Your Views: Don’t destroy Old Town

Your Views: Don’t destroy Old Town
Residents are concerned the proposed redevelopment at the Heritage at Old Town apartment complex contrasts with the height and scale of the Old and Historic District. Photo/Chelsea West

To the editor:

On April 12, the Alexandria Department of Planning and Zoning held a “community meeting” to inform the public that current height limits in the Old & Historic District and in other medium density areas of the city were likely to be increased.

The staff presentation is titled “A Draft Text Amendment to the Bonus Height provision of Section 7-700 of the Zoning Ordinance to allow bonus height to be utilized in zones with height limits of 45 feet or more.”

In other words, it is proposed that City Code Section 7-700 be extended to other neighborhoods within and around Old Town, thus allowing a vast increase in mass, scale and height if affordable housing is provided within the development.

In 2020, City Council endorsed the recommendations of the Council of Governments for each jurisdiction to provide a fixed level of affordable housing. Staff has informed us that its commitment to COG will be met by the city providing 222 new units of affordable housing, in addition to what is now available or under construction.

This isn’t an impossible goal. However, at this juncture, in order to provide an additional “tool in the toolbox,” as staff terms it, the city is essentially abandoning the current height limit in the Old & Historic District.

It is critical to look carefully at the maps set forth on Pages 11 and 12 of staff’s presentation, which can be found here: https:// default/files/2022-04/CM%20 PPT%20-%204.12.2022%20 (4.13.2022).pdf

Page 11, titled “Map of Relevant Zones,” shows areas of the city where there are zones with 45-foot to 50-foot height maximums that under the proposed change could be constructed up to 75 feet. The accompanying legend shows 11 such zones depicted in and around the city.

At the outset, it is obvious that it is impossible to ascertain with any reasonable clarity which zone is where and how the neighborhood would be affected – particularly in the downtown area of the city. For example, in the brown area of the map that mostly delineates the southeast quadrant of the Old & Historic District, there is a small and indistinct rectangle, shown on a larger city zoning map to be CL – with a maximum height limit of 35 feet.

That rectangle is where the Safeway and the Departmental Progressive Club are located, as shown on the larger maps on the city website. Under the proposed zoning changes, 60-, 70-, or possibly 75-foot-tall buildings could be constructed on those two sites, literally in the heart of historic Old Town.

Nothing was explained at the community meeting about the possible future of building on those sites or any of the many other sites where the height limits are proposed to be increased.

The zones with 45-foot to 50-foot height limits along both King and Washington streets are also shown on page 12, titled “Likelihood of Use,” showing areas of “Potential Application of Updated Bonus Height Provision.” In other words, the city is proposing that buildings along virtually all of King Street may now become 75 feet in height, from Harvard Street to the Waterfront.

So, all of King Street, as well as Washington Street and the portion of the George Washington Memorial Parkway that runs through the city, are now in jeopardy of having no reasonable height restrictions because we need to find space for 222 affordable housing units? Isn’t there a better way to go about this?

To date, the city has failed to provide adequate information to its citizens concerning this far-reaching proposal, one that could undo the entire aesthetic cohesiveness and architectural compatibility of the Old & Historic District, not to mention its beauty and historic uniqueness which has been carefully crafted through three centuries of stewardship.

If this zoning change is enacted as proposed, it will be the end of Old Town and the Old & Historic District as we know it. The jewel that has made Alexandria what it is today, and what we should be fighting to maintain, will shine no more.

-Steven Milone, president, Old Town Civic Association; Yvonne Weight Callahan, vice-president, Old Town Civic Association; Robert Ray, treasurer, Old Town Civic Association