Once again, Alexandria's Planning Commission has presented a challenge to City Council. It is whether to uphold the Master Plan or to operate on a case-by-case basis when it comes to the long-range vision for development in the Eisenhower Valley.
Last Thursday the Commission heard the pros and cons for a mixed-use development by KSI/Van Dorn Metro II, LLC, of the 5.46-acre plot now serving as the parking site for the Van Dorn Metro station. They voted unanimously to recommend denial.
Although they voiced the highest praise not only for the developer, KSI Services Inc., but also for their attorney, M. Catherine Puskar, who represented them before the Commission, each member noted that the proposed mixed use was not in keeping with the Master Plan.
Eileen Fogarty, director of Planning and Zoning, said, "This has been a very unusual case. The applicant has addressed many of the issues that were originally raised. But the issues we have are policy issues dealing with zoning and the type of use."
The bottom line for the department and for the Commission is that KSI's proposal calls for a mixed use that includes residential as well as commercial. The Master Plan puts its emphasis on commercial use due to the proximity to the Metro station. It is seen as a way to reduce dependence on vehicles.
Puskar emphasized that her clients had been working with the City Planning Department for the past year and a half to satisfy their concerns. "There are only three of the 96 conditions originally imposed that we can't agree to," she said.
"Residential use has not been outlawed in Eisenhower Valley. It only requires a Special Use Permit (SUP) approval. We have a unique site and design," she insisted. The property is owned by WAMTA (Washington Area Mass Transit Authority), which has entered into a 99-year lease with KSI, according to Puskar's testimony.
"It (the site and proposed development) is transit-oriented and a good example of smart growth. There is great variety to this site. We feel that taking a flat parking lot and transforming it into residential/commercial use is very smart growth," Issac Walter, KSI, emphasized.
IN PRESENTING its position to the Commission, staff made three primary objections to the KSI proposal:
1. The Master Plan calls for the site to be developed as commercial with no residential use.
2. Residential use is not compatible with surrounding land uses.
3. It is not smart growth for the city.
Those arguing for approval pointed out that the Summer’s Grove Condominiums are located immediately across Metro Road from the proposed site. Therefore, there is established residential development in the area.
Representatives of the Summer’s Grove Homeowners Association and the Eisenhower Public/Private Partnership, as well as individual homeowners, all spoke out in favor of KSI's plan. Mark Fields, a member of the Partnership Board, said, "We support this project. KSI is a very popular designer throughout the nation."
The Homeowners Association gave its "strong approval. At first we were against the project. But at our Nov. 4, board meeting, we voted unanimously to support it. We see many benefits, and we are the only residents directly affected by it," their spokesperson said.
On the opposing side, lining up in favor of maintaining the purity of the Master Plan, were representatives of various civic groups. Capsulizing the opposition, Katy Cannady stated, "We have never had any consistent planning on Eisenhower Avenue. It should be planned for good land use and not the vagaries of the real estate market."
ACCORDING TO staff documentation, the applicant is proposing to develop the site "into a 250-unit apartment complex with 17,570 square feet of retail space and 939 parking spaces, including a 436-space Metro parking garage to replace the 429 existing Metro surface parking spaces.
"The parking is to be located in two above-grade, six- or seven-story parking structures, wrapped by midrise apartment buildings connected to the garages and each other by above-grade walkways." The plan to establish a mixed-use, commercial and residential, and permit a universal parking space size rather than a mix of compact and standard parking spaces, is the reason for seeking the SUP.
Staff has opposed the proposed mixed use from the filing of the original application in the summer of 2001.
"From the onset of discussions and through the pre-application process, the city has informed the applicant that it cannot support the project," according to the staff document. It cites the following primary reasons for its opposition to the KSI proposal:
. Residential land use is not compatible with the Master Plan that calls for the development of the Eisenhower Corridor with jobs producing commercial uses concentrated at the Van Dorn Metro Station and the Eisenhower Interchange.
. Offers little public benefit and is inconsistent with expressed community values that seek the creation of neighborhoods around Metro stations.
. Establishes a harmful precedent for land-use policy in the city and, in particular, for development in this corridor.
. Permitting additional rental residential uses on Eisenhower west of Clermont will drive the many existing small commercial and industrial businesses from this part of Eisenhower Valley.
. It places a major residential development within 500 feet of the Waste-to-Energy plant.
WHEN IT CAME to a vote, each of the commissioners expressed his rationale for denial, but the primary factor was that the plan was inconsistent with the Master Plan vision for the Eisenhower Corridor.
In answer to the request from Summer's Grove residents for support of the project, Commissioner H. Stewart Dunn Jr. stated, "I voted for Summer's Grove, but I regret that."
Commissioner Ludwig P. Gaines urged the residents "to be patient." He also noted, "The cooperation between the applicant and community has been an absolute model."
Commissioner Donna Fossum admitted, "It was a surprise to us that Summer's Grove has succeeded. But that was a different world when it was approved. This development is not going to get us where we need to go."
Fossum's assessment was buttressed by both Commissioners J. Lawrence Robinson and John Komoroske. "We never should have approved Summer's Grove," Komoroske insisted. "If we were to recommend approval, it would set a precedent for the entire valley," Robinson warned.
Commission vice chairman Richard Leibach, pointed out, "We do not have to develop every inch of land in the city now. The valley is the jewel, and we need to treat it that way."
Dunn added, "If we cannot do something different than garden-type apartment development, there is no hope for West Eisenhower."
In casting the final vote for unanimous denial, Commission chairman Eric R. Wagner congratulated Puskar "for her efforts with staff" but noted, "There is a plan for the valley, and we need to stick to it. When we deviate, we confuse both the business community and the residents.
"For us or the Council to approve this plan would squander a valuable opportunity. This is an ideal location" for carrying out the essence of the Master Plan for the valley.
Proponents of the plan can now take their case to City Council to either uphold the Planning Commission decision or override it. Based on the Planning and Zoning Department staff report, opinions expressed by the commissioners and civic activists, Council's action will be a referendum not only on this proposal but the Master Plan as well.
IN OTHER ACTION:
. The Commission met with representatives of the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority prior to the regular meeting. The purpose was to be brought up to speed on plans and action pertaining to the redevelopment of Samuel Madden Homes, "The Berg" and the three scattered sites being developed for displaced Berg residents. A primary concern of the Planning Commissioners was how to create more open space at the South Whiting Street site. No solution was offered.
. Approved an SUP to install a temporary construction parking lot on a 4-acre site to serve Turner Construction Co., contractors for the Patent and Trademark Office project. The rationale is to keep construction employee vehicles off neighboring streets while work is under way.
. Approved an SUP to establish a child-care home at 210 Wesmond Drive. Staff noted that the use is "consistent with the requirements for child-care homes set forth in the zoning ordinance."