Duplexes are allowed in Del Ray, so why not elsewhere? Image by Dan Reed licensed under Creative Commons.

As of 2017, Alexandria lost 90% of the affordable housing it had back in 2000. The city could start to address this shortage by adding housing in areas currently zoned for single-family homes, in a way that would mimic some of its best neighborhoods.

A few weeks ago, GGWash contributor Tracy Loh posted a series of maps illustrating how the Washington region is zoned. Some of those areas—like parks or the agricultural reserve—might stay off-limits to housing for good reasons, while some smaller areas already host a lot of homes. However, a huge percentage of the land is zoned for single-family homes only.

Loh's map powerfully illuminates how much of our area is restricted from new and denser housing. The US approach over the past few decades is that once an area is zoned for single-family homes, it ought to stay that way. This norm is so entrenched that when Minneapolis recently did away with it, national headlines hailed it as a “radical” step in housing policy.

It would surely be a big step if a similar policy was adopted here, but really, would it be so radical? Maybe not everywhere.

Alexandria's most beloved neighborhoods are also the most dense

The Alexandria "donut hole." Everything in a shade of yellow is an area zoned for single-family homes.  Image by Tracy Loh.

In Alexandria, most of the city's single-family zones are surrounded by denser ones, making the city resemble a donut. On the east side, the historic areas that make up Old Town and Del Ray were developed before the advent of modern zoning, and thus contain more homes. On the west side, there are a large number of apartment complexes and towers that line I-395.

Similarly, along the southern border I-495, Metro's Blue Line, and rail lines carrrying Amtrak and VRE have fostered denser development. Further north, there are a number of industrial and commercial uses along the Arlington County Border leading to the Potomac Yard area, which is in the middle of a rapid transformation into an urban neighborhood anchored around the forthcoming metro station.

In the middle lies the “donut hole” of Alexandria's zoning. Despite dominating the central portion, overall the city's single-family-only zones make up just 29% of its land area and most of it allows for more density than exists today. It's not all towers, either—most of the buildings in Old Town are only a few stories tall, but nevertheless it's one of the region's densest areas.

Close by, the quirky Del Ray neighborhood notably makes it easy to build two houses where there was once only one. That's probably a good model for filling the “donut hole,” since this would allow for organic change over time without the need for an overarching master plan and commitment from lots of stakeholders.

Row homes define Old Town, but we could build more across the rest of Alexandria too.  Image by Ken Lund licensed under Creative Commons.

We can fill in the donut hole and not worry about the calories

There are some challenges to adding more people, in particular the need to improve transit and connectivity between neighborhoods. DASH, the city's bus service, has gaps in routes that connect the dense parts to one another. Already-congested roads have solidified neighborhood resistance to adding bus or bicycle lanes, like the ones on King Street that were built only after a fight.

Other political pushback is probably to be expected as well. The city just came out of a competitive election where the pace of the city's growth was a central issue between the two candidates. That was certainly the case in Minneapolis, but through a careful campaign of civic engagement, the city was able to make the changes.

With a new mayor interested in helping the city grow and stay as affordable as it can, the political climate might be right to try to engage neighbors about the benefits of more flexible zoning—especially since those benefits can already be seen in Alexandria with a short trip over to Old Town, Del Ray, or even Cameron Village.

Small changes across the donut hole that add a little bit of housing here and a little bit of housing there certainly shouldn't seem more radical than the wholesale redevelopment of freight yards and industrial space to homes and parks, like what's happening in Potomac Yard. Now the formerly industrial site has huge bloc of walkable housing and shops that will soon extend from I-495 up to the Pentagon.

High prices and lack of options shouldn't wall off Alexandria to all but the few who can afford it. Filling the “donut hole” wouldn't solve the region's affordable housing problem, or even Alexandria's, but it would be an important step in shaping our community to be more inclusive and affordable for everyone.

Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Reston.