By Will Schick | [email protected]
City Council voted unanimously to approve the controversial plan to redevelop the Heritage at Old Town apartments at a public hearing on Saturday.
The proposal passed after more than six hours of public testimony and debate over whether the city should approve the plan. The redevelopment will span across three buildings, which will rise to seven stories in some places, and feature 750 new units, 195 of which will be committed affordable.
Forty-two members of the public signed up to provide testimony for and against the project proposal. While many residents voiced their support for the project, many others opposed the redevelopment, which will triple the number of total housing units at the site. Those opposed raised concerns about the impact of increased density on nearby traffic, the influx of new students into already crowded schools and an overall distaste for the aesthetic and design of the new buildings.
“This development does not match what is there and what is now a completely lovely, livable neighborhood,” Yvonne Callahan, vice president of the Old Town Civic Association, said at the virtual hearing.
Chris Morell, a resident who lives on South Columbia Street, said that while he supported improving affordable housing in the area, he did not support this particular development.
“Projects driven by excessive monetary gain, that use the cheapest construction and high-density architecture that dominate their surroundings to the detriment of Alexandria … must be restrained,” Morell said.
Martha Raymond, another resident, said she was concerned about the materials being used to construct the building.
“My comment has to do with the proposed construction type: multi-story wood over a concrete base or podium. I’m commenting because there are too many [incidents] of massive fires in such buildings all over the country,” Raymond said.
In response, City Manager Mark Jinks said that the project proposal was in line with the state’s fire safety guidelines. He also said that “probably almost all multifamily buildings being built in the last five years in Alexandria are of this type of construction.”
While a number of residents spoke out in opposition to the project, many others voiced support for it, including some who live in the current Heritage complex.
Marta Ali, a current Heritage resident, said that the current proposal can advance the current citywide goal of creating more affordable living opportunities for residents.
“I believe the objectives of the South Patrick Housing Affordability Strategy and the Heritage redevelopment plan can help toward creating cost-saving development projects that are vibrant, diverse and equitable,” Ali said.
Kevin Harris, the president of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority Resident Association, argued that the redevelopment’s affordable housing could provide residents who have been pushed out of Old Town, particularly minority residents, with a new housing opportunity in the neighborhood.
“In Old Town, in particular, new developments have pushed longtime residents, many of whom were people of color, out of the city. This has led to … gentrification of the area and the displacement of our community,” Harris said.
Harris added that he lives in affordable housing and believes that neighbors should welcome people from all economic walks of life.
“I’m a small business owner, a father of three wonderful girls, a caring husband, a coach and a minister in my church. The people who live in affordable housing are not parasites to our community. We are our community,” Harris said.
Betsy Faga, a member of the Alexandria Housing Affordability Advisory Committee and a volunteer counselor for the Christ Episcopal Church financial ministry, said that while she preferred a more traditional design for the project, “what we came to realize with our project is that we’re building for the current and future generations, not for ourselves.”
The concerns around the redevelopment proposal were not limited to members of the public. Councilor Canek Aguirre said he was worried about how the increased density brought on by the project would impact access to schooling in the area.
“At this point, we’re still in dialogue with the school system about accommodation strategies,” Karl Moritz, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said in response. “We have not land-ed on one or even formalized what the options are that we’re looking at.”
“It would behoove us to have some type of plan with-in the next year or two be-cause if you build it, they will come,” Aguirre said.
Initially, Councilor Amy Jackson also expressed strong reservations about project.
“You have a bigger footprint showing that we now have stormwater drainage issues,” Jackson said. “We’re going to have a lot of problems concerning traffic. … I don’t know how you’re going to put an extra 400 units on this property … and have it all go well.”
Jackson asked council and staff whether it was possible to defer voting on the proposal until they could better resolve some of these concerns.
Ultimately, the developer’s attorney, Cathy Puskar, said deferring the project was not an option for the developer.
“A deferral is not acceptable to us,” Puskar said. “We have been working on this project for over a year. We have made all the changes that we can make to the height, the mass, the scale of this project.”
Noting the city’s current issues with traffic in specific areas, Councilor John Chapman said it was prudent to be aware of the possible impacts the development could have on area traffic in the future.
“I think this development plan highlights another reason why I think we need to, as a city, think about how we’re going to attack those pain points and do it kind of deliberately, systematically, because I think that’s going to be beneficial for our residents,” Chapman said.
After more than six hours of discussion, Aguirre put forward a motion to approve the proposal, seconded by Councilor Del Pepper. The motion passed 7-0.