Council updates city’s vision for Eisenhower East

Council updates city’s vision for Eisenhower East
Eisenhower East constructed and pledged affordable rentals units. (Image/City of Alexandria)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

City council updated the 2003 Eisenhower East small area plan to push for more affordable housing, open space and pedestrian connectivity at its public hearing on Saturday.

Department of Planning and Zoning staff presented council with a series of comprehensive changes to how the city is approaching an area of the city that is growing rapidly.

Based on input gathered at a series of community open houses, city staff said the community’s priorities were access to the nearby Eisenhower Avenue and King Street Metro stations, a need for open space, improvements to pedestrian and bike connectivity and more retail and housing options. Related to the latter, the city’s updated plan includes an aggressive push to increase affordable housing in the neighborhood.

“We wanted to make sure that we create a complete community and with that we look at every possibility to bring everybody to the area, to make sure the place is equitable for everybody to live in,” Jose Ayala, a city urban planner, said.

Developers in the area have already started to add affordable housing to new projects, Tamara Jovovic from the Office of Housing said. One way the city is encouraging developers to include affordable housing in their designs is by promising bonus density.

Under the updated SAP, if developers provide 10 percent of new residential rental development as committed affordable rentals, they can increase density on a site by 30 percent or more. Those units will remain as dedicated affordable rentals for 40 years at 60 percent of the area median income.

There are currently 72 constructed and 71 pledged affordable rental units in Eisenhower East, which equates to about 2 1⁄2 percent of the total 5,618 pledged housing stock. Affordable ownership units are still nonexistent in the area.

Outside of developers, the city is also proactively pursuing affordable housing opportunities through public-private-nonprofit partnerships and co-location opportunities, Jovovic said.

In re-evaluating the small area plan, staff looked at Eisenhower East as two neighborhoods, a western area close to the Eisenhower Avenue Metro station and an eastern portion closer to the King Street Metro station. With the revised plan, staff aims to create community hubs and activity centers in both areas of the neighborhood, Ayala said.

Most of staff’s proposed updates to the SAP were made in order to bring the city’s strategic goals around Eisenhower East in line with the growth already happening in the neighborhood.

The SAP aims to make land use more flexible in Eisenhower East, opening up opportunities for developers. (Image/City of Alexandria)

The updated plan proposes increased flexibility for building uses around the Eisenhower Metro stop and a minimum building height, thus raising the base height for developers in the neighborhood and, as a result, the potential density of housing options for residents.

At the core of the updated SAP is a “people-centric environment” that allows pedestrians to navigate the neighborhood’s new retail centers and connects Eisenhower East to the city’s broader pedestrian and bike infrastructure.

“The goal in this plan was to get more robust pedestrian circulation but also bike circulation because I think that’s an area in 2003 where the plan was inadequate,” Jeff Farner, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said.

The Department of Transportation and Environmental Services proposed minor intersection changes, such as timing adjustments to traffic signals and the addition of more crosswalks with pedestrian signals.

The aspect of staff’s SAP update that received the most attention was a proposed street hierarchy system, which defines streets as A, B and C streets according to their priority in the neighborhood’s growth. The categories are primarily a way for staff to define both the characteristics of the neighborhood and parking standards for developers.

The areas of highest density along Eisenhower Avenue near the Metro and with high amounts of retail are prioritized and designated as “A streets.” Streets leading off of that main corridor are designated “B streets” and streets on the outer edges of Eisenhower East are desig- nated “C streets.” The 2003 SAP required two levels of below grade parking and counted any above grade parking against the site’s gross floor area. The updated SAP recommends a minimum of one below grade level with varying degrees of above grade, screened parking – up to 65 or 75 feet – based on a site’s place in the street hierarchy.

If an applicant can demonstrate to council “unusual and specific” conditions that prohibit them from meeting the parking standards, then they can pursue an alternative plan, Farner said.

Ken Wire, an attorney for the Hoffman Group, said that the parking requirements have been an ongoing point of contention between devel- opers and city staff.

Wire claimed the language around exceptions was too general. He recommended that the Design Review Board take over council’s role in reviewing and passing judgement on an applicant’s claim. Wire also recommended specifying the general “unusual and specific” situations that an applicant can use to claim an exception.

“We’re articulating what those unusual circumstances and specific situations are so that there’s a list of criteria that say, if you’re gonna review it, here’s some standards you’re gonna review it against. It’s not just open ended and unqualified,” Wire said.

The updated Eisenhower East small area plan creates a street hierarchy in order to better define the neighborhood’s character and parking requirements for developers. (Image/City of Alexandria)

Karl Moritz, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, pushed back against Wire’s recommendations and supported the open-ended scope of the language. Defining a list of exceptions would give developers too much power and nullify the purpose of the exception process, Moritz said.

“Staff is concerned with the laundry list,” Mortiz said. “It seems to be all inclusive, and if it is intended to be a threshold that you’d have to comply with one of these in order to bring a case to the DRB, there isn’t any project that is proposed that doesn’t have block shape, geometry, garage efficiency.”

Councilor Mo Seifeldein pressured Wire to explain why a company like the Hoffman Group wouldn’t be able to comply with the parking standards.

A garage screened by glass would run counter to the city’s stated environmental goals, Wire said. These structures would have to be ventilated, despite the fact that they’re housing cars, not people. Projects with geometry, block shapes and block sizes that don’t allow for the implementation of the kind of above grade parking staff is asking for would remain at a stand-still, Wire said.

After a lengthy back and forth between developers and staff, Mayor Justin Wil- son narrowed the scope of the developers’ concerns to block shape, block size and geometry. Wilson proposed including language that would cite those issues as examples of unusual and specific circumstances.

Council also added language that would allow the DRB to evaluate, not approve, cases and make a recommendation to council.

Seifeldein pushed back against Wilson’s language, claiming that by defining “unusual and specific,” the city is creating binding language that could be abused by developers later. Wilson argued the specific language narrowed the focus of what exceptions could be brought to the DRB.

Seifeldein ultimately deferred, albeit hesitantly, to the city attorney’s assessment that such language would not necessarily require the city to approve any claim that involved these issues.

Councilor Del Pepper made a motion, seconded by Councilor John Chapman, to approve staff’s SAP update with amendments to the language regarding the exceptions process. Council approved it 6-0. Councilor Amy Jackson was not present at the hearing.

“I would also note that this is the most aggressive inclusionary zoning affordable housing policy we have ever adopted in the city and certainly a big step in that regard,” Wilson said in closing. “We will have to see how this all works out and comes to reality, but I think [it’s] an important step in our values as a community.”

(Read more: Council approves senior housing building on First Street)