Coalition for a Livable Alexandria launches: Activist group anticipates loosening of zoning requirements

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Coalition for a Livable Alexandria launches: Activist group anticipates loosening of zoning requirements
An estimated 70 to 90 people gathered at Market Square on Monday for the launch of The Coalition for a Livable Alexandria. (Photo/Mark Eaton)
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By Mark Eaton | aboutalexandria@gmail.com

The Coalition for a Livable Alexandria, Inc., a citizen-sponsored advocacy organization, outlined its goals and signaled an intent to be a significant voice in the city’s current housing policy debate in a Market Square news conference Monday attended by 70 to 90 people. The controversial housing initiative that CLA wants to weigh in on is called Zoning for Housing/ Housing for All in Alexandria.

In July, CLA was incorporated as a Virginia nonprofit corporation with residents Roy Byrd and John Fehrenbach as initial directors. Contributions to CLA are not tax deductible. CLA’s website is viewable at livablealexandria.org.

CLA’s flier publicizing the news conference said:

“The Coalition for a Livable Alexandria strongly believes in the need for more affordable housing in Alexandria. However, the city’s sweeping proposals would radically change Alexandria’s Zoning Code in ways that will remove existing protections and leave residents NO LEGAL SAY in development decisions.”

CLA’S leaders speak out

Byrd, CLA’s chair, who has long been active in local issues through his civic association, explained the group’s ratio- nale at Monday’s rally.

“14% of the housing stock [in Alexandria] is single family homes. We’re not Arlington, and we’re not Fairfax,” Byrd said. “We have a good mix of housing, all of which could be more affordable.”

Byrd cited Alexandria’s lack of developable land as a key factor in the debate about housing policy.

“We’re concerned about things about density,” Byrd said. “We’re already the densest city in the whole state of Virginia.”

Byrd said that his group’s formation is a result of not having real input into the housing debate.

“This is about being listened to, not just heard,” Byrd said. “Residents who have a different viewpoint, residents who have concerns, residents who ask tough questions, are not the enemy. … We all want to get to the same goal – we just want to make sure we do it in the best way possible and that we work together. It means compromise. It means dialogue. It means answering questions.”

In a pre-news conference interview Byrd elaborated on why he helped form CLA.

“We’ve been hearing frustrations that in a number of cases on a number of policy issues residents felt they didn’t have an equal voice on policy formulation and decision making,” Byrd said in the interview. “[CLA is] not necessarily adversarial and designed to go after staff and Council. We want to make sure that all view-points are listened to.”

Byrd said, “whether real or perceived,” advocates from national and regional organizations seem to get more consideration from policymakers than do individual residents.

He acknowledged that Zoning for Housing/Housing for All’s actual recommendations are not scheduled to be re- leased until September 5, but said he feels the city’s presentation of the issue so far has not covered all facets.

“We have a lot of questions. There has been no discussion of risk or downside. Everything has been upside,” Byrd said.

Other reactions

Former Mayor Allison Silberberg elaborated, in an interview prior to the event, on why a group like CLA feels the need to form.

“It says a lot when residents join forces about proposals to come before the Council. They [CLA] took the time and money to insist on more civic engagement. There’s a role to be played here,” Silberberg said.

CLA board member and Treasurer, Will Shen, a 10-year resident and holder of a Master’s degree in Urban Planning, works for the Federal Housing Finance Agency on affordable housing issues. He said the city’s initiative will make matters worse, not better.

“In my professional experience, Zoning for Housing is going to make Alexandria significantly less livable for its existing residents,” Shen said. “Whether you are a renter or a homeowner, expect your quality of life, if this plan goes forward in November, to get steadily worse. Zoning for Housing intends to bring tens of thousands of additional people into Alexandria, yet it contains no plans for additional infrastructure to support these people – no additional schools, city services, sewer, water or fire.”

Shen asserted that increasing Alexandria’s housing supply will not bring home prices down because the city is too small to affect regional housing economics.

“It’s a mistake to think that this is a simple supply and demand situation – that if we build more housing in Alexandria home prices and rents will go down. There’s no way that tiny Alexandria with 2% of the population and less than 1% of the land area in the metropolitan area, can influence housing prices in the region – it’s just not possible,” Shen said.

Shen said developers will be the main beneficiaries of the city’s proposed policy because a rapid increase in allowable density “sets off a feeding frenzy” of economic incentives for developers.

“Pretty much every older structure in Alexandria is going to be a potential tear-down,” Shen said. “Zoning for Housing is not going to build much affordable housing or workforce housing for people like teachers or firefighters. Instead, it will allow the construction of a great deal of luxury housing.”

Shen believes that garden apartments, older homes and older buildings that house commercial businesses are particularly at risk.

“We’re for building more housing where it makes sense,” Shen said. “Unfortunately, the city thinks that the best way to proceed is to bundle together nine complicated, opaque and sweeping zoning changes and to ram the whole thing through before Thanksgiving.”

Shen said the city needs to slow down and consider re- vising its proposal rather than pushing through something that currently contains clear negative consequences.

“As it stands, Zoning for Housing will be a tragedy for Alexandria. The city should forget about its self-imposed November deadline. What’s the rush? Zoning for Housing should be broken up into its constituent parts – Alexandrians should have a chance to understand what each piece of this proposal means for them,” Shen said.

Nate Hirto, a co-founder of Save Del Ray, a citizen group dedicated to preserving the neighborhood’s unique character, said CLA is needed because most city residents are not paying close attention to this proposal.

“Many of the people in our city aren’t sitting here looking at the Council docket, they are not showing up at every meeting, they are not reading every SUP [Special Use Permit application],” Hirto said. “We’re thrilled to see the Coalition for a Livable Alexandria raise their hands and say ‘We want to start collecting that information and informing people across Alexandria.’”

Hirto lauded CLA’s founders for creating a vehicle for more resident input.

“So I couldn’t agree more with CLA in wanting to shed some light and getting citizens to ask questions about what is happening in their neighborhood. It’s important that we all raise our concerns and ask our questions and work together to build a better Alexandria,” Hirto said.

City Councilors John Taylor Chapman and Alyia Gaskins also attended Monday’s CLA news conference. Gaskins affirmed her support for Zoning for Housing, saying housing issues are sufficiently complex that a multiple initiative approach is appropriate.

Gaskins elaborated on her perspective in a followup email: “The next few months are a time for us to come together, dive into those complexities, and have discussions about the specifics to determine what works for our community, what may need to change, and the best path forward,” Gaskins said in the email.

Hot buttons

The future of the zoning code’s single-family dwelling provisions is a hot button is- sue for some CLA supporters. A social media post encouraged people to attend CLA’s news conference and a subsequent meeting because Zoning for Housing/Housing for All is a “… push to eliminate all single-family housing in the entire City of Alexandria.”

Hirto also referred to the proposal to permit additional height in commercial buildings along Mount Vernon Avenue, which is expected to be part of the Zoning for Housing recommendations, as a point of particular concern.

Hirto described Mount Vernon Avenue’s combination of low-rise commercial buildings and high property values as a recipe for destroying the character of the Del Ray neighborhood.

“We see a potential risk that taking [down] those buildings that create a very low structure that really echoes a small town Main Street [would enable developers to remake them] into what you would see in Clarendon or along Route 1,” Hirto said.

Divergent numbers about the amount of current sin- gle-family housing in Alexan- dria are floating around. The city’s website, alexandriava. gov/planning-and-zoning/ zoning-for-housing-housing- for-all states, “Single-family zones ac- count for 5.17 square miles or 34% of the total land area of the city. The single-family zones are R2-5, R5, R8, R12 and R20.”

Housing units also pro- vide a measure of the city’s single-family housing. Page 245 of the city’s June 30, 2022 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report states that Alexandria contains a total of 83,943 housing units, of which 23,195 – slightly less than 28% – are designated as single-family units. Only 9,132 single-family housing units – just under 11% – are detached dwellings.

The policy connection, or argument, over the amount of single-family housing in the city – 14% according to Byrd, 34% according to the city’s zoning map and 28% as a share of total housing units – and the future of single-family zoning can be made different ways.

One position is that single-family housing is such a small portion of the city’s overall housing mix that single-family zoning should not be changed. An opposing view would be that in a city dominated by multi-family dwellings, single-family homeowners should do their part to increase housing affordability and accessibility.

The next city meeting about Zoning for Housing/Housing for all is a joint session between City Council and the Planning Commission next Tuesday.

 

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