Zoning for Housing, explained: What to know ahead of the November 28 vote

Zoning for Housing, explained: What to know ahead of the November 28 vote
Multiple places in the city are zoned specifically for single-family homes, but that may change if the initiative passes. (Photo/ city of Alexandria)

By Mark Eaton and Caitlyn Meisner | cmeisner@alextimes.com

The city’s “Zoning for Housing/Housing for All” proposal is approaching a planned vote from City Council on November 28. In light of the incoming vote, the Times has put together information from city documents and an interview with Karl Moritz, Alexandria’s current planning director, that explains the initiative with commentary from former Planning Commission Chair Eric Wagner. 

Components of Zoning for Housing/Housing for All 

What follows is a summary of the initiative’s components from Planning & Zoning. Information from this section is quoted from alexandriava. gov/planning-and-zoning/ zoning-for-housinghousing-for-all and by Planning Director Karl Moritz. 

Additional quotes and commentary are from Eric Wagner, who served on the Planning Commission for 22 years, including as its chair. Wagner, who has lived in Alexandria since 1987, was on the Commission during the 1992 vote on the master plan. 

Historic development patterns: P&Z recommends a change to the current ordinance via text amendments to the zoning ordinance. The recommendations are to allow smaller lot sizes, a mix of uses, a mix of residential types in all zones and to simplify the number of zones. The text amendments would allow the removal of “dwelling-units-per-acre limitations in multifamily zones to allow smaller unit sizes within the same development envelope [which] could increase unit production by an estimated 1.5 to 2.5 units in some projects.” 

A text amendment would also “remove zone transition setback requirements, which require additional setbacks when adjacent to residential zones regardless of the actual use of the properties and the proposed new construction” and implement townhouse zoning recommendations in ZFH. 

There is a phase two recommendation, but further study is needed. Council will not be voting on the second phase of the ZFH plan on November 28. 

Residential multi-family zones: The recommendation is to amend the Housing Master Plan to allow RMF zones in areas already planned for medium to high-density development and locations consistent with city policies. The text amendments include to amend the RMF zone in the zoning ordinance to allow for expansion of the “number of uses allowed on the ground floor of RMF buildings and establish general intent for RMF rezonings.” 

Wagner said he does not have a particular issue with this change, but there are many areas already zoned for this purpose. He said during the master plan discussions in 1992 – when he was on the commission – there were important facets that need not be changed now. 

“Areas in Alexandria that are zoned for residential should be preserved as residential and at the same densities that are permitted today,” Wagner said. “It was something the community pushed very strongly to be included because Alexandria … has a somewhat unique look and feel.” 

Industrial zones: P&Z recommends providing criteria for new non-residential construction in the industrial zone to promote compatibility with future redevelopment. This is because the majority of industrial-zoned land is already planned for mixed-use redevelopment. Adding residential uses or other potential changes for industrially-zoned land south of Duke Street will be considered at a later date. 

The text amendment changes would include adding site and “building criteria to the industrial zone to require new buildings to be compatible with any potential future residential/pedestrian-scale development.” 

In short, zoning codes for industrial zones and buildings will be updated to reflect the modernity of Alexandria and make these zones more compatible with future zoning changes to accommodate a growing city. 

Wagner added he did not necessarily oppose this change, but he found it an ironic shift from his time on the Commission. 

“Back in 1992, the city wanted to make sure it preserved some industrially zoned parts of the city,” Wagner said. “I get that we’ve moved beyond that – and maybe that’s OK. … Eventually I think we’re going to get to a place where it all becomes residential, and in a way that’s a shame.” 

Coordinated development districts: The recommendation from P&Z would be to affirm the city shall continue to “require one-third of bonus density to be committed affordable” – or income-restricted – units. These unit types are typically restricted for a period of time and available for households earning at or below 60% of the area median income, according to the Alliance for Housing Solutions, an Arlington-based nonprofit working to provide more affordable housing. 

There are no text amendment changes proposed. The equity impact published by the city states this would improve housing inequality and locate more affordable units in these CDDs close to transit and jobs. 

Expansion of transit-oriented development: P&Z believes “the planned priority transit corridors in Alexandria West and the Duke Street corridor present an opportunity to add more market rate and affordable housing.” 

Recommendations for this aspect of the ZFH initiative go hand-in-hand with other plans, including the Duke Street corridor plan, the Braddock Metro Neighborhood plan and the Alexandria West Small Area Plan: evaluate current un- or underdeveloped land to make way for transit-oriented development. Staff also recommends conducting a future study on removing parking requirements for affordable housing within a half mile of a Metro station. 

Text amendments are not applicable in this case. 

Wagner believes this aspect of ZFH needs more clarification from city staff. He said staff has “muddied the waters” and essentially declared large swaths of the city as priority transit corridors. 

“If things are close to the Metro stations that should support higher density of development, that’s what we’d like to see,” Wagner said. “What [city staff has] done in the process is basically included almost all of the city [within enhanced transit areas]. The bus runs maybe every 30 minutes. People don’t think of that as, ‘OK, I can just give up the car.’” 

Office-to-residential conversions: P&Z recommends office-to-residential conversions for class B or C – mainly older – buildings that are deemed non-competitive or obsolete for new commercial tenants. Staff also recommends establishing a Council policy that conversions should use Section 7-700 – which allows for increases in floor area ratio, density and height with reductions in required off-street parking – to “increase residential density in exchange for affordable housing.” 

Wagner believes this is a “smart way to go” in utilizing space that exists in the city. 

“Given that there’s office vacancies and office rents have come down, the priority ought to be, as businesses come back, as office space gets leased, it ought to be leased in the best commercial buildings first,” Wagner said. “We shouldn’t let those convert to residential because if and when the office market comes back, that’s going to be where the demand is.” 

Townhouse zoning: Increased townhouse development would be permitted by “[eliminating] side yard setback requirements for lots 25 feet in width or less and “establish[ing a] 35% open space requirement across all townhouse zones and for residential uses in commercial zones.” 

Staff recommends an elimination of off-street parking requirements for single-unit, two-unit or townhouse dwellings within the enhanced transit districts and require one half space per dwelling unit outside of the enhanced transit districts. 

The guiding principles for these recommendations is to “establish lot requirements based on location and similarity of lot size/pattern/configuration instead of housing type, eliminate bulk and open space inconsistencies across townhouse zones and revise requirements to more closely align with existing lot size/pattern/configuration.” 

Wagner said this amendment would not be a significant change, but wants to ensure open space is not sacrificed for more units. 

“Anything that we’re doing that takes away open space, I think, is problematic,” he said. “It’s probably not unreasonable that if you have a lot that is only 25 feet wide – that’s not atypical in a townhouse zone – and if you have to give up seven or eight feet of it for a side yard, then you’ve really got an impractical lot to build on.” 

Single-family zones: Housing options would be increased in single-family zones by permitting multi-unit dwellings and revising parking requirements. Staff has recommended a number of changes to the current zoning ordinance. 

The essential policy decision for the single-family zones is framed in this P&Z recommendation: 

“Staff recommends an amendment to a policy statement contained in some 1992 chapters of the Master Plan. That policy statement states that densities in single family residential neighborhoods should not be increased. Staff believes that our housing and planning policies have evolved since 1992 such that the overall goal of supporting and protecting residential neighborhoods is no longer dependent on strict adherence to one dwelling unit per lot.” 

In terms of increasing the number of dwelling units, staff recommends Council adopt one of two options. Option one is to construct two-unit dwellings in the R20, R12, R8 and R5 zones and three to four multi-unit dwellings in the R2-5 zone. 66 estimated buildings are to be constructed over a 10-year period with 150 units. 

Option two is to construct two, three and four-unit dwellings in all zones mentioned above. This would create an estimated 66 new buildings over 10 years with an estimated 178 units. 

Taking the word “family” out of the zoning ordinance and replacing it with “dwellings” in order to recognize the changing definition of family is another recommendation. 

Staff has also recommended to Council to revise parking requirements for residential dwellings throughout the city based on location within or outside the enhanced transit areas. Option three of four is preferred by staff, which is to allow for no minimum parking requirement for dwellings up to four units within an enhanced transit area and a minimum of a half a parking space per unit for dwellings up to four units outside the enhanced transit area. Another recommendation is to allow for a minimum of half a space inside enhanced transit areas and a minimum of one space per dwelling outside these areas. 

Wagner takes issue with these single-family zoning changes, for several reasons. 

“I think it changes the fundamental character of the single-family neighborhoods, and it’s just not necessary,” Wagner said. “You’re changing a neighborhood that people bought into in good faith based on what the zoning was and what was permitted to be built next to them.” 

Wagner said elimination of single family neighborhoods would be a significant erosion in the compact between the city and residents. 

“This is the kind of thing that creates mistrust,” Wagner said. “This is my third house [in the city] and every time I understood what the neighborhood looked like and I think that’s what most people who buy a single-family home … do. To now just turn around and fundamentally change that? It violates that bond between myself and the government.” 

Wagner also said building more units on a single lot – or more units in general – will not allow for more affordable housing to be available. 

“If you take a piece of property today that only allows a single-family house, and let’s say that house would sell for $1.2 million – which, OK, that’s not affordable to somebody with median family income,” Wagner said. “But if you then put up three units on [that lot] and each of those units is going to sell for $900,000 to $1 million, you’ve created more units, but none of them are affordable to somebody who earns median income.” 

All for one, one for all? 

A major criticism of ZFH is it’s all encompassing, which is overwhelming for the city and its residents. Many residents also said the initiative was just introduced, leaving them no time to properly review the documents and proposed changes. 

At the September 5 joint meeting, Mayor Justin Wilson said making changes to the zoning ordinance in full was in response to what the community wanted when the reform process began. Moritz and others believe that a one-proposal-at-a-time approach would require an inordinate expenditure of time by the public and city staff and policy makers. 

Staff says the initiative began in 2019 with the Regional Housing Initiative and continued through 2021 and 2022. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Moritz said the initiatives left over from RHI were delayed. 

The city has held a total of 20 meetings and events – in hybrid formats with translation available – since the spring, in addition to the community questionnaire, comment board and summer community cook-outs. 

Wagner agrees with critics, believing the initiative is moving too fast. He recommended removing the single-family issue out of the November 28 vote and dealing with those in 2024. Wagner said this will not just impact those in single-family neighborhoods, but the entire community. 

City Council is scheduled to vote on Zoning for Housing/Housing for All at the November 28 legislative meeting.