Up-zoning won’t make Alexandria more livable

Up-zoning won’t make Alexandria more livable

To the editor: 

Mayor Justin Wilson clearly thinks that Zoning for Housing, as the sweeping changes to the city’s zoning rules are known, will make Alexandria more affordable to those who currently find it too expensive to rent or purchase a house here. 

Supporters of the plan have called opponents out of touch with the future, while the plan’s opponents claim that the city’s planning department has not studied the impacts of their proposal on single family neighborhoods and the town generally. 

I can find little evidence to substantiate the conclusion that increasing the amount of housing automatically lowers the cost of housing. In fact, it does the opposite in some cases. What is clear is that local governments must subsidize the housing in some significant way if it is to result in more units of some type of affordable housing. 

What’s missing in the debate too is the importance of wages, which we have only so much control over locally. 

The other missing piece of the up-zoning story involves taking a look at past high-density development to see how it has impacted the city’s livability. Livability can be defined in different ways, but here are a few things I think are important to the quality of life in Alexandria. 

The city’s tree canopy has declined significantly despite the civic efforts of tree stewards and groups like the Northridge Citizen’s Association, which has tried to protect the neighborhoods’ shade trees and plant even more. More of the city’s native biodiversity has been lost, as the clearcutting of the Karig forest sadly showed. And, despite the growth in our tax base, we have not set aside an adequate amount of recreational space to meet the demand of Alexandria’s growing population. 

There has also been a precipitous decline in the number of affordable housing units despite all the new construction. 

The city claims that in tearing down public housing, for example, it has not lost any affordable housing in the process of building million-dollar, single-family homes. But the fact is, if we had used the land to build only affordable housing units, we could have significantly increased the number of low- and middle-income housing units in places like Old Town. 

While efforts to make Alexandria more affordable to low- and middle-income wage earners is a laudable goal, I’m skeptical that more up-zoning will prevent the city from becoming less affordable, more crowded, more congested, less historic and more devoid of nature. 

The city has failed to examine the potential adverse impacts of up-zoning on its residential neighborhoods, just as it failed to anticipate and prevent some of the environmental and quality of life impacts associated with smart growth. All the while saying that it was planning for the future. 

-Andrew Macdonald, former vice mayor; chair, Environmental Council of Alexandria