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In Built-Out Alexandria, Redevelopments Bring Desperately Needed Affordability

Alexandria has spent the past eight years implementing a plan to bring back its disappearing affordable housing. But as Northern Virginia's star has risen, affordable housing proponents have been eyeing density and conversions to add housing in the land-scarce city.

Alexandria faces significant challenges: There is unmet demand for 8,100 affordable units in the city, according to a 2021 Virginia report, the ninth most in the commonwealth. Since 2000, the city has lost 78% of its naturally occurring affordable housing, according to the Urban Institute.

Rendering for the redevelopment of the Samuel Madden Homes site in Alexandria

To address those challenges, local officials like Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority CEO Keith Pettigrew are taking a hard look at the city's built environment — including underused offices — in search of redeveloping properties to add housing, solving the crisis in place.

“I can build density," Pettigrew said. "My contribution to the affordable housing crisis in Alexandria is that most of my projects are lacking in density."

Pettigrew isn’t alone in pursuing redevelopment. The city amended its 2014 Housing Master Plan to facilitate denser development and more conversions, attempting to enact solutions to a challenge that has seemed intractable in neighboring jurisdictions, said Stephanie Landrum, president and CEO of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership. 

“Housing and affordable housing is absolutely an important part of the economic development infrastructure,” Landrum said. “The city of Alexandria has been, I think, a leader in recognizing that having housing at all income levels makes it the most diverse and vibrant city, which is what employers of the future are looking for.”

Landrum said her organization also recognized early on that it could play a role in facilitating development, especially in identifying superfluous office stock. 

But the pandemic has taken a niche occurrence and made it even more attractive for a city already eager for new redevelopment opportunities. She said recent corporate headquarters moves in Northern Virginia like Raytheon and Boeing, while symbolically important, often don't come with a significant new footprint. 

Landrum said it is a sign that long-term demand for office properties is down, and the best use for some of Alexandria’s older office stock is a conversion to residential, like the conversion of two office buildings into 435 residential units at Park Center or the 54-unit condo project at 801 North Fairfax St. She said the AEDP helped developers find good redevelopment opportunities pre-pandemic by weighing building age, floor plates and distance from transit. 

But in a post-vaccine world, she said the total square footage the average office tenant is taking will be another key indicator of where offices can be taken offline. 

Alexandria Economic Development Partnership CEO Stephanie Landrum

“What’s most important in Alexandria is to have active and vibrant full buildings,” Landrum said. “It is making us look a little bit more at other office buildings that have been vacated throughout Alexandria as a result of the pandemic.”

It's not just office properties getting redeveloped. ARHA, which administers 754 affordable units throughout the city, has also taken an aggressive approach to redeveloping its existing footprint to meet the modern needs of its low- and middle-income residents.

That includes advancing the redevelopment of the Samuel Madden homes, a collection of 66 townhomes that ARHA wants to redevelop into a 529-unit multifamily property.

The project is possible in part because Pettigrew has led the agency through a process of reclassifying its affordable units under federal standards to allow for their demolition and replacement, all while ensuring the same number of low-income units will be available once the project is completed, he said.

The Madden redevelopment will follow what Pettigrew called "a third-for-third-for-third model," — a third of the units will be reserved for low-income residents, a third for workforce housing and a third for market-rate units.

Pettigrew said by adding market-rate units to the development, in addition to 16K SF of street-level retail, he can build financial stability into ARHA’s portfolio and generate revenue for future renovations and projects.

“We’re looking at every tool in the toolbox,” Pettigrew said. “Right now, the city doesn’t have any money to give us, and we’re not asking for money.”

ARHA is also moving forward with redeveloping The Ladrey, a 10-story residential building that currently holds 170 units. The redevelopment will incorporate the footprint of the former ARHA headquarters, forming an L-shaped lot that Pettigrew said will have the same number of affordable units but bring the total unit count to roughly 300. 

He said he expects to announce the development partners for that project this summer.

Rendering of Wesley Housing's ParcView II development presented to Alexandria City Council on Feb. 12, 2022.

Private and nonprofit developers are helping the city boost its housing density. Wesley Housing’s Parcview II project, enabled by the city’s residential multifamily zoning designation introduced in 2019, is expected to add about 224 affordable units while preserving the 149 units already on-site, Wesley Housing Director of Real Estate Development Judith Cabelli said.

“Alexandria has been one of the more progressive jurisdictions in our region for addressing zoning challenges,” Cabelli said in an email.

Virginia’s 2021 report recognized that zoning is one of the biggest challenges facing affordable housing today, a sentiment echoed by President Joe Biden in his Housing Action Plan earlier this year.

But in Alexandria, affordable housing proponents who spoke with Bisnow said they were encouraged by the city’s active efforts to facilitate more housing, including a recent discussion of expanding the apartment-over-retail buildings that define Old Town.

While Pettigrew said the lack of available land is a challenge in the city, he believes he can work with the city to find ways to accommodate residents of all income levels.

“It's important for me now to be able to be that leader in affordable housing, at least in Alexandria, if not in Northern Virginia, with regard to the fact that I can build density,” Pettigrew said. “I’m always pushing that envelope.”