The debate was long and passionate on both sides of the issue but, three-and-a-half hours later, the Alexandria City Council approved a mixed-use development on South Washington Street.
The developer, the Washington Real Estate Investment Trust, has spent the past 14 months holding community meetings and working with city staff to make changes to the proposed development. During that time, there have been 17 different community meetings, where concerns have been aired.
“The project is simply too dense for this area of the city and this site,” said Poul Hertel, who has attended many of the meetings and who has been consistently concerned about the project. “I am also concerned that it is not in compliance with the Washington Street guidelines.”
The Old Town Civic Association, the largest civic association near where the development is located, supported the project. The Planning Commission, after deferring the matter for a month to look at several issues, voted 6-0-1 to support the project.
“We have this new planning process that requires developers to begin working with the community early in the project,” said Vice Mayor Redella S. “Del” Pepper. “I thought the point of that was to work out the issues before it comes to Council. And yet, here we are, working out far too many of them at the eleventh hour. I know that this has been a combination of the old and the new process but we really need to look at this and figure out how we can make it work more smoothly.”
THE PROJECT WILL have 75 residential units and a block of retail that is directly on South Washington Street. “The city staff and the Planning Commission wanted us to retain the retail on South Washington Street and we have done that,” said Lee Quill, the architect who designed the project. “The retail will also have off-street parking, which we believe is key to its success.
“I know there has been some concern about the height of the apartment building, but that height is behind the retail, about 145 feet back from South Washington Street. Also, on Columbus Street, we have articulated the entrances so that it looks very much like a group of townhouses instead of a single building,” he said.
The height was an issue, with the project originally coming in as a four-story development. “Now, we only have a fourth story on 70 feet of the building, in the center, in a mansard condition instead of on all of the project,” Quill said. “Most of the building is 36 feet tall and the middle portion is at 50 feet, which is allowed by the guidelines.”
This change also decreased the density, from 85 residential units to 75. “We can’t decrease the density any further and have an economically viable project,” Quill said.
THAT IS BECAUSE of the other benefits that the project will bring. “We looked at this project very carefully and decided that the increase in density was a trade-off we were willing to make to get all of the other benefits that this project will bring,” said Eileen Fogarty, the director of Planning and Zoning for the city. “We will get underground parking, which we would not get if a less dense project is built, we are getting onsite parking for the retail on South Washington, we are getting open space and we are getting an affordable housing component. To get all of these benefits, you really need a project of this density. Otherwise, it simply isn’t economically viable.”
Councilwoman Joyce Woodson asked for a change in the affordable housing contribution. The developer proposed three affordable units onsite. “Rather than three units, I would really like to see a significant monetary contribution to the city’s affordable housing trust fund,” Woodson said. “The Planning Commission proposed a $450,000 contribution, the developer proposed a $176,000 contribution and I would like to see a $350,000 contribution.”
The city has generally required a $1 per square foot of developed space contribution to the affordable housing trust fund but recent developers have been asked for $2 per square foot. WRIT agreed to a $3 per square foot contribution, totaling $264,000 with no affordable units in the project.
COUNCIL MEMBERS Andrew Macdonald and Ludwig Gaines did not support the project. “While I support underground parking in this area of town, the project is just too dense for this part of the city,” Macdonald said.
Gaines agreed, saying, “I really have some of the same concerns that Mr. Macdonald expressed,” he said. “I would like to defer this for 30 days while we look at these issues that have come forward tonight.”
The majority of Council did not agree. In the end, the project was approved by a 5-2 vote, with Macdonald and Gaines voting against it.