Deal with Developer in Alexandria

Deal with Developer in Alexandria

First council brawl of the fall.

Potomac Yard development approved by City Council.

Potomac Yard development approved by City Council. Photo contributed

Everyone on the City Council had misgivings about the project. There was an hour of public testimony from local residents opposing the project, one on the verge of tears. There were concerns about how the new development would dwarf nearby townhouses. There were concerns about the public engagement process that members of the City Council said had spread misinformation about the project. But at the end of the day, developer Pulte made the City Council an offer they couldn’t refuse: more affordable housing.

Development plans are for Landbays H and I East in Potomac Yard. Development at the site was originally capped to 36 units at 55 feet, but Pulte proposed a 138 unit condominium that would exceed height limitations to 70 feet. The new building would be set back from the street, and the 70 feet section of the building would be on the furthest east portion of the site, but local residents said that they were not prepared to live next to a development of this scale when they had purchased their homes.

Midway through the council discussion, attorney Kathy Puskar announced that the nine affordable housing units the developer had earlier asked not to include would be restored. The affordable housing units had been a major sticking point for several members of the council and its restoration had a substantial impact on the final vote.

“I’m sensitive to the neighbor’s concerns,” said Councilman Willie Bailey. “The woman came up and was very emotional about that, I feel that same way about affordable housing. I really do. I find it difficult when I’m weighing other issues when it relates to affordable housing because we’ve lost thousands and thousands of units in the past 10 years. If there was a way to keep it at 55 feet and keep that affordable housing, I’m all for it. But knowing we’ve lost thousands of units … I find it hard to go against a project that has affordable housing connected to it.”

During the discussion, the City Council wrangled a few more alterations to the project from Puskar. The parking garage would be located on Swann Avenue. Changes were made to the parking conditions that would allow tenants to rent their space out to others if it wasn’t being used.

But the one area where the developer wouldn’t budge was on the height issues. Mayor Allison Silberberg said her intention was to defer the approval to give the developer a few more weeks to have a conversation with the surrounding neighbors, but Puskar declined.

“With all due respect, we’re not willing to do that,” said Puskar. “We have deferred already. We’ve been through a process and made modifications in response to neighbor concerns. We are striking a balance we think is delicate. Here today we have agreed to additional items. There is no benefit in deferring. It will not change the project; we’ve made a lot of changes in response to the neighbors.”

Silberberg repeatedly tried to suggest alternatives that lowered the height limits, but Puskar stuck to the same line.

“You would have lost affordable housing,” said Puskar. “You would have lost tax revenue. Once again, we have made the compromises that we’re willing to make. You all have to use your judgment to decide whether this project meets the Potomac Yard design guidelines. If it’s not this project, it won’t be affordable housing.”

After the public hearing was closed, the council continued to question Puskar about the details of the project. In an unusual move, Silberberg also called forward one of the members of the local community to ask whether the changes were acceptable.

Silberberg said, “I was trying to understand. There have been some compromises made that happened after you spoke. I’m trying, given the nature of the process which I feel has not been perfect. I’m just saying, some adjustments have been made, and you all are still feeling ….”

Silberberg didn’t get a chance to finish her thought. Other members of the council were visibly shaken by the exchange and interjected.

“Extraordinary,” Lovain repeated. “This is extraordinary.”

“I think this is really unfair to put people on the spot like that. Not only you, but a lot of people have been working towards compromise to get the best thing available. I think we’re trying to address the key issues we heard from the neighbors. I think the compromise is coming through, but it’s really unfair to put people on the spot like that. It’s our decision now … doing this and putting them in an awkward position isn’t helping.”

In an outcome that has become familiar in past City Council legislative sessions, the council voted 6-1 in favor of the development with Silberberg dissenting.