City holds zone text amendment community meeting

City holds zone text amendment community meeting
This map provides an outline of which areas of the city would be allowed to request bonus height and which would not. (Photo/City of Alexandria)

By Olivia Anderson |

The City of Alexandria held a virtual community meeting on May 19 to discuss a proposed zoning text amendment that would allow developers to build taller buildings with more units in exchange for more low-income housing.

The meeting consisted of a presentation, question-and-answer period and a consolidated list of changes since the first community meeting that took place on April 12, such as a proposed limitation on applicability that excludes single-family, two-family and townhome dwellings from the option of applying for a bonus height request.

“I think we have a better proposal, and a lot of that is due to the great input [community members] have given us,” Nancy Williams, assistant director of the department of planning and zoning, said.

Common themes at the previous meeting included community requests for clearer depictions of the maps shown and the definition of housing affordability and need. The meeting also included conversations about potential impacts on neighborhood character, infrastructure and historic districts, as well as questions about how the proposal interfaces with planning and other regulatory guidelines, such as height and historic districts, small area plans and height, and coordinated development districts.

Since the April 12 meeting, two meetings took place on April 18 – one with the Alexandria Housing Affordability Advisory Committee and one with the NAIOP Commercial Real Estate Development Association.

Staff then made several changes to the proposed ordinance, perhaps the most notable of which explicitly states a limitation on applicability. The zoning change will not apply to single-family, two-family or townhome dwellings and height districts of 50 feet or less, such as the Old and Historic District in Old Town. The change also makes it so that zones with multi-family uses may be eligible to apply, subject to all other regulatory considerations and site conditions.

Specifically, an amendment to text 7-703 clarifies that “height increases pursuant to this section are not permitted for single-family, two-family or townhouse dwellings.”

The amended text also states that height may not be increased by more than 25 feet beyond the maximum height otherwise allowed by the ordinance, provided that “no building located in any zone where the maximum allowable height is less than 45 feet of height district where the maximum allowable height is 50 feet or less may be allowed to exceed such height limit.”

Essentially, the bonus height that may be requested cannot be used to exceed the maximum height limit of any zone where the maximum height is 45 feet. For height districts, the bonus height that may be requested cannot be used to exceed the maximum height limit of any height district where the maximum height is 50 feet or less.

While a zone is intended to regulate many factors such as land uses, bulk and area regulations including height, height districts are specifically intended to further regulate only height in certain areas of the city. The current proposal only aims to amend the way in which the maximum height limits of certain zones prohibit the ability to request bonus height.

Karl Moritz, director of the department of planning and zoning, highlighted that the height district provisions and language in the existing ordinance does not change in the updated text. This means that the current proposal would not alter in any way the regulation prohibiting the bonus height from being used to exceed the maximum height limit in any height district with a limit of 50 feet or less.

“The language that currently exists is retained and all of the change is focused on the zone,” Moritz said.

Specifically, the height district provisions, special use permits, 25-foot height limit addition and dedication of one-third of additional units to affordable housing remains unchanged.

During the May 19 presentation, staff presented a new map of where the zoning change would and would not be applicable. Urban Planner Patrick Silva said the image came from a community request for a “more succinct and simple-to-read” depiction of the map that clearly outlines the impacts of the proposed update.

Silva explained that areas like Taylor Run, North Ridge/ Rosemont and Old Town cannot currently request bonus height and will not be able request a bonus

The Historic Districts, depicted in this map, will remain unchanged with the current proposal. (Photo/City of Alexandria)

height in exchange for affordable housing offered by the ordinance.

Areas such as Beauregard, Eisenhower East and Potomac Yard can currently request bonus height and would be able to do so after the update. Significantly, the map shows that most of Mt. Vernon Avenue, including in the heart of the Del Ray neighborhood, would be subject to this zoning change.

Additionally, areas like Alexandria West, Northeast, Fairlington/Bradlee and Arlandria/Chirilagua cannot currently request bonus height but would be able to do so after the update.

Silva emphasized that the bonus height ordinance would be evaluated on a site-by-site, case-by-case basis.

“The intent of this proposed update is certainly not to boost the height of every single building located in these … areas by 25 feet,” Silva said. “That is not at all the case. A large part of this update is trying to really make sure that neighborhood context and compatibility with the sites surrounding is something that would be maintained in cases that bonus height is used.”

Attendees to the May 19 meeting posted questions to an online forum, which staff answered following the presentation. One person asked how the proposed update would affect the SUP process, to which Williams said it does not at all.

“Anyone making a request under section 7-700, whether it’s 703 B or A, must, I’ll underscore ‘must,’ go through a public hearing SUP process,” Williams said.

Another person questioned the number of affordable housing units that the existing plans currently provide for.

Tamara Jovovic, housing planner with the Office of Housing, clarified that the city’s affordable housing goals, guided by the housing master plan, are to create new affordability in one-third of the units, about 2,000 units, by 2025.

“We emphasize the word ‘new’ affordability because that includes new construction, as well as preservation,” Jovovic said.

The city is also committed to a regional goal of creating additional market-rate housing and committed affordable and workforce affordable housing. This includes 3,000 total additional units through 2030, Jovovic said, with three-quarters of them, or roughly 225 units, being either affordable or workforce affordable.

“That’s in addition to our housing master plan goal, and it’s looking to create both committed affordable rental units and committed affordable homeownership units,” Jovovic said.

Staff addressed concerns about additional density and traffic the proposed update would bring, with Williams again reiterating that each project will involve a SUP process that evaluates all the regulatory provisions for the given zone.

Williams stated that the ultimate goal is to keep the community safe for all modes of transportation, one that is emphasized with the transportation master plan and how it is applied when processing applications for discretionary approvals.

One question read, “Since everyone wants to live in Alexandria, especially Old Town, and every developer wants to build here, why can’t the city set a new requirement rather than believing they could encounter economic hardship for developers to provide all of the bonus density as affordable units?”

Although the ordinance would allow an exchange of bonus density for affordable housing, one-third of the units are set aside as affordable and the others are market rate, Williams clarified.

“I just want to make sure people understand that all of the units that are created under bonus height are not automatically set aside as affordable,” Williams said. “… I think developers see this as a way to promote their mission as developers while also helping us fulfill our goals for our city in strengthening our communities through stronger housing, wider housing opportunities. … It’s not just economic, it is more than that.”

Yvonne Callahan, former president of the Old Town Citizens Association, expressed concern regarding the amendable nature of zoning. She contended that the fact that zoning can change is “really hurting” the city.

“People are realizing again and again that zoning is subject to the whims of the ‘process,’ and we have to have some surety along with some adaptability,” Callahan said. “… I really feel a lot for the people who are going to look at this map now and suddenly realize, without ever knowing it before tonight, that they are right next door to some zoning category that will allow something up to 75 feet. That will be a shock and that will reverberate throughout the political process.”

Toward the end of the meeting, staff thanked attendees for the questions and presence. They encouraged community members to look out for eNews communications and reach out with additional questions, as well as to bring them to subsequent meetings.

The proposed ordinance is set to appear before the Planning Commission on June 23 and City Council on July 5.