Council votes to increase school density

Council votes to increase school density
A rendering of the new Douglas MacArthur school as seen from the athletic fields. (Rendering/ACPS)

By Missy Schrott |

The amendment to the city’s zoning ordinance to allow greater density at city schools has come FAR since it was first proposed.

City staff originally recommended that the zoning ordinance be amended so that public schools could increase Floor Area Ratio – the ratio of a building’s total floor area to the size of the plot of land upon which it is built – up to 0.6 “by right,” or without a special use permit.

without a special use permit. At its public hearing on Saturday, City Council approved the Planning Commission’s recommendation to remove the “by right” language for projects exceeding the FAR restrictions established for the site, and to cap projects at 0.75 FAR and 60 feet in height.

The proposal to increase school density is largely in response to Alexandria City Public Schools’ ongoing capacity challenges. Several schools already have to use temporary trailers as classrooms, and T.C. Williams is projected to increase from almost 4,000 students, as of 2020, to 5,000 students in the next five years, according to staff.

When the text amendment proposal first went to the Planning Commission, representatives from several civic associations were upset about staff’s recommendation. At council’s hearing, many of those same residents spoke in support of the Planning Commission’s compromise to keep the SUP requirement.

“We believe the compromise retains a degree of citizen engagement and oversight by requiring a special use permit for increased development beyond the zoning FAR,” Roy Byrd, president of the Clover College Park Civic Association, said.

One resident who spoke during the public hearing period, Reginald Brown, cautioned council against making the .75 FAR a standard for new schools, rather than a maximum limit.

“The message from council should be clear that if a FAR of less than .75 is possible and is good for the neighborhood and the preservation of green spaces, that’s the kind of plan that should ultimately be presented for approval and review,” Brown said.

In his closing remarks, Mayor Justin Wilson said that because of the capacity issues in Alexandria, larger schools will be unavoidable.

“I think the larger conversation, which is the message we sent from our zoning code, is the reality is we are going to have to have bigger schools as we move forward, and this is part of that statement,” Wilson said.

The amendment to the ordinance will most immediately apply to the Douglas MacArthur Elementary School project. Council approved a development special use permit for the project, which includes a FAR of .71, on Saturday.