By Bill Rossello
In 2019, city residents endured a nine-hour public hearing only to watch former Councilor Del Pepper cast the deciding vote to narrow a 0.9 mile stretch of Seminary Road. That decision was made in the face of overwhelming community opposition.
At the meeting’s end, Mayor Justin Wilson commented, “We cannot do this again,” meaning allow the community to have so much say in a controversial matter. He made similar comments last week related to two ill-advised stream restoration projects that would have wrought destruction at Taylor Run and Strawberry Run.
Now, on what the mayor calls “the most ambitious housing reform in our history,” the city is proposing to eliminate your say on land use, affording developers the right to build in your neighborhood whatever makes them the most money. The astonishing bundling of nine zoning proposals through 41 text amendments to be reviewed by the public in just six weeks represents the latest and the most significant assault on resident voices.
The intent of the city’s Zoning for Housing initiative is to dramatically increase the city’s housing stock, in part by eliminating zoning protections that safeguard your neighborhoods from being overdeveloped.
The city’s assertions for the zoning changes hold no water. Most alarming was the assertion about racist provisions in the zoning code. For three years, officials promised to uncover those that continue to impede equity and promote systemic racism. But the only thing they found in the code was the presumably discriminatory use of the word “family,” which will be removed.
Was that the code’s major impediment to equity?
The City policy change’s other basis was affordability. But past is prologue: The city added about 11,000 rental units between 2012 to 2022 without improvement in affordability. What did result were disproportionate increases in school enrollment, violent crime and emergency police and medical calls for service. And more water main breaks, flooding, traffic congestion and a dramatic growth in the city’s debt.
Meanwhile, the city has planned 40,820 more units in transit-oriented areas and 2,838 “affordable” units elsewhere. That equates to 80,000 to 100,000 new residents, at least a 50% increase above Alexandria’s current size.
That would require perhaps a dozen new schools. Where will we put them? It will add tens of thousands of motor vehicles. Where will we park them and what will happen to traffic congestion? And how will we afford the inevitable infrastructure costs, already taxing our residents and testing the city’s borrowing capacity?
There are other implications.
Despite having one of the lowest percentages of single-family units in the nation at nearly 12%, the city’s policies will reduce that number, allowing houses to be replaced with “fourplex” rental apartments. That will eliminate single-family zoning – in turn making owning a home even less attainable than today – and reduce our already dismal homeownership rate.
Despite having one of the highest percentages of rental units in the nation, the city will add tens of thousands more. That will involve redevelopment of older garden apartment buildings, drive more gentrification and displace longtime residents.
We saw that at the Heritage complex in Old Town. It will also come with extreme densification in high-rise communities as with the ParcView apartments, where a new tower is planned on the same site. And we will also see new towers erected right next to townhomes, as with the Blake apartments near Mark Center.
Through zoning changes, the city will make it easier for developers, large and small, increasing their ability to build “by right,” and eliminating your right to question what’s happening in your neighborhood. The zoning protections that keep your neighborhood from being overdeveloped will be gone.
City Council will vote on these changes on November 28. Unless residents speak up – and Council hears them – prepare for the continued reduction of our quality of life, which we will pay for, while losing our say in the matter.
Our lives here may never be the same.
The writer is a civic advocate, management consultant and longtime Alexandria resident.