Alexandria: Eisenhower’s Latest Battle

Alexandria: Eisenhower’s Latest Battle

Transportation, development, and questions of authority precede approval of Eisenhower West Small Area Plan.

Map of the Eisenhower of 2040.

Map of the Eisenhower of 2040. Photo by Vernon Miles.

Eisenhower East is a experiencing a bit of a renaissance. The AMC Hoffman is one of the city’s most popular theaters and hosted the premier of “Mercy Street.” Next door, the National Science Foundation is nearing completion and accompanying apartment towers across Eisenhower Avenue are taking form. But on the far side of Telegraph Road, the majority of Eisenhower West is not experiencing the same levels of growth. Alongside the addition of a new TSA building, the Eisenhower Small Area plan hopes to push forward revitalization efforts. But the plan hit City Council at the Nov. 14 meeting with a rocky start.

Mindy Lyle, a member of the Planning Commission and the Eisenhower West Steering Committee, introduced the project and some of the adjustments made by the Planning Commission.The area covered by the Eisenhower West plan is large compared to other “small area plans,” with an anticipated 9.2 million square feet of development projects over the next 25 years. However, with limited amenities in the area, the Planning Commission voted to remove the required minimum amount of developer contributions suggested by staff and allowed developer contributions to be “extremely flexible.”

Even before the staff presentation began, this caused trouble.

“The original recommendation came forward in the concept plan,” said Councilman Paul Smedberg. “When additions are made by the Planning Commission, [you] essentially created policy.”

Lyle justified the removal of a minimum contribution, saying that it left some housing areas with rents over $3,000 per month.

“We felt if you were paying $3,000 in rent, you were not going to be living in Eisenhower West,” said Lyle. “You would be living in an area that’s much more densely populated with amenities at your door. Eventually we can reach those numbers, but not in the early development phase.”

But the problem Smedberg and other members of the council had was twofold: one, that there should be a basic assurance that there would be a contribution, and two, that the Planning Commission was undermining the authority of the council by making policy.

“You can’t make that blanket policy statement,” said Smedberg. “That’s what I’m concerned about. These things are veering into policy decisions that [the council] or [council and staff] should make. I’m concerned about where this is heading and the precedent it’s setting.”

Councilwoman Del Pepper asked for clarification on whether the early stages of the design approval process are where the council would have the opportunity to ask for contributions from developers. After a pause from Karl Moritz, director of Planning and Zoning, Pepper responded: “I don’t like that silence there. That’s telling me there’s more than what you’re saying.”

“Whenever any special use permit comes forward, there is an opportunity for the council to consider and approve the contributions that would be expected from the individual private development,” said Pepper.

Helen McIlvane, director of Housing, said the Eisenhower West Plan would have a major emphasis on affordable housing and was reliant largely on developer contributions.

Though tension lingered, city staff moved into the presentation.

“When it comes to housing contributions, we will seek units and or monetary contributions for affordable housing every time there is a development or redevelopment occurs,” said McIlvane here, noting that some restraints in other parts of Alexandria do not apply in the sparesly populated Eisenhower West. “We can make maximize use of bonus density here. The advisory group is comfortable with a great deal more height than we’ve seen in other places. In excess of 20 percent might be appropriate. We are also seeking opportunities to co-locate housing , including potentially a mixed income assisted living facility with municipal uses.

The plan also comes with transportation changes, though some on the council were hesitant to call them improvements. The two major changes are a straightening of Eisenhower Avenue, directing it slightly away from its current end destination at the Van Dorn Metro, and a new bridge over the railroad. There were serious doubts from members of the council concerning about not ending Eisenhower at Van Dorn Street and whether the street plans, even with the bridge, would be able to support the traffic being pushed into the area.

The question of City Council authority was brought up again when Smedberg asked why some of the options for the bridge location had been taken off the table. Steve Sindiong, acting transportation planning division chief, said the location option had been removed because it passed through a park where there had been serious local opposition.

“We still have to have this discussion, even if it’s not popular,” said Councilman John Chapman. “That’s what the planning process is about.”

“Staff should bring all options to the table,” added Smedberg.

Moritz responded that the staff would have presented those options if the current bridge locations had not met all of the transportation needs, but it did.

Ultimately, the council decided to keep the Planning Commission's amendments, but added their own to the note about developer contributions: “The city’s initial analysis assumes that at least 50 percent of the cost of planned infrastructure would be provided through developer contributions.”

Smedberg said the new amendment allows room for flexibility but will still hold the developers accountable for Eisenhower West’s future. The plan was approved by the council in a unanimous vote.