Who Should Approve Alexandria Building Use Changes?

Who Should Approve Alexandria Building Use Changes?

Council to decide whether to delegate certain commercial-to-residential building approvals to city staff.

Residents can weigh in, at City Council’s public hearing this Saturday, on a proposal to allow commercial buildings to revert to residential use with city staff administrative approval only.

The change would give building owners greater flexibility and reduce their time spent seeking city government approval, but also remove a degree of political oversight.

“The issue is that any buildings in Old Town that were originally built and used residentially were converted to commercial uses in the 1980s and 1990s. There is now a high demand for residential units, and many of these fundamentally residential buildings don’t meet the current zoning requirements for residential uses,” said planning and zoning’s Mary Christesen at last week’s Planning Commission hearing. For example, since they last housed residential occupants, buildings may no longer comply with evolved regulations concerning parking, building size or how the building appears from the street.

Unless they bring their buildings into compliance, reversion-seeking owners must seek relief from current requirements. Presently, relief comes from the Planning Commission and council, or from the Board of Zoning Appeals, a council-appointed board with certain limited powers. The proposed change would delegate that decision to city staff, provided these criteria are satisfied:

  • Building was originally constructed or principally used prior to June 24, 1992 as a residence;

  • Proposed residential use is permitted in the zone;

  • Proposed residential use contains a number of dwelling units equal to or less than previously existed on the property;

  • No expansion to the structure or changes to the lot of record that increase the degree of noncompliance for a residential use;

  • No reduction of parking spaces since building last used as residential.

“Staff receives inquires about residential conversions on a routine basis,” said Christesen.

“The number of requests to convert buildings … to their original or previous residential use has increased as demand for housing in the area continues to grow,” according to a city staff report. “In the long run this text amendment will provide more flexibility for property owners to convert back and forth between residential and commercial uses. … The underlying principle is that if these properties were once considered appropriate for residential occupancy in the past, it is OK to allow them to return to residential use now because we are just allowing them to revert to a previously approved status.”

The Planning Commission voted 6-0 to recommend that council approve the proposed change.

“I’m just so happy to finally see this coming to us, I can’t even tell you. We’ve waited a long time for it,” said Commissioner Mindy Lyle.

“It might need some fine-tuning down the road if somehow it doesn’t work quite as it’s intended. It’s very often the case that generic language like this needs some tweaking down the road,” said Commissioner David Brown.

Council will consider the matter under docket item #9 at its public hearing this Saturday, March 16, beginning at 9:30 a.m. at City Hall.