Planning Commission approves compromise density amendment for public schools

Planning Commission approves compromise density amendment for public schools
A classroom at the old Douglas MacArthur Elementary School building. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

The Planning Commission unanimously approved an amendment to the city’s Zoning Ordinance that would allow public schools to increase density during the commission’s Tuesday public hearing.

The compromise vote followed strenuous objections from several civic associations, and was a result of revisions proposed by Vice Chair Melissa McMahon and Commissioner David Brown.

The amendment approved by the commission allows public school developments to exceed the floor area ratio set by current zoning regulations as long as the project goes through a special use permit process and does not exceed 0.75 FAR or 60 feet in height.

The approved amendment differs from what city staff recommended. Originally scheduled to go before the commission during its April hearing, the proposed change would have allowed public schools to increase FAR up to 0.6 “by-right,” meaning without SUP approval. Any increase above 0.6 FAR would have required SUP approval, but there would be no cap on FAR.

This compromise proposal keeps the requirement for a SUP, which was a key point of opposition by residents and the city’s Civic Associations, for proposals that exceed the FAR restrictions of a site’s zone. But it raises the cap on potential buildings from 0.6 to 0.75, which will allow for buildings that are up to 25% larger.

The proposal came in response to Alexandria City Public Schools’ ongoing capacity and facilities challenges, while the compromise at least partially accommodates residents who had expressed alarm at the lack of public input that would have been required for future school buildings.

ACPS schools are already over capacity in some cases, and enrollment is projected to reach more than 18,000 students by FY 2029. T.C. Williams alone is projected to reach 5,000 students within the next five years, according to staff.

Due to the cost associated with purchasing new property and the limited amount of available real estate that can accommodate new schools, ACPS is focusing its efforts on redeveloping properties it already owns and expanding current school buildings.

Since many school sites are located in residential neighborhoods, where zoning standards are based around single family homes, the potential density for school sites in those zones is limited. Under current regulations in the Zoning Ordinance, public school sites in residential zones that limit FAR to 0.35 can increase their FAR to 0.6 through a special use permit.

City staff determined that by easing FAR restrictions, ACPS could expand school capacity at its current properties without significantly impact- ing adjacent communities.

“We have so many other requirements that protect communities and other properties from any negative impacts, that it’s covered,” Dirk Garetz, principal planner with the city, said. “We did feel that if you’re going to go above 0.6, that would seem reasonable that something above that would be subject to the SUP. That just affords a little additional scrutiny that you would not otherwise have with just the DSP.”

Many of Alexandria’s civic associations opposed the amendment presented by staff.

Neighborhood organizations like the North Ridge Citizens’ Association and Seminary Hill Association argued that such a sweeping change to the city’s zo ing regulations would impact low density residential neighborhoods located near city schools.

“If approved, we do believe that this amendment would [be] a glaring example of arbitrary, capricious and unsupported administrative action by the city with detrimental impacts, particularly on low density residential neighborhoods that don’t have the infrastructure to support the massive new buildings that you’re contemplating,” Kay Stimson, a representative for the NRCA, said at Tuesday’s virtual hearing.

In a letter to the Planning Commission, the NRCA also expressed concern that the amendment would decrease open space and undermine the city’s environmental policies.

The NRCA was not alone: The Alexandria Federation of Civic Associations supported the organization’s concerns.

For AFCA co-chair Peter Benavage, staff’s presentation of the amendment was indicative of a larger problem.

“We feel that this is one of many different issues that has a common thread to it regarding the public not hav- ing meaningful and timely input,” Benavage said.

“It’s yet another example of our city government’s lack of transparency, all of which further undermines the public trust,” Carter Flemming, president of the Seminary Hill Association, said.

The Douglas MacArthur Elementary School rebuild project remained the elephant in the room throughout the public discussion and the commission’s own deliberation. The SUP for the project came in at 0.71 FAR, creating a potential roadblock for a project that is on a tight timeline.

The need to move the MacArthur project forward played a significant role in the Commission’s decision, even as several commissioners agreed that a zoning change like this requires more input from the community and analysis from staff.

Commissioner David Brown initially proposed changing the amendment to include a 0.75 FAR limit if the site in question shares a rear lot with a city park, much like Douglas MacArthur. Brown pitched his version of the amendment as a temporary fix to progress the rebuild project, acknowledging that staff would need to come back to the commission and community for a more comprehensive discussion.

“We can have the kind of discussion and planning involvement that we need with regard to these other properties if we simply limit the text amendment in the way that I have suggested,” Brown said.

Recently appointed Vice Chair Melissa McMahon was more concerned with the removal of SUP approval from the process.

“Having a special use permit process that goes through a public review process and is ultimately decided by council is one that gives the community that full spectrum of engagement that leads to testimony as necessary before city council and a decision by elected officials on whether a project should go through based on its merits,” McMahon said.

McMahon proposed requiring SUP approval for any FAR increase, while also eliminating an FAR limit altogether and maintaining the 60-foot height limit.

Planning Commission Chair Nathan Macek supported McMahon’s desire to return SUP approval to the amendment. Macek also urged residents to consider what they are willing to compromise when it comes to solving the school division’s capacity issues.

“We all have to find a way to support this in our neighborhoods, even in the neighborhoods that have lower zoning because these are buildings that are supporting the school children in those communities,” Macek said. “We all have to sacrifice and have school sizes that are adequate within our neighborhoods regardless of whether or not that’s a bigger building than what we have next to our existing homes.”

Several commissioners, including Brown, pushed back on the idea that FAR restrictions should be removed from the process. Brown argued that removing FAR was a much more significant change than just revising the upper FAR limit.

He urged the commission to consider his proposal and take time to analyze and consider the ramifications of such a sweeping change.

“We can approve MacArthur and then have the kind of process that would lead to whatever rejiggered standard we want,” Brown said. “… These are very important decisions that need to be thrashed out.”

Brown ultimately revised his proposal to increase the FAR limit from 0.6 to 0.75 in order to allow the Douglas MacArthur rebuild to move forward. Every other part of the current code language would remain intact, including the inclusion of SUP approval and the 60-foot height limit.

Brown’s proposed changes were approved unanimously, 6-0, with the caveat that staff would return to the commission for further conversation as soon as January 2021.