By Kimberly Jackson | [email protected]
It is no secret. The city of Alexandria is growing. After more than 270 years, it is pushing the city limits with more people than ever before inside the 15.35 square miles.
Where those people live, work and play are supposed to be part of the city’s master plan. But now some say the individual plans that comprise the master plan are changing – without enough input from citizens.
“The voices of citizens need to be a little bit better part of this equation,” Carter Flemming, co-chair of the Alexandria Federation of Civic Associations, said.
Agenda Alexandria, a non-partisan group that brings the community together for balanced discussions, invited Flemming and others to join in a panel discussion that was held Monday night at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, on development in Alexandria and a review of the city’s master plan.
“I think many of the civic associations and the federations believe that over the last few years the role of our associations and our voices have been lessened as voices of developers and urban think tanks and other entities have taken a bigger role in our city,” Flemming said.
Flemming, along with Alexandria Planning Director Karl Mortiz, Former Mayor Kerry Donley and The Carr Companies President and CEO Austin Flajser were all part of the discussion, which was moderated by Agenda Alexandria Vice Chair Rod Kuckro.
Alexandria’s master plan has become a sensitive subject and a topic of debate. Some question if the city is following the plan for development or is instead changing the individual small area plans as developers submit ideas for business and residential projects. The last master plan was updated in 1992. Before that it had been 20 years before the prior master plan was developed in 1972.
“The master plan is made up of small area plans which govern what happens in 19 different neighborhoods, whether it is Seminary Hills or Old Town or parts of the west end or the southwest quadrant. Each one has a plan and those plans are valid,” Kuckro explained.
Donley was a councilor in 1992, and helped with the master plan, making sure citizens were included in the process. But now, he said Alexandria faces new challenges. Back then, the city did not want to grow too big, too fast.
“What the pandemic has shown us is that virtual work, remote work has probably been advanced about 15 or 20 years from what we thought was going to happen,” Donley said. “So consequently, the demand for commercial property is next to nil. However, the demand for increased residential is really what is the highest and best use of a lot of the properties.”
It is common knowledge that Alexandria needs more affordable housing. But Flemming said the city’s small area plans are being changed at the behest of developers, and the plans are not being followed.
“To us it is what is called spot zoning. You just, you change it because a developer X,Y and Z comes in and says, ‘I want to build this,’ and the plan really doesn’t allow for that and the city will go, ‘Oh, that’s alright, we are just going to do a little,’ like Karl said, ‘A little revision’ and suddenly that area has some huge building there that no one thought was going to be there,” Flemming said, in a one-on-one interview.
Moritz said there is a plan for citizen discussion and oversight, such as required community meetings and sometimes, multiple meetings with the developers.
“The expectations we have are that people that have never been engaged before are also added to the mix, not in replacement of those who have had a seat at the table but in addition to. Because we do think it is a stronger system, the more voices are heard, before a vote is taken,” Moritz said.
But other times, Moritz said, the city, staff, citizens and civic groups may suggest changing their area plan.
“For example, Eisenhower West was an area example that both the community and the property owners came to council, came to the planning department and said, ‘We would like this plan.’ Old Town North is another example of when the community said, ‘We are ready for a new plan,’” Moritz said.
Flajser said the process of developing a project can take up to six years. The market dictates his company’s business decisions, but that ultimately city ordinances and zoning decide what developers can and cannot do.
“We are a part of the process, but the rules are set in place for which we have to adhere otherwise we don’t start down the process to begin with,” Flajser said.
Flajser helped develop the North Old Town area and the concept of an arts district in there, still being built out. He said his goal is to “win the neighborhood,” when they work on a project so that the community and the families want to be a part of the new addition. Flajser said their success comes from a lot of community engagement.
“If any developers do feel like they have a big voice in the process, I would love to meet them because I don’t seem to have much of a voice ever,” Flajser said with a smile.
The hour-plus panel discussion provided a lot of information for concerned citizens like Breahnna Saunders and Victor Gatica, young professionals who are getting married this summer.
“We wanted to be part of the community, we have been here five years now and it kind of feels like things have been happening around us. So, I have been kind of curious, like what is happening, how is it being decided,” Gatica said.
The discussion gave all sides a chance to talk.
“I think it was a reasonably good discussion. But I don’t think it moved the needle,” Flemming said after the discussion ended.
The debate over Alexandria’s development is not over. The master plan remains in place, with no talk as of now to revamp what city leaders put together in 1992.