October 14, 2008
The Planning Commission voted 6-0 with one abstention to deny the Map Amendment for increased height and to defer the balance of the application submitted by IDI for its Hunting Terrace site. IDI sought to increase the density on Hunting Terrace while offering to preserve some of the Hunting Towers site across the George Washington Memorial Parkway as affordable housing. The proposal failed because IDI has not been able to acquire Hunting Towers from the Virginia Department of Transportation which condemned the site as part of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge project. The matter now goes to City Council which will need a supermajority to overturn the Commission’s action.
The debate on this project has pitted the proponents of affordable housing against preservationists. Adding 142 foot high towers to the southern entry to the City’s Historic District is not popular with Alexandrians who believe that low-scale architecture best fits their community.
This is not the first time IDI has come into conflict with those in the preservation community. Nearly three decades ago, they attempted to build a high-rise project called Watergate of Alexandria on the waterfront on land that is now Founder’s Park. After considerable community debate, IDI switched their project from high-rise to low-rise and built Watergate of Alexandria as a townhouse community on several blocks in north old town.
Affordable housing adds a new dimension to what is really an old debate. The question remains at what price Alexandria is willing to allow high-rise encroachment on its historic core. Formerly the debate centered on increased revenues from property taxes from residents in high-rises who did not demand a great deal of expensive city services ( i.e. schools). Now the developers have added $20 million in affordable housing funds to the pot.
It strikes us that the City’s planning for protecting the historic district is either important or is not. If it is important, then the City leadership should not be distracted by other issues like affordable housing, important though that may be. On the other hand, if protection is not important, then the revenue and aesthetic issues should predominate, and the extra money for affordable housing should only be viewed as a helpful addition.
Perhaps that is somewhat naive thinking. In this era of failing banks and collapsing stockmarkets, however, a return to more simple approaches appears necessary. In our society we have let the pursuit of money eclipse common sense and ethical behavior. The results have been disastrous. Applying this same thinking to public policy will be equally catastrophic. Governments at all levels can not say: “Bring us the big bucks and you can have whatever you want.”
Because IDI did not have control over Hunting Towers, the decision was made on practical grounds. The Commission said: “We can not accept a promise,” which was wise. If IDI actually controlled Hunting Towers the decision would have been much more difficult.
We do not agree that this decision will end the possibility of affordable housing at the Hunting Terrace & Hunting Towers sites. The state of the credit markets and the looming recession will provide some time. There may well be a plan that does not encroach as significantly on the historic district and the George Washington Memorial Parkway but which still will provide IDI with the economic viability it needs to proceed. The City should take an active part in trying to find it.