City Council to consider North Fairfax Street multi-family building

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City Council to consider North Fairfax Street multi-family building
The proposed development site on Fairfax Street and surrounding buildings. (Map/City of Alexandria)
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By Caitlyn Meisner | cmeisner@alextimes.com

After a December 5 Planning Commission 4-3 vote in favor of a new multi-family development, the fate of 301 N. Fairfax St. is now in City Council’s hands at the Saturday public hearing.

The Planning Commission listened to a staff presentation, held more than an hour of public testimony, asked questions of staff and heard from the developer’s attorney, Catherine Puskar, at the meeting. There was also considerable resident pushback about the size of the proposed project, while several planning commissioners themselves expressed reservations about the plan.

Daniel Welles, an urban planner for the city, presented the recommendations by staff and an overview of the project. The planned project at 301 N. Fairfax St. is a multi-family building with 48 for-sale units, two of which are set aside as affordable. There would be an underground parking garage with 67 spaces and more than 10,000 square feet of private open space. The building would be four stories tall with a main and garage entrance on Queen Street.

There are three requests for this project:

  • A master plan amendment to allow for multi-family development on the site.
  • Rezoning from a commercial downtown zone to a commercial residential mixed use high zone.
  • A development special use permit to allow for the multi-family building, an increase in the floor area ratio to 2.5 and a crown coverage modification.

Welles said this development would significantly improve water quality treatment, replace an obsolete office building from the 1970s and enhance both the streetscape and connectivity to the Waterfront.

Current tenants at the site include physical therapists, a real estate agency, a fitness center, an engineering consultant and a divorce lawyer.

Residents speak out

An almost hour and a half-long public hearing section ensued with more than 25 speakers expressing their concerns about and dislike for this project.

Many said the building as proposed would contribute to an already overflowing traffic pattern, overwhelm the neighborhood with new residents and not comply with the character of the Old Town neighborhood.

“The current building may not be architecturally important or commercially viable, but it has been a good background building for decades,” Allan Krinsman, a resident of North Fairfax Street, said. “Urban growth is vital, but I also believe that, from time-to-time, when appropriate, it’s up to the Planning Commission to tap on the brakes to consider both the benefits and harm of upzoning sites.”

Steve Davidson said he’s noticed the “supersizing” of construction projects since moving here.

“One of the reasons why my wife and I moved to Alexandria and not Arlington is we didn’t want to live in an area where there were urban canyons,” Davidson said. “This is a gigantic building. It doesn’t fit with the neighborhood. … Allowing this building is kind of like introducing a gorilla to a giraffe park.”

Will Nance, another resident of North Fairfax Street, said he was excited about the development at first because the current building is an eyesore.

“The city made a big mistake by approving this building some 40 years ago,” Nance said. “Instead of building a building that deserved protection, the city approved something that may have looked trendy at the time … but clearly was a disposable building.”

Nance drew parallels between this decision in the 1970s to now, stating this same situation may happen in the future. He also said if the city were to approve this development, resident trust would dwindle in light of the fears many expressed about the “Zoning for Housing/Housing for All” initiative passed last month.

Many residents also spoke in opposition stating they believe this project would violate the 2012 WaterFront Plan, a blueprint to revitalize the area. Staff stated during the meeting that 301 N. Fairfax St. was determined to not be a redevelopment site that falls under the Waterfront Plan, a perspective also noted in the 171-page full project report.

“The general objective of the Waterfront Plan is to promote public access and improve connectivity to the waterfront and its parks. A focus of the plan was the ability of the east-west streets to draw people to the waterfront,” page 11 of the report reads. “The proposed project includes elements to enhance the streetscape through the removal of a curb cut to provide the primary entrance on Queen Street, will enhance the public’s path to Founders Park and the City Marina directly to the east.”

Much of the opposition coming from members of the Commission had to do with a solid brick wall along one of the sides of the building. Commissioner David Brown brought this up and many Commissioners echoed his hesitance to approve the construction.

The supporters

Several letters in support of the development were submitted to the public record.

Alex Goyette, the Alexandria lead of the YIMBYs of NoVA, wrote to the Planning Commission urging passage of the project.

“The lengthy process this project has already gone through to pursue approval is also a perfect example of how housing gets to be so expensive in Alexandria, and particularly in Old Town,” Goyette wrote. “The site itself is highly desirable so a significant cost is built in by that high land value, but when home builders have to hire expensive land use attorneys for a year of reviews just to build a handful of condos in our most urban neighborhood, that cost adds up!”

Danielle Romanetti, an Alexandria business owner, wrote that the current office building does not contribute to the business-centric community.

“This is an opportunity for a developer to add modern housing in our historic district with zero impact on the historic fabric of the community,” Romanetti wrote. “Given office vacancy rates and the changing work environment post[-COVID], it is becoming increasingly important and logical for our outdated office buildings to be replaced by much needed housing.”

Jesse O’Connell echoed Romanetti and Goyette, stating this change is an example of what should be embraced in the city.

“Adapting the current built environment to be both nicer looking and more effective and efficient at meeting the needs of the city and its residents,” O’Connell said. “Cities change and evolve, neighborhoods grow and adapt and we should embrace opportunities and projects – like this one – that come along where there is a willingness to merge past and present in a respectful, appropriate and forward-looking way.”

The Planning Commission was divided on whether to approve the project as currently configured, but the narrow 4-3 endorsement means the project now rests in City Council’s hands.

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