Commentary: Disconcerting Rhymes of History

Commentary: Disconcerting Rhymes of History

On the evening of Sept. 4, the seven-member Alexandria Planning Commission voted 6-0 to endorse the City of Alexandria Department of Planning and Zoning’s proposed 2017-2018 Route 1 South Housing Affordability Strategy in the Southwest Quadrant (SWQ) of the city. (The Planning Commission concurred to rename the strategy to the 2017-2018 South Patrick Street Housing Affordability Strategy.)

The Planning Commission, which makes recommendations to the City Council, expressed its deep appreciation for the Planning Department in taking proactive steps to preserve the long-term affordability of 215 housing units for The Heritage of Old Town (HOT) and Olde Towne West III (OTW) commercial properties. Subsidized contracts for the two properties (administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for HOT and by the Virginia Housing Development Authority for OTW) will expire in 2019. The Strategy’s goal to implement a plan saving those 215 units is a commendable effort by the city given the affordable housing crisis experienced in nearly every community in the United States.

The Strategy calls for constructing 674 market-rate units over a 15-year timeframe for commercial developers to retain the affordability of the 215 housing units. A total of 889 erected housing units would undoubtedly include families, and additional vehicles on the road. After several information sessions hosted by the Planning Department since January 2018, SWQ residents still have significant reservations with the proposed Strategy. These reservations include three potential issues raised by the Strategy.

First, the Strategy estimates only 23 net new students (exclusively from market-rate housing units) would be generated over 15 years. Second, the natural outcome of the Strategy results in increased vehicular traffic and demands for parking corresponding with an increased number of housing units. The city’s Department of Transportation and Environmental Services intentionally did not conduct a formal traffic study for the Strategy, opting instead to leave such a study with the commercial developer. Lastly, 22 tenants living in affordable housing units owned by Alfred Street Baptist Church, also located along South Patrick Street, will be temporarily relocated in a separate, but parallel housing development project. SWQ residents are concerned about the lack of transparency, and the implications this project between the church and the Alexandria Housing Development Corporation will have on the Strategy writ-large.

The quote “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes” has often been attributed to the American writer Mark Twain. In each instance of the city’s prior development projects including the Charles Houston Recreation Center, the Waterfront Implementation Plan, the Potomac Yard Development, and Karig Estates, residents raised concerns, but they were marginalized in favor of developers. The City Council will hear the Strategy’s implementation plans at its Public Hearing Meeting on Saturday, Sept. 15 at 9:30 a.m.

SWQ residents do not oppose development improvements and affordable housing for the city, but residents do share concerns with how this Strategy overlooks its unaddressed strategic gaps, and its potential rhyming with the city’s development history.

Also signing in support are C.A. Crandall, Lisa Kempe, Janice Kupiec, Amy Morton, and Brian Scholl.