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Harambee Affordable Housing Proposal Approved

Units to be limited to low income elderly.

An eight-unit affordable housing development designed to serve the needs of low-income elderly, known as Beasley Square, has gained unanimous approval from the Alexandria Planning Commission.

To be located at 1323 Duke St., the proposal, by the Harambee Community and Economic Development Corporation, drew an overwhelming audience of supporters to City Council chambers Tuesday night — as well as those who opposed the project for a variety of reasons.

Before granting the development special use permit necessary to proceed with construction, the Commission first had to approve an amendment to the Old Town Small Area Plan chapter of the City's Master Plan and a zoning amendment to change the designation from Commercial Downtown to Commercial Residential Mixed Use (Low), with proffers.

"This is a question strictly of density and how we balance the various goals," Eileen Fogarty, director, Department of Planning and Zoning said at the outset of the hearing.

"You [the Commission] have an opportunity to provide affordable housing near transit and all the necessary amenities required by the residents. All City departments are recommending approval," she said.

"This will provide eight units of affordable housing for the City, and this is a major goal of the City," Mildrilyn Davis, director, Alexandria Office of Housing, said.

"The average one bedroom apartment now rents for $1,142. In this project they are proposed to rent for $889. With that, people will not have to pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing. This is absolutely what the City wants to see," she said.

Attorney Jonathan Rak, representing Harambee, pointed out to the Commission that his client "is a non-profit corporation formed by Shiloh Baptist Church … It was founded by 50 freed slaves 140 years ago."

"We believe this is a very appropriate place for these type residences," Rak said.

More than 100 nearby neighbors oppose the project.

H. Alan Young, of 1301 Duke St., in a letter to the Commission dated Dec. 6, captured the essence of the opposition by challenging both the limited parking required for the project and its location.

He stated, "Over 200 property owners and/or residents have signed a petition opposing the application." And, "Over 70 percent of the owners of the residential dwelling units ... within 300 feet of the subject property signed..."

He also questioned the consistency of the staff's decision making in assessing projects within a given area of the City. He cited several examples of what appeared to him to be the staff's lack of a "fair and consistent manner" in evaluating proposals.

Young also questioned the wisdom of making the $50,000 loan to Harambee. He said in his letter, "Shiloh owns 100 percent of Harambee, and according to a church spokesperson at a recent OTCA (Old Town Civic Association) meeting the church owns property assessed at ‘in excess of $10,000,000.’ Under these circumstances and as a taxpayer, I want to know why the City has ‘awarded’ the applicant any money let alone $50,000."

PLANNING FOR THE PROPOSED development started 18 months ago "on a much larger scale," according to Rak. "It is now eight small units designed to serve low income senior citizens in Alexandria," Rak said.

In August, the City provided an additional $25,000 to Harambee for predevelopment costs, together with a previous $25,000, created a combined loan of $50,000, Davis said. "The funds are provided to Harambee as a loan, but if the proposed development... does not proceed...the loan may be fully forgiven. If the proposed project goes forward and the City subsequently provides funding for development expenses … this loan will be included in the subsequent overall loan … and would be subject to repayment terms," Davis said.

Although related to each other, Shiloh and Harambee are separate organizations with different missions, according to Davis. Shiloh's assets are not Harambee's. "There is nothing out of the ordinary about this; many non-profit housing development organizations were started by religious institutions," Davis wrote in a recent memorandum.

As stated in the staff report recommending approval of the proposal, the requested zoning change "is actually more restrictive" than the present CD zone "in terms of land uses and FAR (Floor Area Ratio-volume of building permitted)." The reason for the requested change in this case is "because it is less restrictive in terms of density/units per acre," staff stated.

The land parcel is 3,500 square feet with 35 feet of frontage on Duke Street and 100 feet of frontage on West Street. It is served by an alley, which runs from West Street to Payne Street. It contains a 1,450 square foot, two story building plus a 290 square foot two story outbuilding.

Those objecting to the development based their arguments primarily on two elements: limited parking in the area and location. The latter triggers the proposed zoning change.

As stated by Rak in his presentation, the applicant has agreed to provide at least one parking space for each unit, or eight total. However only three would be on-site with five off-site.

Melvin Miller, chair, Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority, who spoke in favor of the project, said, "Parking should not be a problem. Elderly low-income [residents] just don't have that many cars."

IN HIS TESTIMONY, Miller also cited examples experienced by ARHA at their various projects in relation to parking. "Even in our high density areas parking does not pose a problem," he said.

After hearing from a wide range of speakers, pro and con, the Commission voted unanimously to approve the application on a 6-0 vote. Commissioner H. Stewart Dunn Jr., recused himself at the beginning of the discussions because he owns property in the area.