What to watch at Saturday’s Council public hearing

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What to watch at Saturday’s Council public hearing
The proposed development site on East Alexandria Avenue. (Photo/City of Alexandria)
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By Caitlyn Meisner | cmeisner@alextimes.com

City Council is holding a public hearing Saturday and is planning to discuss and vote on several issues of importance, including the controversial 301 N. Fairfax St. redevelopment proposal, Confederate street renaming and a special use permit on a lot in Del Ray.

The proposed new residential development at 301 N. Fairfax St., which is currently an office building from the 1970s, has been hotly opposed by nearby residents.

The redevelopment plan was scheduled to go before Council in mid-December 2023, shortly after the Planning Commission’s 4-3 vote to approve on Dec. 5, 2023, but the docket item was pulled and deferred by the applicant’s lawyer, land use attorney M. Catharine Puskar, because of Councilor John Taylor Chapman’s expressed disapproval, a resident protest petition and one Councilor’s absence.

The protest petition, with nearly 900 signatures, required by zoning ordinance Section 11-808 that Council cannot approve a proposed amendment “except by an affirmative vote of three-fourths of its members.” With Chapman’s vote against, the supermajority requirement would not have been met, and the application would have been denied.

The applicant proposed a multi-family development on the lot with 48 for-sale units, two of which are set aside as affordable. The building would include an underground parking garage with 67 spaces, 10,000 square feet of private open space and have a main garage entrance on Queen Street.

The main requests for the project are: A master plan amendment to allow for multi-family development, 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 and an increase in the floor area ratio to 2.5.

“For the property to the north, we have no clue what they’re going to do,” Chapman said in a December 2023 interview with the Times. “I think I want to look at this as if I am planning that entire block and what would I want to see? I would want to see some ground-floor, open-space buildings not built right next to each other.”

Council will now be presented the redevelopment plan, which is docket item 11, on Saturday and hold a vote. With all members present – either via Zoom or in the chambers – the initiative needs six of seven votes to pass.

After several years of meetings, Council is set to vote Saturday on whether to rename or rededicate streets named for Confederate generals and soldiers. Streets currently under consideration were named following passage of an ordinance in 1953 that ruled all new streets running in North-South directions had to be named in honor of Confederates.

During a Nov. 30, 2023, Council Naming subcommittee meeting, Councilors Sarah Bagley, Chapman and Alyia Gaskins put forth multiple recommendations to the full Council, some for renaming and some for rededicating existing streets.

The entire Council discussed these recommendations at the January 9 legislative meeting, where subcommittee members explained their rationale for changing course to recommend rededicating some streets.

Mayor Justin Wilson expressed mixed feelings about rededicating.

“If we, especially in the first round, entertain a rededication approach, then I think we very much are setting a precedent and expectation for the future rounds,” Wilson said. “Obviously, the majority is the majority, but my initial reaction is that rededication seems like a kind of plundering of some of the effort here.”

These are to be voted on Saturday:

  • Rename North Breckinridge Place in honor of Harriet Jacobs, an abolitionist who established the first free school for African American children in the city;
  • Rename Forrest Street to Forest Street;
  • Rededicate North and South Jordan Streets and Jordan Court in honor of Thomasina Jordan, an Indigenous activist who served in the Electoral College in 1988, among other political accomplishments and;
  • Rename North and South Early Streets in honor of Charity Earley, the highest-ranking Black woman officer during World War II.

A third contentious issue before Council is whether to allow a special use permit at 404A East Alexandria Ave., which is docket item 10. The item involves a request for a special use permit to construct a single-unit dwelling on a vacant substandard lot. The Planning Commission approved this on January 4 in another 4-3 vote.

There was a staff presentation at the meeting and several speakers were present during the public hearing period for this docket item. In a question raised about parking from Commissioner Melinda Lyles, a city staffer said while parking has not been discussed with the applicant, it is a creative solution to providing housing. This statement had many speakers in the chamber their hands in frustration and audibly boo the speaker, which Commission Chair Nathan Macek quieted.

“This is not the poster child of ‘Housing for All,’” Brett Rice, a resident who lives adjacent to the property, said. “This is the poster child for doing the wrong thing. I’m generally supportive of Zoning for Housing … but I think we need to do this well.”

Commissioners David Brown and Lyles asked the applicant to have more discussions with neighbors to ensure this project fits “into the fabric of the neighborhood” and defer the project for a few months.

“Right now, what I see is a project that really isn’t compatible with the neighborhood as it stands right now,” Lyles said. “I don’t necessarily believe that the lot is not buildable, but I think that under this scenario, it really doesn’t meet the criteria for a [special use permit] approval.”

“If not for a development proposal like this, what are we going to do here?” Macek said. “We are the Planning Commission for the city of Alexandria with lots along alleyways. We’re not the Planning Commission for Del Ray. We have to look at this on a citywide basis. This is cut and dry.”

Saturday’s public hearing will be streamed live on the city’s website and broadcast on government channel 70. Those interested in speaking can also sign up to do so before the hearing.

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