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Votes

Planning Denies Archstone

Commission Sets The Stage for City Council Showdown

Alexandria's Planning Commission sent a strong and direct message to developers Tuesday night, "We are not irrelevant."

It was delivered in response to the defiant resubmittal by Archstone Communities of their proposal to construct a multi-family residential project and accompanying above ground parking structure at Cameron Station. After receiving a one month deferral to modify their plans and work with staff, the developer came back with no changes.

After venting their displeasure with Archstone, the Commission voted unanimously, 7-0, to deny each of the developers applications before them Tuesday night.

Archstone further exacerbated the confrontation by making no attempt to address the Commission or defend themselves against a detailed memorandum addressed to the Commission by Director of Planning and Zoning, Eileen Fogarty, dated April 26. In that six page document, Fogarty dismantled each of Archstone's arguments as to why they should not comply with staff and Commission recommendations to modify their plans.

Prior to calling for the vote to approve or deny, Commission Chairman Eric R. Wagner said, "The applicant (Archstone) did not work with the community, the Commission, or the staff. By denying this tonight we are sending a strong message to the development community. We will not approve this type of parking structure in the future."

At issue was, and has been, Archstone's plan to build a 309 unit apartment complex in Phase IV of Cameron Station and whether they are willing to place all parking for residents of those units underground. The developer has steadfastly pushed for approval of an above ground, multi-level, parking structure.

The Commission 7-0 to deny development.

DURING THEIR presentation at the April Planning Commission meeting, Archstone spokespersons, attorneys M. Catherine Puskar and Nan Turpak, were asked by Commission Vice Chairman Richard Liebach, if their client's refusal to place the parking underground was based on economics, profit, or other considerations. They avoided giving a direct answer.

At Tuesday's meeting, Liebach made the comment, "We have been abundantly clear what we want."

Commissioner Donna Fossum also noted, "We have been extraordinarily patient."

The parking matter first came before the Commission in May 2001. At that time it was deferred with specific instruction to Archstone to "place all parking underground" for the apartment complex and become a full participant "in the Cameron Station transportation management plan."

At the April ,2002, standoff, prior to the vote to defer one more time, Liebach had asked Turpak specifically if Archstone would consider underground parking. She answered 'no.'

THIS SENT A clear signal to the commissioners that Archstone preferred to get a denial on their application in order to get the matter before City Council. In the past year, Council has overridden Commission denials in several instances.

Although none of the Cameron Station residents present Tuesday night spoke, Roman Gonzales, President, Cameron Station Civic Association, told the Commission at the April meeting that Archstone has "spent their money on lobbying instead of studying how to meet your requests."

The vote to defer at the April meeting was an effort by the Commission "to keep control of the process and not let it go to Council" at that time. But Wagner warned then that if Archstone came back again with no changes to their above ground parking plan the Commission would vote to deny the Special Use Permit (SUP) "without a public hearing."

That is exactly what happened Tuesday night. But not without sharp comments by the Commissioners to the developers and their representatives seated before them.

IN LEADING OFF those comments, Commissioner L. Lawrence Robinson, stated, "I was not one who believed we absolutely needed underground parking. But we needed something better than what the applicant has submitted. This is just not acceptable. I still believe it can be done better to satisfy both parties."

Fossum was more blunt. "I can't recall a case where the applicant considered us irrelevant and sent that message. Well, we are sending a strong message too. We are not irrelevant," she insisted.

Commissioner Ludwig Gaines accused Archstone of giving the Commission a slap in the face. "We have been given the back of the hand on this. It's obvious they prefer to take their chances with Council," he stated.

When it came to Commissioner John Komoroske, he lead off by telling his fellow commissioners, "I told you so. They do underground parking elsewhere. They just don't do it in Alexandria. This is another example of what we do not what to have."

Komoroske was the only commissioner who had voted against deferral in April, preferring denial at that time. He defended his vote by explaining that Archstone was not going to change its position and he just wanted to be done with it.

Commissioner H. Stewart Dunn, who had persuaded the Commission to vote for deferral in April as a means of keeping control of the process, noted Tuesday night, "We usually get better agreement from developers. Not this time."

DURING THE chastisement of Archstone by the Commissioners, Liebach expressed some concern that staff continues to recommend approval. It was in response to the such recommendations in the working documents submitted by staff to the Commission.

However, in Fogarty's memorandum she was clear that staff's recommendation of approval was based on Archstone complying with all staff conditions. In her main opening paragraph entitled "Revised Staff Conditions" she states:

"The applicant is proposing to change numerous staff conditions. All of the revisions or deletions proposed by the applicant have significant implications for the site plan or building elevations. The general effect of these proposed changes is to eliminate all the staff recommended changes to the plan. Staff cannot support approval of the application without all of the recommendations proposed by staff..."

She then takes each of Archstone's comments, as to why their position is sound, and dismantles them. Probably the most damaging to Archstone and to set the stage for her other points, Fogarty chose to lead off her analysis with their argument that underground parking was prohibited under a restrictive covenant imposed by the Federal Government when it sold the Cameron Station property.

Archstone made the point that, the restrictive covenant "prohibits access to or use of groundwater, unless written permission for such access is first obtained from the (government), and, to the extent necessary, from applicable regulatory authorities." Their point being that an underground parking structure would violate that covenant because it might penetrate the water table.

FOGARTY DESTROYS that argument by noting that, "as discussed in the staff report, the restrictive covenant does not prevent penetration of the groundwater for the purposes of a parking garage because the government has already given its permission to access the groundwater. At the time of conveyance of the Cameron Station property the government gave Cameron Station Associates permission to access the groundwater during the course of development for the site."

In addition to the above ground parking structure they were also requesting a revision to the boundaries of Phase V and VI, and to amend the Traffic Management Plan.

The matter now goes to City Council to either support the Planning Commission or the developer. Wagner requested that Dunn represent the Commission before Council but Dunn noted that, due to the severity of the subject matter, Wagner, as Chairman, should make the presentation and he will support him.