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Best Laid Plans No Match For Opinions

Nationwide search underway for new Planning & Zoning director

For Alexandria 2006 proved to be a year of change in land use planning. That was highlighted in late summer when Eileen Fogarty, director, Alexandria Department of Planning & Zoning, resigned after six years to become director of Planning and Community Development in Santa Monica, CA.

During her farewell reception at Gadsby's Tavern James Butler, co-chair, Alexandria Federation of Civic Associations, summed up the feelings of those that overflowed the second floor ballroom. "Eileen has been candid, competent, and confident. She has demonstrated a willingness to seek out the best ideas in the community. She is the genuine article," he said.

"She has brought every ounce of what we thought she would bring to us. She has presided over a very active period of growth in our city. Eileen has met the ultimate test. She is leaving Alexandria in a much better place than she found it," said Eric Wagner, chairman, Alexandria Planning Commission.

For her part, Fogarty acknowledged, "My experience in Alexandria has given me the opportunity to partner with the residential and business communities in building a strong and responsive public participation process. The result is a system that ensures the community's high expectations are honored and the goal of significant public benefits is reached to the greatest possible extent."

Perhaps one of the most succinct definitions of land use development was issued by Fogarty in her last major interview after announcing her resignation. Speaking about the planning/development process she stated, "It's not the process. It's what comes out of the process."

During 2006 what came out of the process were some of the most significant land use decisions for Alexandria in recent years. They included the following.

POTOMAC YARD: Not only did the development of this last massive area of open space in Alexandria continue to evolve but also it brought together elements of transportation planning, mixed use

development, and a most unusual approach to providing affordable. housing. The later came in the form of a new fire station within the Potomac Yard site that will also contain 60 units of affordable/work force housing.

Recommended by the Potomac Yard Fire Station & Affordable Housing Task Force, the combined four story structure, approved by the Planning Commission October 4, will become an integral part of Potomac Yard's Landbays H & I. Potomac Yard Development LLC will contribute $10.5 million to its creation. Approximately $6 million will be used by the city to leverage housing tax credits and affordable housing grants.

The new station, to be designated 209, will replace Station 202 located on Windsor Avenue in Del Ray as a first response station for fire suppression and Hazmat apparatus. Station 202 will remain operative as an Emergency Medical Services location for "at least the next five to eight years," according to the plan.

Another vital part of the Potomac Yard development was the approval of Route 1, Jefferson Davis Highway, as a transit corridor designed to eventually serve Rapid Transit Bus service. This was a joint recommendation by Planning & Zoning and the Department of Transportation & Environmental Services.

EISENHOWER VALLEY: This area of the city has seen dramatic changes in recent years and continues to be transformed on a daily basis. Everything from a federal court house, to the home of the U.S.Trade & Patent Office, to a multiplex theater, and a wide array of residential offerings seem to spring from the ground daily.

Some of the 2006 additions include a 250 feet high, 485 unit residential complex and the concept plan for a 181 room, 15 story Marriott Residence Inn. Approximately one third of the planned residential units will make another contribution to the city's affordable housing inventory. Throughout the past year there has also been a marked increase in the area's retail/commercial development.

BRADDOCK ROAD METRO AREA PLAN: As one of the city's most obvious areas of change, development has been making steady progress coupled with an on-going planning process. A large mixed use complex known as Monarch is well underway and planned for completion on late 2007. It will be followed by a similar structure in the future. At the center of this planning process is the Braddock Metro Station which has already spawned a number of innovative residential condominiums.

WEST END PLANNING & DEVELOPMENT: A major renovation in this of the city completed in 2006 was the Foxchase Shopping Center with its new anchor Harris Teeter Market. A previously declining strip mall was virtually transformed into an appealing, modern center offering a variety of commercial/retail establishments.

Harris Teeter, the first in the city, replaced the old Magruders. This new full service grocery enterprise joins the new Fresh Foods grocery on Duke Street to offer Alexandrians a wide array of grocery shopping in virtually each quadrant of the city.

But the West End also brought forth one of the most controversial land use confrontation of 2006. The application of Virginia Paving asphalt company for an amended Special Use Permit, first issued in 1960, pitted residents of Cameron Station against the company that had been in operation at their site for more than 45 years. It was a classic case of residential development butting up against long existing industry.

Virginia Paving was seeking an extension of its working hours due to highway construction now taking place more a night than during the day because of excessive traffic congestion. Asphalt must be poured while hot. Residents raised concerns about air pollution, noise, nuisance and odor.

After months of public meetings, information sessions, and confrontations an equitable solution was finally reach as 2006 approached its conclusion. By a four to three margin November 28, City Council voted to approve 110 nights of operation at the plant thereby modifying but approving the Planning Commission's vote to grant the new SUP.

OTHER CONTROVERSIES: Virginia Paving did not have a lock on controversy coming before the Planning Commission in 2006. There were others that brought forth equal emotions. One went to the core of the urban planning process and is being faced by cities across the nation.

This is "infill development." Particularly that infill development that tends to alter or give the appearance of altering the character of a given neighborhood.

One example that brought it to the forefront in Alexandria during 2006 was the demolition of an older home on upper King Street and its replacement by a much larger one. The process has been dubbed "Mansionization." This brought forth a detailed discussion of the phenomena with the Commission by Fogarty.

At that discussion, she noted, nearly 80 percent of the land in Alexandria is occupied by family residences. The median size of city homes is 2,300 square feet. The average size of a so-called "McMansion" approaches nearly triple that square footage.

This was not a new controversy for the Commission in 2006. They had addressed another case in late 2005. In that instance both the Planning Commission and Council denied the application based on the issue of "neighborhood character."

That case was appealed and the Circuit Court denied the City's argument. That decision was appealed and the Appellant upheld the City's position. However, the latter court did not base its decision on the structure's "character" issue. Instead, it denied the applicant on grounds that the proposal would "create a new corner lot" not "substantially the same character as other corner lots in the original subdivision." Thus the issue remains fluid.

All of these issues as well as new ones will surely come to fruition again in 2007. Land use planning and development is not a stagnant process. And in Alexandria where vocal democracy approaches the level of religious fervor nothing is beyond realm of controversy.