City Council approved funds for an affordable housing project in Lynn Haven, decided to move forward with planning a permanent off-leash dog park at Potomac Yard and heard reports on items that have been a regular part of the docket for months.
The most controversial item on the May 14, docket was a request to spend $300,000 in Housing Trust Fund money to support Wesley Housing Development Corporation’s purchase of the Lynn Haven Garden apartments. Despite neighborhood opposition, Council approved the expenditure unanimously. Vice Mayor Bill Cleveland was not present at the meeting because his wife was graduating from Northern Virginia Community College.
The building is located at the corner of E. Reed and Commonwealth Avenues and contains 28 units that are currently termed “affordable.” WHDC, a nonprofit corporation that has been in the business of managing affordable housing projects for the past 25 years, proposes to retain 16 of those units as affordable, convert four units into transitional housing units for people leaving Carpenter’s Shelter and rent the remaining eight units at market rate. Affordable units would be available for families or individuals who earn 50 percent of the median income in the area. Market rate, according to WHDC, is $725 for a one bedroom apartment and $850 for a two bedroom.
“We believe that these rents for these market rate units will increase as the building is renovated and as the area develops,” said Mildrilyn Davis, the city’s director of housing. “As they do, the affordable units will remain affordable.”
WHDC plans to purchase the building and then spend $210,000 renovating it. This is an average of $7,500 per unit.
“This is exactly the kind of project that we should be supporting,” said Councilwoman Joyce Woodson. “If we allow market forces to go unchecked, this area will become Old Town North and will not have the kind of diversity that the neighborhood values. We have seen homes that sold for $80,000 not too many years ago increases in value to $170,000 today. If we do not do something to retain the affordable housing that we have now, people who live in this neighborhood today will not be able to afford to live there in a few short years.”
Ruby Tucker is the president of the Lynn Haven Civic Association. She expressed her concerns in a letter to the mayor and City Council. One of the association’s objections is that, in a presentation, representatives from WHDC said that the affordable units would be for “new Americans.” “How can we develop housing in Alexandria and designate it for “new Americans” when “old” residents of Alexandria need affordable housing,” Tucker wrote. “How can the Wesley Housing Development Corporation be allowed to discriminate against other residents of Alexandria by designating housing for a special group? Would the policy be a violation of fair housing laws? Some participants of the Lynn Haven Association felt that these statements are an insult to our community, which we proudly note as already very diverse…”
NEIGHBORS OBJECT to the project because, they say, the neighborhood already contains 161 affordable or transitional units. Four different civic associations in the area, including Lynn Haven and Hume Springs have voted to oppose this project.
“Any time we have proposed locating any project that includes “special needs” housing, neighbors have objected,” said Councilman David G. Speck. “They have objected because of security concerns and general fear of the unknown. Any time we have approved such a project over the objections of neighbors, it has worked and the people who live in these projects have become important, contributing members of the neighborhood. I believe that this project will turn out to be the same.”
Councilman William D. Euille agreed. “This is a nonprofit organization coming to us, not the city seeking the participation of a nonprofit organization,” he said. “We are not adding affordable units to this area, we are simply maintaining what is there. We adopted affordable housing principles that state that we will provide funding for just this type of project and I think we need to do that.”
Councilwoman Redella S. “Del” Pepper suggested holding a public hearing on the matter. “I really believe that we should hear from those who want to speak on this matter,” she said. “I will support this project but I really feel that I am caught between a rock and a hard place. I don’t believe that we should approve such projects without giving members of the community an opportunity to express their concerns.”
MAYOR KERRY DONLEY disagreed. “We do not have to hold a public hearing on this matter because it does not require a special use permit. The only reason that it is coming before us now is because Wesley is requesting city funding for a second trust. We can’t hold a public hearing without notice and we are under a time constraint here because Wesley has a settlement conference and must know our decision,” he said.
“We have made a commitment to affordable housing both in the city and the region and this is a good opportunity to live up to that commitment. There will be a resident manager onsite who will attend civic association meetings and stay involved in the community.”
The measure passed unanimously.
COUNCILMAN David Speck gave an update on King Street Gardens. He has been meeting with a working group to determine the future of the park since a public hearing last fall. “The important thing was to, once and for all, have a definitive direction and I think we do,” he said. “The park seems to be protected by the Artists Visual Rights Act and if we do anything to significantly change the nature of the park, we are likely to be in conflict with a federal statute. Some people love the park and some people hate it but we have it and we must move forward to make it as attractive and usable as possible.”
The plants will be cut back so that visitors can see through the green foliage and the staff will explore the possibility of better lighting. Staff will also install an irrigation system that was funded in the FY2003 budget that was just passed last week.
“We are also planning a number of activities for the park this summer,” Speck said. “We will have summer supper under the stars and ACVA will also have some programs there. If people get out and use the park and understand what it represents, we hope that they will enjoy it.”
CITY MANAGER Philip G. Sunderland gave an update on the Datatel building on Mt. Vernon Ave. The building has stood vacant for more than a decade and, most feel, cannot be brought up to code without spending so much money that the economics support tearing it down and starting over.
“We have met with the contract purchaser and are waiting for him to finish due diligence,” Sunderland said. “We do not know what he intends to do with the building but he has indicated that he is considering renovation as opposed to tearing it down. Because we have not seen any plans, we still are not certain that this is economically viable. We have met with the Upper Potomac West working group and they feel that we should maintain the plan for making the lower floor of the building retail, in keeping with the plans that they have developed.”
Both Sunderland and Assistant City Manager for Finance Mark Jinks, said that the contract purchaser has been unwilling to tell them how much he is paying for the building or how much he intends to spend on renovation. “The price could be low enough that he feels this makes this more economically viable,” Donley said.
Sunderland said that the contract purchaser has until July to complete due diligence and then the city must decide whether to pursue purchasing the building and developing it. “We will monitor the situation and get back to you,” Sunderland told Council.
THE KING STREET overpass continues to be a problem. “Until April 30, we believed that CSX was on track to remove the old paint and repaint the structure and to make the other repairs,” said Richard Baier, the director of the department of Transportation and Environmental Services. “Now we are being told that CSX did not follow their own procurement procedures and that they have to start over. Also, apparently, their bridge engineer wants to sandblast the paint off the bridge, which is more than twice as costly as hand pealing. We have assurances that CSX will get this done but it could be as long as two or three months before work begins and I don’t think that meets with Council’s deadlines.”
Speck said that it did not. “I just want to make sure that we aren’t being spun here,” he said. “They own other bridges. They own other steel bridges. Presumably, this has come up before so how can they not know what they are doing? I think we should get a deadline that is reasonable for when this work will begin or we put up the sign again.” The sign gives the CSX telephone number and instructs citizens to telephone the company to express concern about the bridge’s disrepair.
Woodson agreed. “If they can’t make an executive decision, we certainly can,” she said. “One of their concerns was that we not let other jurisdictions in which they have similar issues know that CSX is repairing this bridge. I think we could find a way to let them know. If this has gotten to the CEO level, it can be done if the CEO wants it to be done.”
Baier said that he would convey Council’s sentiments to CSX and report back in June.
CHETWORTH PARK'S off-leash dog exercise area will close at the end of May and there will be no temporary dog park. The staff looked at a site on Slater’s Lane that the city owns and that had been considered as a potential site for a temporary park. For a variety of reasons, including a cost of $60,000, the idea has been discarded. Also, there was some consideration to putting a temporary dog exercise area at Potomac Yard, before the permanent park can be planned and constructed.
“The traffic issues involved in doing this make it impossible,” said Sandra Whitmore, the director of the department of Parks Recreation and Cultural Activities. “It would require us to allow people to drive through Old Town Greens’ private streets and many of those neighbors had concerns. Also, there is no lighting and there are safety concerns.”
Euille said that dogs could still go to Chetworth, just on leash. “They are certainly welcome at Chetworth Park on leash and they can go to Simpson or to Montgomery,” Euille said.
The permanent dog exercise area at Potomac Yard will be planned and constructed in conjunction with the application for Special Use Permit for Potomac Greens, the next stage of the Potomac Yard development. “When do we expect dogs to be able to exercise in this park,” asked Pepper.
Whitmore said that this was contingent on when the SUP application comes forward. “I think the plan is to get something to you by the end of the year,” she said. “It will only take us about three months to get the park ready once that happens.”
Three acres have been set-aside at Rail Park for an off leash dog exercise area at Rail Park. Whitmore said that the park is being planned by the neighborhood.
CITY COUNCIL will hold a public hearing to discuss School Board redistricting on Tuesday, May 28. There are 14 different options to consider. City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa will brief Council on these options at a special Council community meeting at Patrick Henry next Wednesday, May 22.
Council will also consider plans for Windmill Hill Park on May 28. There will not be another public hearing but Council will discuss the plan that was recommended by the steering committee and an alternative that was suggested by Councilwoman Claire Eberwein.
“I don’t think we need to have another public hearing on this matter,” Donley said. “There are no dramatic changes. The only thing that has been suggested is moving the dog exercise area and the water access for dogs. Nothing has been eliminated or added. We have had a great deal of public comment on this matter already. It’s time to make a decision.”