Alexandria After seven hours of debate in Alexandria’s City Council meeting, the room was still deeply divided between those in favor of rezoning a property on King Street to create a memory care facility and neighbors to the property entrenched against it. Snow piled up outside City Hall at the Feb. 21 public hearing as the discussion ran from breakfast, over lunch, and straight on through dinner. Ultimately, after more than one council member expressed hopes that the weather would allow them to delay a decision, the council voted in favor of the rezoning.
The plan for the facility involved a special use permit to rezone the property from its current R-8 single family residential to a RB zone with certain limitations, called proffers, which among other restrictions limit the property’s usage to a memory care facility. The memory care facility would be buit on the empty lot between the current Woodbine Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center on King Street and the neighboring Ivy Hill Cemetery. Immediately across King Street is the Taylor Run neighborhood, which is where the majority of the opposition to the facility was centered. More than 50 speakers on both sides of the issue lined up to voice their approval or concerns.
Proponents of the facility spoke about the need for living options accessible to Alexandrians suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
“This facility is really needed,” said Tim Bloeckl. “We’ve read every letter on this case and I just don’t see a compelling reason not to approve this facility. There are between 200 and 300 citizens in the city who may have this disease. I think the pros outweigh the cons.”
Jack Taylor, president of Alexandria Toyota, offered the most moving testimony for the proponents of the project.
“I have Parkinson’s disease, and Parkinson’s can often turn into dementia,” said Taylor. He described watching a friend, who had lived all his life in Alexandria, forced to move elsewhere when his memory failed, “There’s a huge demand for beds and there’s no supply … When the time comes, I want to know that there’s a facility that can take care of me, and maybe I’ll get a discount at [Ivy Hill] cemetery.”
Others expressed similar frustration at inadequate memory care capacities in Alexandria.
“People diagnosed with dementia need specialized care,” said Alan Dubow, vice president of Capital Health Solutions. “The closest facility is Annandale, which is completely full.”
According to city staffer James Roberts, the project’s planners have taken steps to make the facility as unobtrusive as possible. The building is 55 feet away from the property line, far more than the necessary 20 feet, and has scaled down the height and added a flat roof to reduce its visibility. Allowable height in an RB zone is typically 45 feet, but one of the proffers limited this height to 35 feet.
Many in opposition expressed concerns that spot-rezoning in this location would open the doorway for rezoning in other parts of the city.
“Rezoning a residential area has huge ramifications,” said John Harley, noting that this type of rezoning has only happened twice since 1992 and never in the past 11 years. “We should follow the 1992 master plan and zoning codes … this sets a dangerous precedent.”
On page three of the 1992 Master Plan’s section on land use, it says that areas of the city currently zoned residential should remain zoned residential use at no higher than their current density.
While critics of the plan were concerned that rezoning of the residential property would set a dangerous precedent for future rezoning, Acting Director of Planning and Zoning Karl Moritz said that the decision wouldn’t have the city-wide precedent that most of the citizens feared it would.
“Precedent here is relatively limited and could not be automatically applied to other situations,” said Moritz. “We would have to evaluate each [rezoning] circumstance individually … each parcel has a story to tell and its own background.”
But while none of the opponents argued that there wasn’t a need for greater care to those suffering from memory ailments, many questioned whether this facility was actually going to benefit Alexandrians. The cost per month to live at the facility is expected to be approximately $8,000 per month or $96,000 per year. According to the “Alexandria of Our Future” report, a part of the 2013-2017 Strategic Plan on Aging, the average annual median household income in Alexandria for ages 65-74 is $65,800, or $62,800 for those above 75. Even with two of the 66 units marked as affordable housing at $57,600, it raised questions about whom the memory care development was really serving.
“It’s only two units, but it’s two more than we have today,” said M. Catharine Puskar, an attorney representing the developer. “The average stay in the facility is 1.5 years, people keep their loved ones at home as long as they can. So over 20 years, those two beds would serve over 20 individuals.”
The affordable housing units originally had a 20-year limit, but after urging from the council, Puskar said the developer would be willing to take that limit off and simply make those units affordable for the lifetime of the facility.
Mayor William Euille acknowledged that the “affordable housing” argument from the developer felt hollow.
“The discount for the two units is not inspiring to me,” said Euille. “It’s not going to make or break the deal.”
Some of the cosmetic changes have created more problems than they seem to have solved. According to Moritz, the flat roof design was chosen by the project architects to minimize the site’s visual impact. Some of the building’s opponents said the flat roof was unsightly, Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg even likened it to Soviet Bloc architecture. Silberberg also criticized the staff’s judgment that the site was appropriate for a memory care center but rejected a proposal to build four homes on the site in 2005.
“The standards of approval are different,” said Moritz. “Homes need to occupy greater amounts of land, especially single family homes.”
The final major concern for opponents to the facility was the additional traffic on that stretch of King Street.
“Parking and traffic is not a potential problem,” said Jim Morrell, “it is an existing one with Woodbine. [Woodbine] staff regularly parks on Melrose Street [one of the adjacent streets]. This facility adds additional entrance and exits on King Street.”
Some opponents to the site requested the city conduct their own traffic study on the facility, but according to city staff, independent studies aren’t required for sites where there are less than 50 anticipated car trips during peak usage. According to the staff report, residents of the memory care facility are unlikely to use vehicles and King Street’s status as one of the city’s principal arterials would be sufficient to accommodate any employee or visitor traffic with limited impact on nearby residential areas.
Opponents of the project insisted that they were not opposed to memory care facilities or were against Alexandria’s elderly population, but believed the development’s use as a memory care center was clouding the judgment of the city staff.
“Our city needs to consider all aspects of this project,” said Alina Eldred. “This is not the right location for this property. We want to continue to be proud of our city and its leadership. The developer has packaged and messaged this project as a vote for Alexandria seniors, [but] the rezoning proposition is fundamentally flawed … An out-of-town developer can’t come in and dictate how and where we care for our elderly.”
Alan Harwood proposed that the development find an alternative site, namely at Landmark Mall or Potomac Yard, but Euille specifically cited in his vote in favor of the development that those sites were private property and the city could not dictate what developers should build there.
“This is not my preferred site, but it’s vitally needed, and if we miss this there may not be an opportunity in the future for a private developer to tackle this need,” said Euille. “This government will never have the opportunity to fund a facility of our own … This is not an easy decision, but we have to tackle this opportunity.”
The vote required a supermajority vote, meaning if two members of the board voted no, the development would not proceed. In council discussion of the rezoning, Silberberg clearly voiced her opposition to project, but the vote seemed to come down to a conflicted Councilman John Chapman.
“This doesn’t fit the price range for many Alexandrians,” said Chapman. “The ‘affordability’ piece is a tough pill to swallow … But growing up on that street, looking at that parcel … I don’t believe this changes the character of the neighborhood.”
With Chapman’s vote in favor of rezoning, the rezoning proposal passed the City Council in a 6-1 vote.