Mount Vernon's plan advances

Council gives preliminary OK to renewal measure with lower building heights than first sought


The City Council gave preliminary approval last night to a Mount Vernon renewal plan that supports lower building heights than what developers and city officials had originally sought for the historic neighborhood.

After several years of contentious negotiations among residents, developers and planning officials, community leaders credited Council President Sheila Dixon last night for brokering a compromise.

"This was a cohesive partnership between all parties," Dixon said after the council unanimously moved the plan one step closer to final approval.

The council is likely to take its final vote at its next meeting April 4. The measure had languished in the council's Urban Affairs Committee for months as officials struggled to reach a compromise on how high developers should be allowed to build in the city's oldest historic district.

The plan will set redevelopment and land use guidelines, governing the district until 2010. The most contentious issue has been a proposed cap on building height. Developers wanted it set at 200 feet, while a neighborhood group preferred a 100-foot limit. At one point, the city's Planning Department wanted to allow new construction up to 230 feet.

The ordinance, which the Urban Affairs Committee recommended after a vote Friday, does not spell out specific height restrictions. Instead, the ordinance says the district is to be governed by limits set by the city Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.

CHAP's height limits range from 70 to 80 feet in areas near the Washington Monument and rise to a maximum of 150 feet farther from the landmark, mostly in Mount Vernon's northern sections.

"We looked at the community first," said Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch, who chairs the Urban Affairs Committee. "They were in the majority."

The compromise also established an amendment calling for a new affordable housing provision. Construction would have to set aside 10 percent of units for lower income residents, a condition pushed by Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr.

Mitchell - who represents the neighborhood - had been supporting height limits higher than CHAP's guidelines because taller buildings would have made room for more affordable housing.

The amendment, Mitchell said, "assures that Mount Vernon remains a diverse and affordable" neighborhood.

Paul Warren, vice president of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association, labeled the compromise "great news."

"The remaining question is what will be the response of the Charles Street Development Corp. whose vision and multi-year lobbying for skyscrapers in Mount Vernon has been roundly rejected at every level," Warren said in a written statement.

Jason Curtis, president of the community association, said Dixon forged a compromise in private meetings with preservationists over the past few weeks. He said that a recent $30 million, five-story development proves that the city "was being sold a bill of goods by the developers who said they needed over 20 stories."

The Charles Street Development Corp. has insisted developers need at least 200-foot-tall buildings to make money.

Alfred W. Barry III, a representative for the company, said the developer was not included in meetings with Dixon, and that it did not know about the affordable housing amendment until it was added Friday.

He said his group would have preferred higher height limits, but that he was pleased the council removed its direct oversight of height and gave that authority to the historic preservation commission.

CHAP's height restrictions are "guidelines," Barry said. "CHAP can evaluate the height without going back to the council. You would need CHAP approval but not council approval."

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