A Brief Guide to Alexandria's Zoning Reform Recommendations
How should we think about the Planning & Zoning Department's Zoning for Housing/Housing for All initiative?
The Components of Zoning for Housing/Housing for All
Alexandria’s Planning & Zoning Department (P&Z) has recommended changes to the city’s zoning code in an eight-part initiative, Zoning for Housing/Housing for All (ZFH/HFA). Zoning reform is the subject of a series of public meetings this fall.
Here is a high-level summary of its components:
Historic Development Patterns: P&Z recommends the removal of, “dwelling-units-per-acre limitations in multifamily zones to allow smaller unit sizes within the same development envelope. This will allow the option of smaller, and therefore less expensive units to be built and could increase unit production by an estimated 1.5 to 2.5 units in some projects."
Residential Multi-family (RMF) Zone: The Housing Master Plan would be amended to support RMF rezonings in areas already planned for medium to high-density development.
Industrial Zone: P&Z recommends that the industrial zone, primarily Eisenhower West, "Require new industrial buildings to meet some of the same requirements as mixed-use buildings to be compatible with the future residential, pedestrian-scale development."
Coordinated Development Districts (CDDs): P&Z recommends, "When the City approves density above that provided by [a] small area plan through a CDD, one-third of that additional density should be committed affordable units."
Expansion of Transit Oriented Development: P&Z believes, "The planned priority transit corridors in Alexandria West and the Duke Street corridor present an opportunity to add more market rate and affordable housing."
Office to Residential Conversions: P&Z supports office-to-residential conversions for older buildings. The city should, "Prioritize for retention office buildings that are competitive or where City policies or plans call for non-residential development in that area."
Townhouse Zoning: Increased townhouse development would be permitted by "[Eliminating] side yard setback requirements for lots 25 feet in width or less and "establish[ing a] 35 percent open space requirement across all townhouse zones and for residential uses in commercial zones."
Single-Family Zones: Housing options would be increased in single family zones by permitting multi-unit dwelling. Other single-family zoning code conditions would remain in place.
The Zoning Map
The city’s zoning map (which can be expanded by clicking on the zoom in “+” sign at the bottom of the map) can be seen
How Zoning Works
Karl Moritz, P&Z’s Director, said in a September 11 interview that the zoning code does not create residential or commercial development, it regulates the pace of development. The quantities of permitted residential and commercial development are defined in the city’s Small Area Plans. According to Moritz, the infrastructure planning—roads, sewers, etc.—for the development described in the Small Area Plans has already been done.
At the September 5 joint City Council-Planning Commission meeting on P&Z’s ZFH/HFA recommendations, Moritz described the city’s historical approach to controlling residential development as “belt and suspenders and suspenders.” For example, permitting multiple units to be built in what would otherwise be a one-family home of the same size is a loosening of one set of suspenders.
One Zoning Reform Proposal at a Time or All at Once?
One of the criticisms of ZFH/HFA is that it puts too many proposals before the public at once. At the City Council-Planning Commission meeting, Mayor Justin Wilson said that making changes to the zoning ordinance as a group was responsive to what the community wanted when the reform process began.
Moritz said in the September 11 interview that zoning reform was delayed by the pandemic. Another priority that compels a comprehensive, as distinct from one-by-one, approach is the need to establish parameters for increased housing and affordable housing in the zoning code for developers before projects are planned.
Addressing zoning reform proposals as a group is also perceived as efficient. Moritz and others believe that a one-proposal-at-a-time approach would require an inordinate expenditure of time by the public, city staff and policy makers.
Some ZFH/HFA Components Will Mean Little to Most Residents
Some of P&Z’s recommendations establish zoning principles for limited areas of the city or are significant only to lawyers, developers, or other zoning code enthusiasts. Some of these recommendations are not expected to produce additional housing or affordable housing any time soon. Examples of this include recommendations for areas that might transition to residential housing in the future, for example, the Industrial Zone which is predominantly the Eisenhower West area.
Other recommendations operate prospectively and will not generate additional housing, or affordable housing, until new projects are initiated. The CDDs are large development projects that combine residential and commercial development. The zoning for the three big imminent CDD projects—WestEnd, the former Landmark mall area, the Potomac River Generating Site in North Old Town, and the current Alexandria Hospital site—has been completed. These projects will not be affected by ZFH/HFA.
On September 6, a Washington Post Metro section story headlined, “Draft proposal could cut single-family-only zones” contained this lead:
Alexandria could eliminate single-family-only zoning this fall under a draft proposal unveiled by city planners Tuesday evening, putting this Northern Virginia city on track to follow one of its neighbors in adopting an increasingly common—and often contested—idea in urban planning.
The Post could be read as reporting the proposed deletion of the zoning code’s single-family provisions in their entirety, or, for those with a darker view, the elimination of single-family housing as a housing type. The unexplained reference to a “neighbor” is to Arlington County’s debate over the “Missing Middle,” or the perceived shortage in the range of housing types between detached homes and mid-to-high-rise apartment buildings, for example, duplexes, triplexes and townhouses.
The key word in the Post’s lead is “only.” The lead makes sense if a reader knows something that is not explained: P&Z’s recommendations contain one substantive change to the zoning code’s single-family provisions. That change is the number of units on a lot historically occupied by one house. All other single-family dwelling zoning conditions—building height, setback, lot size, and lot coverage requirements--remain in place under P&Z’s recommendations. Thus, the fear that Southern Towers-style apartment buildings will be built in neighborhoods such as Beverly Hills, North Ridge, Del Ray and Rosemont appears overstated.
The Projected Impacts of Changes to Single-Family Zoning
In a city with 23,195 single-family dwelling units (out of a total of 89,943 units as of June 20, 2022) P&Z’s staff calculates that the opportunity to construct dwellings with 2, 3 or 4 units, depending on the type of single-family zone (there are several) would add, over a 10-year period, an estimated 66 new residential buildings containing between 150 and 178 units.
Thus, the projected citywide effect of changing the zoning code’s requirement that each house in a single-family zone be a one-family residence with no more than one front door seems to be limited. The size of the building on the lot will not change. The potential inside uses will change if the dwelling complies with the other constraints of the zoning code.
An indicator of the possible pace, or adoption rate, of the proposed changes to the single-family provisions of the zoning code might be the rate of uptake on the City Council’s January 2021 decision to authorize accessory dwelling units. Thus far, 49 have been built.
The essential policy decision for the single-family zones is framed in this P&Z recommendation:
Staff recommends an amendment to a policy statement contain in some 1992 chapters of the [city’s] Master Plan. That policy statement states that densities in single family residential neighborhoods should not be increased. Staff believes that our housing and planning policies have evolved since 1992 such that the overall goal of supporting and protecting residential neighborhoods is no longer dependent on strict adherence to one dwelling unit per lot.
The Economics and Physics of Real Estate Development
Real estate development is a math story problem involving cash-on-cash return: Will the land acquisition and construction expense required to build the project generate a sufficient profit through sales or rents such that (1) project financing is available and (2) the project is economically viable for the developer? Alexandria’s single-family neighborhoods have evolved in ways that make profitable multi-unit redevelopment of single unit lots challenging.
For example, it is difficult to make a traditional townhouse into a multi-unit dwelling. The actual opportunity for multi-unit dwellings in the single-family zones seems to be mostly in the city’s 9,132 detached dwellings. However, the neighborhoods with detached dwellings often contain expensive houses, many of which have been substantially enlarged by additions, on small or modestly-sized lots. The optimal situation for multi-unit residential redevelopment is the reverse: inexpensive houses on large lots.
Why the Proposed Deletion of “Family” in “Single-Family Zoning” Matters
The ZFH/HFA recommendations suggest deleting the word “family” from the zoning ordinance. This deletion (which may portend a change to “single-unit zoning”) will not create additional housing or affordable housing, but it indicates changes in thinking about housing.
Instead of family relationship as a determinant, occupancy limits would be determined by building capacity as permitted in the statewide building code which localities subscribe to or adopt. The subtext to the elimination of “family” is (1) families are increasingly configured in different ways, and (2) changing the single-family provisions can be misinterpreted as an attack on families, thus the advantage of deleting the word from the zoning code.
Needed: A Scorecard
ZFH/HFA faces two directions at once. As an entirety, the reforms are broadly important to Alexandria’s land use future. However, only select proposals will be potentially relevant to most residents.
The initial reaction to ZFH/HFA has been mixed. A Planning Commission member reacted publicly at the September 5 joint City Council/Planning Commission meeting by describing ZFH/HFA as “underwhelming”—meaning that the proposals do not go far enough to create additional housing and affordable housing.
P&Z has projected the number of additional housing units that are expected over 10 years by permitting multi-unit dwellings in the single-family zones. Community understanding would be improved if P&Z would provide a brief summary, or “scorecard,” showing the projected yields of new housing and affordable housing units from ZFH/HFA’s other components.
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