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Votes

Two Developments — Two Outcomes

Two proposed residential developments met different fates Tuesday night before the Alexandria Planning Commission. One received nothing but praise; the other ran into a wall of skepticism.

Receiving the praise and a unanimous vote of approval was a proposed change to the North Ridge/Rosemont Small Area Plan to alter the designation of a strip of land along West Glebe Road from Utility/Transportation to Residential. This will allow for the construction of 24 townhomes in a cluster development plan.

Not only did the proposal receive the Commission's approval, but it also garnered unanimous praise as an example of developer/civic cooperation.

"The applicant has worked very closely with North Ridge residents to make this acceptable," said Eileen Fogarty, director, City Planning and Zoning Department.

That applicant is WPCE, LLC. The site is located at 905 W. Glebe Road, a parcel bounded by West Glebe Road on the north, Martha Custis Drive on the west and multi-family and single-family homes on the south and east. It is a narrow strip of land long used by Dominion Virginia Power as its parking lot.

According to the staff report, the portion of the site proposed for development is 1.7 acres on the eastern section. The remaining 8.8 acres will remain under Dominion Virginia ownership and continue to be used by them for parking.

Attorney M. Catherine Puskar, representing WPCE, LLC, emphasized, "We have had multiple meetings with the North Ridge Civic Association, and they worked with us to solve all the various details." Planning and Zoning staff noted in its report to the Commission, "Residential uses at the proposed location represent an excellent buffer and transitional use for the large single-family neighborhood to the south."

They also stated, "This land-use case provides an opportunity for the city to add residential uses at a location where it supports the surrounding neighborhood and supports the policies of the master plan. The use, density and height of the proposed development scheme are significantly more desirable than the current land use and zoning, thereby protecting adjacent uses from possible incompatible development."

ORIGINALLY, WPCE's proposal called for 28 units. This was reduced to the approved 24 after meetings with staff and residents. The townhomes will be built in four groupings, each containing from four to seven residences.

Vehicular access will be from two curb cuts on West Glebe Road. A 22-foot drive aisle will run parallel to West Glebe Road and behind the townhouses to provide access to individual two-car garages. In addition to two parking spaces for each unit, the proposal includes 15 percent visitor parking on site, according to the staff analysis.

The cluster development approach is structured to allow design and layout flexibility. It was pointed out, "The applicant has worked with staff to provide the greatest amount of open space in a location, and of a quality that will benefit the new residents ... as well as the public."

THE TONE OF the Commission and those rising to speak at the public hearing changed from praise to near unanimous skepticism when members began hearing the next request. This was triggered by WRIT, a developer who was proposing to develop land bounded by the 700 block of Jefferson Street and the 800 block of South Columbus Street.

The two other sides of the square-block area are bounded by the 700 block of Green Street and the 800 block of South Washington Street. Both the Washington and Jefferson street sides presently are occupied by a variety of commercial enterprises.

WRIT is requesting a development Special Use Permit to increase the allowable floor-area ratio so it can construct a 75-unit multi-family apartment on what is now a surface parking area running along Columbus Street from Green Street to the existing buildings facing Columbus and Jefferson.

WRIT is also requesting to vacate an existing 20-foot-wide public alley that bisects the property from Green to Jefferson streets. As noted by staff, "Because of its location on Washington Street, the project is subject to not only site plan requirements and historic district standards but also to the city's newly adopted Washington Street Standards."

But the greatest concerns raised Tuesday night, both by the commissioners and public speakers, pertained to the elements of financial injury to the existing commercial businesses, parking for them, open-space deficiencies and the desire to create actual affordable housing rather than allow the developer to make the usual proffer to the Housing Trust Fund.

Puskar, who also represented WRIT at the meeting, admitted the overall proposal "is not the perfect solution. But, there are none when dealing with infill development."

Staff noted that a primary concern was the loss of 87 surface parking spaces relied on by the businesses during the construction period. However, they pointed out, WRIT "has secured off-street parking in the following locations: 50 spaces at 555 S. Washington St.; 24 at Roberts Memorial Church and 16 at the former location of Talbot's at the corner of South Washington and Jefferson streets.”

THIS CONCESSION, rather than pacify the opposition, only seemed to inflame it. Leading off the opposition to the removal of the surface parking were the owners of Southside Restaurant at 815 S. Washington St. "We believe that on-site parking is critical to our existence," they said. "We have understood we have a lease-hold right to that parking."

They also argued for the non-abandonment of the alley citing the need for truck access in delivery of food and supplies. Several citizen speakers joined with the business owners in asking the Commission not to relinquish the surface parking or abandon the alley.

Poul Hertel, often a public speaker at Commission meetings, questioned vacating the alley in order for the developer to count it in the open-space requirement for the site. He also challenged the size of the apartment structure, saying, "I have great apprehension about what's going to happen to the retailers."

The only group to back the WRIT application was Old Town Civic Association (OTCA). "We support the project. But our Board was not unanimous about every aspect," said Carolyn Merck, president, OTCA.

"We find ground-level open space to be very good, and we understand the need to provide parking during construction," Merck said. "This project will bring value to this property. This block was zoned for mixed use."

OTCA's assessment of ground-level open space was specifically challenged by several commissioners and others. Commissioner H. Stewart Dunn Jr. stated, "It's not true they are using the alley for open space. They are also counting the commercial buildings for open space."

He further emphasized, "This is far more intense than any other block in this neighborhood. More than one-third of the open space [being counted] 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."

AS FOR THE PARKING, particularly the use of off-site lots during construction and valet parking coupled with the impact on the various retailers, Commissioner Donna Fossum noted, "We've had a lot of lip service how we are going to preserve the retail space.

“We should put in triggers to alert us of the retailers getting into financial trouble — not wait until they are going out of business."

Fossum was against valet parking at distant sites. "I think valet parking is a disaster. I'm not letting other people drive my car. We have got to have a plan to monitor the retail viability."

When it came to providing actual affordable housing among the proposed 75 units as opposed to making a $1-per-square-foot donation into the Housing Trust Fund, Vice Chairman Richard Leibach pointed out this will account for a contribution of only $88,000. "That is pitifully low for this type project," he said.

"This is an opportunity [for actual units to be created] that if it is lost, it will be lost forever. For too long we have permitted developers to make small commitments to affordable housing," he said.

The only commissioner to come down on the side of WRIT during the debate was Chairman Eric Wagner. "This applicant has spent a lot of time meeting with the community and staff. I like this project."

Wagner also expressed concern that the Commission was trying to redesign the project, overriding staff and developer agreements. Commissioner J. Lawrence Robinson took exception, saying, "The commissioners are not trying to redesign the project. None of us are for wholesale change."

With the Commission solidified behind Dunn's motion for deferral, it passed unanimously. That vote was summed up by Puskar, who observed, "It's never fun to hear deferral, but its better than denial." WRIT was asked to come back in a month with new solutions.

At the outset of the meeting, Chairman Wagner welcomed Jesse Jenkins as the newest member of the Commission. He replaced Ludwig Gaines, who was elected to City Council.