By Will Schick | firstname.lastname@example.org
Area residents remain concerned with the plan to redevelop the Heritage at Old Town apartments. The Planning Commission unanimously voted to approve the redevelopment plans at its Feb. 2 meeting, and the controversial project proposal is headed to City Council for consideration and possible approval on Saturday.
The redevelopment would triple the size of the current Heritage at Old Town apartment complex, expanding the number of units from 244 to 750. The new site would also preserve the current 140 designated affordable housing units and include an additional 57 affordable housing units, according to a city staff report presented to the Planning Commission on Feb. 2.
The project comes at a time when many families in the city are struggling to find affordable housing and the city is ramping up efforts to provide affordable units through new development projects.
According to data provided by the American Community Survey, between 2015 and 2019, 42% of renters in Alexandria paid more than 30% of their income on housing. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers families who spend more than 30% of their income on housing as “cost-burdened.” The same survey also identified 24.2% of surveyed homeowners with a mortgage and 12.2% of surveyed owners without a mortgage in Alexandria as “cost-burdened.”
Despite the Heritage’s promise of affordable housing units, some residents are concerned what the project could mean for the neighborhood and houses in the area. At the Feb. 2 Planning Commission meeting, many of those who spoke in opposition to the project claimed that home values, traffic and residents who currently reside in the Heritage apartments would be negatively impacted.
Yvonne Callahan, vice president of the Old Town Civic Association, said the redevelopment plans will increase the area’s population density and contrasts with the scale and height of the surrounding neighborhood.
“It’s going to be a bigger, fatter … and denser building because it will be larger,” Callahan said.The proposed project would replace the current three-story apartment complex with a new tiered design that would, in some sections, reach seven stories.
Callahan said that while she supports providing more affordable housing for the community, she believes the increased density brought on by the new project, which will house nearly three times as many people, will change the fundamental character of the neighborhood.
“I think if somehow or another we could really wave a magic wand and put in only, only affordable housing and up the amount of affordable housing by 50 units, the neighbors, they won’t care,” Callahan said.
“In other words, you preserve the structure and architecture and the ambiance of an old city by not building tall buildings in or near it,” Callahan added. “… I think by all accounts [the new Heritage redevelopment] ruins that streetscape, the landscape, the historical marker of what Old Town is all about.”
Helen Mcllvaine, the city’s director of housing, said that the increased density allowed by the project is what enables the developer to provide close to 200 affordable units.
“To be honest, keeping … these units affordable really depended on creating incentives for the owner to preserve the deep affordability,” Mcllvaine said. “… If the developer opted to build a million and a half dollar townhomes, you know, there might not be this density.”
The density, Mcllvaine added, serves a specific purpose.
“Sometimes density is for density’s sake or for the sake of something else, and here it’s actually the tool that’s allowing us to preserve housing affordability,” Mcllvaine said.
The cost of providing the additional affordable units will be off-set by the addition of more market-rate units, Mcllvaine explained.
As members of the community debate the plans for redeveloping the Heritage site, City Manager Mark Jinks said it was essential to understand why it is being re-developed in the first place.
“What’s kind of gotten lost is that neighborhood has a significant amount of assisted housing and has for a long time,” Jinks said. “And this project is intended on preserving that and having those people who live in that neighborhood get better assisted housing.”