Chicken and Egg in Alexandria

Chicken and Egg in Alexandria

Affordable housing debate highlights city’s public feedback conundrum.

Normally the City Council fully embraces affordable housing proposals. But as would be the case with the proposed Business Improvement District later in the same June 27 City Council meeting, the proposed affordable housing at the Fairlington Presbyterian Church site hit a snag when it came to public feedback. Unlike the BID, in spite of some notes of concern, an initial loan of $400,000 was approved unanimously by the City Council.

Wesley Housing Development Corporation is proposing to purchase a portion of land owned by the Fairlington Presbyterian Church to redevelop it as affordable housing, with between 75 and 81 new units being made available to Alexandrians earning less than 60 percent of area median income. The funds will be used to prepare a Development Special Use Permit, a Low Income Housing Tax Credit, pay for legal expenses, the architectural, and engineering work required for permitting.

Members of the council say they received feedback from nearby residents expressing concerns about how the new housing would impact parking and traffic in the area. Council members also said they were concerned at the lack of public outreach performed with neighbors about this project. One nearby resident attended the meeting and repeatedly interrupted the proceedings in protest.

“I am concerned, as the mayor, after hearing from so many residents,” said Mayor Allison Silberberg. “There seems to be a lot of support in general, but they are concerned about traffic and parking. This is proposed for people at 60 percent of area median income, so they are going to have cars.”

Helen McIlvaine, director of Housing, said that the redevelopment is proposed for 2019, so the public outreach is still in the very early stages of the process.

“The concerns are similar to the ones on East Glebe across from our Potomac Yard development,” said McIlvaine. “By the time we got to the hearing, we had letters of support from all of the surrounding civic associations. We are just beginning this process.”

But City Councilman John Chapman noted that unlike Potomac Yard, which is soon to receive a new Metro station, the Fairlington Presbyterian Church site is relatively inaccessible by public transit. But to study the traffic and parking issues related to the new development, McIlvaine and City Manager Mark Jinks noted that the developers would need this initial funding to carry out traffic studies.

“It’s a classic chicken and egg [situation],” said Jinks, saying there was very little at present to show the neighbors without any funding put into the project, but if funding is put into project then neighbors sometimes get the impression that the issue is already decided. “We need to hire traffic consultants and hire an architect for design, that’s what this money is for. It’s so there are professionals that can show designs and have those discussions with the neighborhood so those designs can be refined. We’ve been doing it this way successfully and working through issues with neighborhoods for decades.”

Silberberg asked if the loan could be deferred but others on the council agreed with Jinks’ assessment.

“If we wait two months, the concerns can’t be addressed in that time because you need studies to address those,” said Councilman Tim Lovain, “otherwise we’re just spinning our wheels and making no progress until both studies are done.”

“There are real concerns,” said Vice Mayor Justin Wilson. “Some are significant, some are things that can be dealt with in review process. We’re only in part one, there’s still a lot to go. A lot of those are concerns about existing parking issues that can be addressed with regulatory options separate from any potential development or redevelopment.”

Councilman Willie Bailey encouraged other council members and the public not to lose sight of what this development would mean for the city’s residents in need of affordable housing.

“Let’s make sure we remember, there is a shortage for housing,” said Bailey. “This housing can go to our teachers, firefighters, police officers, nurses. There’s not a lot of oppurtunities like this. We need to be cognizant of all this. I trust Ms. McIlvane and their staff that they are going to do a good job on this project like they do for all others.”

The council unanimously approved the loan. Smedberg noted that this was the second church being redeveloped as affordable housing within the last year and asked the city staff to look more into potential sites like this that could be coming down the pipeline.