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Votes

Letter to the Editor: Defer Decision On Zoning Changes

To the Editor:

There are two important votes before Alexandria’s City Council this Saturday. Both deal with amendments to zoning language. One amends the W1 Waterfront Mixed Use Zone. The second amends language of the zoning ordinance itself. The first vote can seal the fate of a dull plan that concretes our future waterfront, relegates its design to corporate taste, and leaves public use to the dictates of commercial prerogatives. Alexandria’s brand on its own historic waterfront will be, at best, Carr Properties, or, at worst, an uncaring and remote investment entity. The second vote threatens to sacrifice important protections to the rights of property owners across the city, all to serve short term, spiteful ends at the expense of long-term strategic needs of the city.

I think there’s still hope to take positive steps forward, beyond the bitterness, acrimony, and distrust. Like the stages of grief, we’ve seen denial, anger, and are now in the final stages of negotiations. Disappointment (for sure) but even better acceptance could lie ahead.

Regarding the text amendment to the W1 zone … this decision sets the future framework for all Special Use Permit considerations to follow. City Council can control development with effective use of these Special Use Permit provisions. The framework needs to be strengthened in two straightforward ways. Height and uses are resolved, for better or worse. Density is the last area where positive change can still happen.

The 1992 Settlement Agreement for the Waterfront zone more than doubled allowable density over current uses. Suggested increases to density beyond the ‘92 agreement have been arbitrarily set, produce no certain return of proffers or public good, and compound parking and flood risk problems. The city’s own data shows city investment costs are still recovered at ’92 density levels. It simply takes more time. By adding prescriptive limits to density or F.A.R. in the text of the amendment, both city and council concerns about river access, quality of life, and flood risks are lessened.

Additionally, language regarding environmental concerns and building offset from the river needs to be added. The city has already described their best intentions in PowerPoint briefing slides and staff reports. A 100-foot setback from the river and the requirement to meet the highest environmental standards need to be described clearly in the section of the text amendment describing open and usable space provisions.

Progress in the second vote on the amendment to zoning language (Section 11-808) is much simpler. Last summer, the BZA did more than reject the actions of the planning director regarding the citizen petition. In a second resolution that night, the BZA “recommended that City Council appoint a committee to review the zoning language of section 11-808 of the Zoning Ordinance.” Also, the Planning Commission, in recent action, suggested further review of the Zoning Ordinance to clarify and not diminish provisions protecting citizen petitions. Finally, the city’s own Federation of Civic Associations unanimously asked for deferral and further evaluation. The City Council should defer decision on changes to the Zoning Ordinance pending a more thorough review by a duly appointed committee with necessary citizen input.

The path to moving forward seems clear: Less density, stronger Special Use Permit provisions, affirmation of environmental safeguards, protected green space along the river, and assured property rights. All can be achieved inside these two amendments. It’s tough to live with so large a loss of opportunity, but clarity and consideration is vitally needed now to move beyond legal tangles and further citizen frustration.

Bob Wood

Alexandria