City Council adopts Chirilagua plan

City Council adopts Chirilagua plan
Image/City of Alexandria The Arlandria/Chirilagua small area plan aims to increase new committed affordable housing units in the neighborhood by about 1,200 over a 20-year period.

By Cody Mello-Klein |

City Council took a major step toward providing more affordable housing for the Arlandria neighborhood, also known as Chirilagua, this week by adopting a new comprehensive small area plan.

Approved during Saturday’s public hearing, the small area plan sets out a vision for the city’s work and approach to the majority Hispanic neighborhood whose residents are increasingly at risk of being priced out of housing, a trend that’s exacerbated by the area’s proximity to the new Amazon and Virginia Tech campuses.

The plan focuses on retaining residents who already live in the community while also fostering steady growth, a balance that several members of council and staff admitted is tricky to achieve. While the plan emphasizes increasing access to medical, child-care and educational services as well as open space and transit, the primary focus of the Arlandria/ Chirilagua plan is affordable housing. The city hopes to not only preserve existing affordable housing units but aims to add 1,200 more committed affordable units over a 20-year period through a variety of partnerships, investments and development efforts.

“Most fundamental to achieving this vision is enabling existing residents to remain in their community through the expansion and preservation of housing affordability,” Carrie Beach, neighborhood planning and community development chief for the city, said.

According to Jeff Farner, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, the 1,200 new affordable housing units will be sourced through partnerships, the conversion of market affordable units to committed affordable units, expansion or redevelopment of current committed affordable communities and new development.

In Chirilagua, there are currently about 525 committed affordable units and about 1,175 market affordable units, or units that have rents at about 60% of the area median income but are not subject to the same rent restrictions as committed affordable units.

The plan also includes various strategies designed to protect some of the city’s most vulnerable residents. There are plans for increases in rent stabilization and, through the Virginia Department of Housing’s Ready to Rent program, support for those going through the application process for affordable housing, particularly non-English speakers, gig economy workers and those with “atypical rent histories,” Tamara Jovovic, a city planner in the Office of Housing, said.

The small area plan includes goals and strategies for increasing the number of affordable units and also aims to increase the level of affordability for Chirilagua residents. To reduce affordability from 60% AMI to, in many places, 50% or 40% AMI, the city is pursuing a slightly modified version of the density-based approach it has used to increase affordable housing in other areas of the city.

Developers who want to build or redevelop in Chirilagua can increase the height of their buildings above the standard maximum height if they dedicate 10% of the additional building height to affordable units split between 50% and 40% AMI.

According to Jovovic, higher levels of affordability present a financial challenge for developers.

“The challenge of producing units at such levels of affordability is that rents typically cannot cover the cost of operating the building let alone the debt service associated with its construction,” Jovovic said.

Ingris Moran, the lead organizer of Chirilagua-based organization Tenants and Workers United and a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, said the current plan is not enough to help residents remain in their community.

“We recognize that this plan has a lot of great intentions for the neighborhood and it recognizes some of the problems our community faces,” Moran said. “… But our biggest concern as an organization is that history may repeat itself, where we have seen past city policies and lack of action from the city that has resulted in widespread displacement of working-class families of color.”

Moran called on the city to modify the plan by focusing on achieving 30% AMI for affordable housing, a concrete plan for ongoing engagement with the community and targeted investments for the neighborhood. She also claimed that the 10% affordable housing contribution for developers pursuing increased density would be minimal in many cases compared to the actual needs of the community.

Residents who live outside the neighborhood expressed concerns about the potential impacts of the plan on areas outside Arlandria, in the form of spillover traffic and parking.

“There is absolutely no way that adding this much density is going to result in, at worst, a six-second traffic delay. As we all know, one single bus stopping on the road will add at least 15 seconds to our trip,” Tom Goslin, who lives in a neighborhood adjacent to Arlandria, said.

Councilor Canek Aguirre pointed out that based on studies performed by the city, affordable housing residents typically own fewer vehicles than their market rate counterparts and that the traffic impacts may not be as significant as it would be in other areas of the city.

The plan also outlines the city’s approach to addressing flooding and stormwater issues in the area, which are major concerns for many residents. There is currently $66.5 million worth of projects in the city’s 10-year capital improvement budget that will affect the Arlandria/Chirilagua neighborhood, according to the staff presentation. Among those are four large capacity projects and two smaller capital projects, including a resilient green street project along East Glebe Road.

Jose Ayala, a city planner involved with the plan, outlined general plans that are aimed at increasing the neighborhood’s sustainability and resilience that include floodplain protection for new development, additional pervious area and increased tree canopy. Meanwhile, the city hopes to maintain the neighborhood’s commercial heart, which is located along Mount Vernon Avenue, by preventing land use changes in that specific area and by putting in place institutionalized supports for street vendors.

“We recommend that there should be a provision in which street vendors can be allowed and there will be a process in which we are having conversations with the community along with [the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership] and other folks,” Ayala said. “We also recognize this is an opportunity for folks who live in [the community] to grow economically and hopefully, in the future, with success, they can become brick and mortar in the neighborhood.”

Open space is another area that the community emphasized in its public input sessions with the city. According to Ayala, the western portion of the neighborhood lacks easily accessible open space and parks, so the city included plans for eight new proposed open space projects west of Mount Vernon Avenue.

“We allocated four acres plus of new open space to the western portion, allocating in different locations [to] which the people can arrive in less than five minutes [of] walk[ing],” Ayala said.

Mayor Justin Wilson emphasized the need for greater road safety, particularly at the intersection of Mount Vernon Avenue and Glebe Road.

“There are several intersections in this plan area that have safety issues, and I’ve certainly had dialogue with residents in recent weeks about some of the challenges in several of these intersections,” Wilson said. “We just had another serious crash a couple days ago in the plan area.”

Councilor Mo Seifeldein argued that while the level of affordability might not be exactly what the community needs, it is more affordable than current rates and represents a path forward at a time when inaction would be more deadly.

“We’re on the right path. I have some concerns with this plan, but just given the circumstances and some of the other restrictions we have, we just do what we can with the tools that we have,” Seifeldein said.

Aguirre made a motion, seconded by Councilor John Chapman, to approve the small area plan. The motion was approved 6-0, since Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker was not present.