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Planning Commission Thwarts Developer's Noncompliance

Planning Commissioners express anger at Archstone's defiance

A frustrated and angry Alexandria Planning Commission accused the developers of Archstone Communities at Cameron Station of ignoring the desires of the residents and Commission by basing its plans "on the economic theory they are entitled to a predetermined profit."

Facing a packed Council Chamber Tuesday night of irate Cameron Station residents, attorney Nan Terpak, speaking for the developers admitted, under persistent questioning, that Archstone had no intention of providing the underground parking demanded by the Commission in a similar public hearing 11 months ago.

"Underground parking is up to 50 percent more costly than an above ground parking structure," Terpak insisted. This brought forth Commissioner H. Stewart Dunn, Jr.'s comment that Archstone "was basing its argument on economic theory" rather than attempting to meet the Commission's prior request.

Commission Vice Chairman Richard Leibach, questioned attorney M. Catherine Puskar, also representing the developers, as to whether their refusal to construct underground parking "was based on economics, profit, or other considerations." Both she and Terpak avoided giving a direct answer.

The entire three hour face off centered around the 309 unit apartment complex on Phase IV of Cameron Station and whether Archstone was willing to place all parking for it underground. The developers continued to push for approval of an above ground parking structure.

LAST MAY THE SAME PROPOSAL was deferred by the Commission with specific instructions to redo the plans to put all parking for the apartments underground. Tuesday night, Planning and Zoning Department staff testified, "All parking can be one level down without hitting the water table."

Staff also stated, "The applicant has not addressed the issues raised and has raised new issues." In their report, staff identified the original concerns as:

* Overall mass and scale of the apartment complex,

* The above ground parking structure,

* The apartment complex's lack of compatibility with the remainder of Cameron Station,

* A transportation management plan, including parking, and

* General livability concerns.

As a precondition to the May 2001, deferral, the Commission specifically instructed Archstone to "place all parking underground" and to become a full participant "in the Cameron Station transportation management plan."

Leading off the resident opposition speakers was Roland Gonzales, president, Cameron Station Civic Association, who emphasized, "We are not here to oppose apartments. But when people buy their homes they take into consideration what's around them. Staff made recommendations last year and the applicant has ignored them."

One Cameron Station resident noted that Archstone is a billion dollar-plus corporation that can afford to spend the money to put in the desired underground parking. "This is not a mom and pop development company," he said.

Another speaker expressed the opinion the developer had overpaid for the property by approximately $7 million. "They are now trying to recoup that loss," she said.

SEVERAL SPEAKERS ACCUSED ARCHSTONE of "showing a level of arrogance" toward the city and the Commission. Others accused them of being "the kings of developing cheesey apartments nationwide" and described their plan as "a dog's breakfast trying to be made into a souffle."

Commissioner John Komoroske asked if Archstone had built underground parking at any of its other projects nationwide. They admitted they had in Denver and Los Angeles.

Terpak defiantly insisted that building underground parking would change the mass and density of the apartment complex. Commissioner Donna Fossum asked her, "What would you have to build if you went underground?"

Terpak evaded the question and returned to her statement pertaining to the overall mass, scale and density. Fossum then, sarcastically, thank Terpak for her "non answer."

Dunn made a motion to defer based on all the new material Archstone had submitted and the fact that the Commission had not had an opportunity to fully evaluate it. "I would ask Archstone to return and take our requests (for underground parking) seriously. It should be a serious deferral not just 30 days," Dunn noted.

His motion died for a lack of a second because most of the other Commissioners were so frustrated with Archstone's stonewalling that they wanted to vote for denial. Fossum made the motion to deny. It was seconded.

In the ensuing discussion, Dunn pointed out that if they voted to deny the Special Use Permit, Archstone's plan for above ground parking would go to City Council under a vary confused scenario and with conflicting information. "The action of Council may produce an unwanted result," Dunn warned.

Leibach asked Terpak point blank if Archstone would consider underground parking. She curtly answered "no." This seemed to send a signal to the Commission that Archstone would prefer a denial to a deferral in order to get the case before City Council.

In the past year, City Council has overridden Commission denials in several instances. Council's vote is final barring legal action and a court decision.

DUNN'S ARGUMENTS and Terpak's uncompromising stance, in behalf of Archstone, seemed to sway the assembled residents. They became more in favor of a motion to defer, even though speaker after speaker had implored the Commission to deny the SUP request. No public speaker had supported Archstone other than the two attorneys.

One resident questioned why Archstone had made political contributions to Alexandria politicians. Gonzales, in his testimony told the Commission, "They have spent their money on lobbying instead of studying how to meet your requests."

After additional questioning of Terpak and Puskar, coupled with Terpak's statement that Archstone's plan was what they had before them, the Commission expressed the desire "to keep control of the process" and not let it go to Council at this time.

Dunn made a new motion to defer based on the rationale that the Commission and staff needed more time to analyze the new materials submitted by Archstone. Commission Chairman, Eric R. Wagner, stated that if Archstone came back again with no change to their above ground parking plan the Commission would vote to deny the SUP "without any public hearing."

Dunn's motion passed on a vote of six to one. Komoroske voted against deferral, expressing the feeling he just wanted to be done with it.