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Affordable Housing Wins; Neighborhood Trucks Lose

The lure of acquiring actual affordable housing as opposed to a contribution to the city's trust fund for that purpose convinced the Alexandria Planning Commission to approve a major redevelopment of one square block of Old Town.

After deferring any decision at its October meeting and a lengthy discussion at its Dec. 2 meeting, the Commission approved a development special-use permit for construction of a multifamily residential/retail structure that will encompass the 800 blocks of South Washington and South Columbus streets and the 700 block of Jefferson Street.

The plan also calls for the vacation of a 20-foot-wide public alley that divides the square block from Green to Jefferson streets. This raised concerns by several commissioners at both the October and December meetings.

The new structure would stretch from Green Street to Jefferson Street with frontage on Columbus Street. The present retail uses facing Washington Street between Green and Jefferson streets would remain. The new building, facing Jefferson Street, would provide retail space on the ground level with residential above.

Concerning the vacation of the alley, Commissioner H. Stewart Dunn Jr. noted, "The city's usual view to vacating property is not favorable." He then asked, "What are we getting in return?"

At the October meeting, the primary concerns were the lack of both parking for the existing retail enterprises and open space on completion of the project. A number of public speakers at that meeting, both business owners and residents, expressed concerns about both parking and open space.

DURING THE PREVIOUS hearing, the owners of the Southside 815 Restaurant were adamant concerning the loss of 87 surface parking spaces now available on the land to be consumed by the new structure. They emphasized then, "We believe that on-site parking is critical to our existence."

At that time, developer Washington Real Estate Investment Trust (WRIT) proposed a plan for valet-type parking at three nearby locations during the construction period. They were 555 S. Washington St., Roberts Memorial Church, and at the former Talbots at the corner of South Washington and Jefferson streets.

However, since October, Dunn pointed out, the Talbots space is no longer available due to a new tenant. This was to account for 16 of the lost 87 ground-level spaces. On completion of the building, there will be underground parking to be shared by residents and commercial patrons, according to the plan.

As for the alley vacation, this was proposed to partially satisfy WRIT's open-space requirements under the Washington Street Guidelines. However, as both Dunn and citizen speakers noted in October, WRIT was counting rooftop areas on the commercial buildings to meet the open-space requirements.

During October's public hearing, Dunn countered Old Town Civic Association's support for the WRIT plan by emphasizing, "More than one-third of the open space [being counted by WRIT] is on rooftops. According to the ordinance, it has to be 40 percent of land space. This is the type of thing that could be very detrimental to us."

At the Dec. 2, meeting, Dunn moved to deny the SUP request. He was backed by Commissioner Donna Fossum, who objected to what she perceived as trading the guidelines for affordable housing. "This [the plan] doesn't work. I'm not going to buy into this just to get affordable housing," she said.

But they were rebuffed by Commissioner John Komoroske and Commission Chairman Eric R. Wagner. "I think this is one of the best proposed developments I have ever seen. I will vote against the motion to deny," he emphasized.

Wagner said, "I disagree with Commissioner Dunn. I think this does comply with the Washington Street Guidelines. I will also vote against the motion."

It fell on a 5-2 tally.

Komoroske then moved to approve both the vacation of the alley and the SUP with the proviso that WRIT will provide actual affordable housing units within the proposed 75 residential units to be constructed. Their price, when established, will remain for 15 years. This will be in lieu of the $1-per-square-foot contribution to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to which WRIT had agreed.

As for the parking loss to the retail establishments along Washington Street during construction, there was no additional discussion or proposals put forth. The staff report had noted, "The applicant has secured off-street parking" of 90 spaces at the three locations. But, as Dunn noted, 16 of those behind the former Talbots are no longer viable.

IN ANOTHER CASE, also deferred from the October meeting, commissioners voted unanimously to deny the request for a development site plan even though Wagner warned, "This will go to Council," the implication being that an override is quite possible.

The request by 1007 L.L.C. was to construct "a 6,463-square-foot mixed-use building consisting of retail, office, and personal service uses" at the corner of South Patrick and Franklin streets.

Known as Gateway Center, it includes 621, 623 and 631 Patrick Street.

As explained in a memorandum from Eileen P. Fogarty, director, Planning and Zoning, "The Commission voted unanimously to defer the applicant's request in order to allow staff to work with the applicant and the residents to provide additional information regarding land use, vehicle and truck access to the site."

She noted that originally staff had recommended denial of the application because the "site plan did not adequately address vehicle and truck access and potentially directed commercial traffic into the adjoining residential neighborhoods."

Residents of those neighborhoods had testified at the October meeting their preference for the site's development was residential. They had submitted a petition at that time objecting to the proposed development.

SINCE OCTOBER, staff has held four meetings with various resident groups, according to Jeffrey Farner, Planning and Zoning staff. But, Fogarty told the Commission, "The community feeling is that their concerns have still not been fully addressed." These concerns also included loitering and littering at the site.

Addressing the latter two concerns, Commissioner Jesse Jennings said, "It is our responsibility to determine what is the best use of the land. Citizens have to increase their vigilance to control the loitering and littering."

The site has been vacant and "in a state of disrepair for over 10 years," according to the staff report. Even though the applicant has worked with staff "to refine the site plan," traffic ingress and egress remain a major concern.

Even though Transportation and Environmental Services Department staff "now support access to the site with improvements to the curb cut on Patrick Street and a condition that prohibits tractor trailer deliveries," according to Fogarty's memorandum, Planning staff concluded they could still not support the application based on access and circulation.

"The proposed access ... from Patrick Street is not sufficient to accommodate the anticipated number of patrons and truck deliveries without significantly impacting the functionality of Patrick Street, one of the most heavily traveled arterial roadways in the city and without redirecting truck and vehicular traffic through the adjacent residential neighborhoods," staff wrote.

They also noted that such traffic in those neighborhoods would be "contrary to a goal of the Southwest Quadrant chapter of the Master Plan." That goal is to protect residential areas from through traffic resulting from the redevelopment of the area.

Vice Chairman Richard Leibach suggested denial of the application and for the staff to continue to work with the residents of the neighborhoods to make sure they are comfortable with whatever use is eventually decided on.

He was joined in this rationale by Fossum, who noted, "The citizens of this area deserve better." She then moved for denial based on "bad design." It was approved unanimously.

The applicant is now free to appeal that decision to City Council, as Wagner cautioned at the outset. Council can support either the Commission and the residents from the surrounding neighborhoods or the applicant.