larger developments with much greater housing density.

While the city negotiates with developers to include a few affordable housing units – often bargaining away parking requirements and granting exceptions to density regulations – large swaths of affordable housing have been lost. These new, large, mostly market-rate developments are much pricier than the complexes they replace, which drives up housing costs throughout the city.

We need to have a city-wide discussion around what we are gaining and losing through our rapid, high-density development. Increased traffic congestion, which city staff seems determined to combat by making it more difficult to drive and park cars in Alexandria, is one clear byproduct of intense density growth.

City leaders argue that continued, high-density development is vital to Alexandria’s tax base, and without it, city services would have to be cut back.

We think this issue should be part of the comprehensive discussion on tradeoffs. Are we as a city willing to accept cutbacks in some city services if it means a better quality of life? There is a quality versus quantity facet to this discussion.

Finally, we would like to see a range of data from studies examining the issue of whether increased housing development density is really a net financial positive for cities. Or whether the increased demand on services that results from population growth is actually a net drain on city finances.

The core issue is whether accelerating housing density is our golden path forward – or simply a type of Ponzi scheme that mostly benefits those associated with development projects. The jury is still out.

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