Old Town, New Art in Alexandria

Old Town, New Art in Alexandria

Commission approves developer contributions for Arts and Cultural District.

“What we want to do is open ourselves up to experimentation and new ideas.” — Maria Wasowski, Planning Commissioner

There was a reason your parents probably told you not to study those arts classes in college and focus on getting a practical degree. Arts, beloved as they are, can be a financially unrewarding passion. So as Alexandria’s city government works to promote local arts, it faces a challenge in getting it funded.

The city’s answer is to turn to a solution that’s had some success with affordable housing in Alexandria: developer contributions. To combat the rapidly declining market-affordable housing market, Alexandria implemented a system where developers could trade bonus density on projects in exchange for affordable housing space in their project or a contribution to the affordable housing fund. On April 3, the Planning Commission approved a plan to implement a similar system for a new Old Town North Arts and Cultural District.

Developers can secure over 30 percent more density over the city’s usual maximum Floor Area Ratio in exchange for hosting an arts or cultural anchor. These anchors are defined as a destination or venue where arts or cultural works are taught, created, and made available to the public by various means including presenting live performances of theater, dance, music, or other imaginative work and/or producing or exhibiting physical works created by or under the direction of one or more artists, which are intended for unique production or limited reproduction. Museums where art and/or historic artifacts are displayed and/or created, art schools, including but not limited to culinary art schools, instructional art, music, or drama academy may also qualify as Arts and/or Cultural Anchor.

The program approved by the Planning Commission would act as a pilot, with ongoing review by staff of projects implementing an arts or cultural anchor. During the Planning Commision discussion, one of the main concerns was that the language in the legislation was overly prescriptive and would deter businesses from participating.

“If we’re going to have an arts and cultural district, let’s do something that actually works and causes something to happen rather than just nice language,” said Planning Commissioner Maria Wasowski, “We’re being challenged to be creative in how we approach this text amendment. It’s new territory. There’s guidance based on what’s been done in other places but not a whole lot. What we want to do is open ourselves up to experimentation and new ideas.”

One item that drew criticism was a limit of Arts and Cultural Anchor space to 50,000 square feet. Commissioner Nathan Macek referred back to the city’s Food Truck pilot, where a program opening up a few areas of the city to food trucks failed because strict provisions deterred any potential trucks from taking part.

“We tend to be overly prescriptive on pilots and they fail,” said Macek. “I don’t want to see us throw a wet blanket on this proposal. I want it to succeed.”

The amendment was changed from 50,000 square feet to 100,000.

One of the other concerns raised was the potential for the Old Town North Arts and Culture District to compete with developer contributions to affordable housing. Commissioner Maria Wasowski noted that the Arts and Culture District is very limited in scope to an area of Alexandria where there isn’t a lot of opportunity for affordable housing, which opened up concerns about whether certain areas of Alexandria are or aren’t realistic for affordable housing.

“Uncomfortable with the idea that some areas of city are unsuitable for affordable housing,” said Commissioner Melissa McMahon.

Commissioner Stephen Koenig said he’d initially agreed with McMahon, that he didn’t want to limit any potential for affordable housing, but that after the discussion he was leaning towards supporting the district. The Old Town North Arts and Culture District was unanimously approved by the Planning Commission and goes to the City Council on April 14, jokingly referred to by Chair Mary Lyman as sending the sausage to the meat grinder.