Last week, in two separate votes, the Alexandria City Council took a stand for affordable "workforce" housing for the police officers, teachers and other municipal employees who can no longer afford to live in the city.
Council members authorized financing for the purchase of Gunston Hall, an older apartment complex on Washington Street, with hope of refurbishing the units for affordable housing. And in a 5-2 vote, the Council approved a controversial new Hunting Creek Area Plan to preserve affordable apartments near the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
The plan will serve as a guide for city planning staff and developers for 85 acres that straddle the Potomac waterfront and the historic George Washington Parkway. In particular, the plan is meant to preserve affordable housing on a 22-acre stretch of the land that houses two 1940s-era affordable apartment complexes, Hunting Terrace and Hunting Towers, which the Virginia Department of Transportation bought to make way for the new Wilson Bridge.
The council authorized a $71 million bond offer to pay for capital construction at schools and parks and for sewers and other projects. About $15 million of that was earmarked for the construction or purchase of affordable housing -- the first time the city has ever borrowed money specifically for that purpose.
Although the city is just beginning to work out the details of a possible sale, council members said that amount should enable the city's nonprofit Affordable Housing Corp. to buy Gunston Hall, a low-rise brick colonial revival apartment complex built in 1939, and rehab the 60 units and maintain them as affordable rentals. The loan could be offset in coming years, council members said, by the revenue arising from the 1 cent on the real estate tax rate that the council voted last year to dedicate to affordable housing -- which generates about $2.6 million each year -- as well as by rent at Gunston Hall. Last year, the city's Board of Architectural Review approved a plan by a developer, Basheer & Edgemoore, to demolish the buildings at Gunston Hall and replace them with 60 luxury condominiums and townhouses. Following pressure from affordable-housing advocates, residents and historic preservationists, the council voted to delay the project for one year to find a buyer who would promise to build affordable housing -- a provision allowed by state law because Gunston Hall is considered a "historic" building. When no one came forward, the city began making plans to buy it. "We're very close," council member Andrew H. Macdonald (D) said. "It's a very critical period of time."
In a separate vote, the council approved an amendment to the Hunting Creek Area Plan that would allow a developer to build higher and with more density than current zoning regulations allow, if the developer agrees to make an "extraordinary" contribution to affordable housing, either in cash or housing units.
Current zoning regulations for historic Old Town limit the height of new buildings to 50 feet. With this amendment: "It could theoretically be anything," said City Attorney Ignacio B. Pessoa. "If it's an amendment to the law, it can set a new limit."
But council members could not agree how to define the "extraordinary" contribution that would allow developers so much flexibility.
"We wanted to use a word that was clear in the magnitude, that what we expect is above and beyond the norm," said council member Rob Krupicka (D). "Our preference would be for units. But the driving focus is, how can we as a city ensure that as many folks that live there can continue to live there?"
Although Krupicka made clear that the vote signaled an "intent to negotiate" and was not an approval of a developer's plan, council members Macdonald and Joyce Woodson (D) voted against the plan because of the vagueness of the affordable-housing component. They wanted to set a specific target for units of affordable housing.
"That's kind of the high-rent district. It has a fabulous view," Woodson said in an interview before the vote. "I find it hard to believe [developers] are going to pay top dollar and restore it for affordable housing. Maybe they are, but until I get something in writing, I don't want to take it that far.
"We ought to be dealing with what we want to do," she added. "Not on what a developer proposes."
Right now, the site's former owner, Kay Management, is negotiating with VDOT to repurchase the property. Although Kay Management's attorney has spoken in favor of the amendment, the company does not have a specific proposal.
VDOT bought the property for $95 million in 2001 and demolished some buildings to make way for the Wilson Bridge project. Now, the agency is hoping to get top dollar to help defray the cost of the $2.4 billion bridge project.
Both VDOT and the Federal Highway Administration have written angry letters to the City Council decrying the affordable-housing push, saying it amounts to a "downzoning" that will reduce the value of the property. VDOT last week said it would take away the city's right to buy the property if negotiations with Kay Management fall through.
"I find it incredibly arrogant and dismissive," Macdonald said of VDOT's action. "It shows an appalling lack of perspective on their part, given all that we have suffered at the hands of this project and given the overall need to build this kind of housing."
And Macdonald finds the federal government's opposition to the plan mystifying. "Where are the people that work in the federal government going to live?" he said.
On the other hand, the National Park Service is furious that the city would allow structures taller than 50 feet to be built on what it calls the gateway to Mount Vernon, George Washington's ancestral home, farther down the parkway.
To that, Woodson said: "The bridge is the biggest thing there. How can you ignore that? It's looming large. It's huge."
Regardless of the plan's imperfections and the coming storm, Vice Mayor Redella S. "Del" Pepper said she voted for the plan for one practical reason: "This is our best possible chance of keeping affordable housing at Hunting Towers."