Posts by Nick Partee
|Nick Partee writes for The Arlandrian about neighborhoods on the north end of Alexandria. He helped start up and still helps run the weekly Four Mile Run Farmers and Artisans Market. His primary interest is making Arlandria and surrounding neighborhoods greater by applying successful urban principles to build a sustainable community. He can be seen spending far too much of his free time running the farmers market, "geurrilla gardening", or coordinating other volunteer efforts to eek out every ounce of potential he can in Arlandria.|
Officials have refined the options for where to place the Potomac Yard Metro station. Neighbors concerned about impacts to the George Washington Parkway are opposing 2 options which place the station closer to planned development, but the Metro station will bring far more long-term traffic relief than just avoiding temporary construction.
The project is now in the middle of its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) phase. Officials have refined a set of 9 alternatives down to 3, plus a 4th no-build scenario. The City of Alexandria is now required by law to evaluate each of the 3 alternatives that made it through the screening phase.
Some residents at a public meeting on April 19 vehemently opposed alternatives B and D, because the project's construction could temporarily affect the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Both of those alternatives place the station farther north than the other alternative, A.
The speakers came primarily from Potomac Greens and Old Town. Some were fine with a station at A, while others opposed the station entirely. For most, the Parkway was the primary reason they cited, though some also feared construction noise and didn't want a station near their homes.
Impact on the GW Parkway
Those opposed to alternatives B and D repeatedly lauded the uniqueness of the parkway among capital cities worldwide. They demanded that officials throw out any build alternative that interferes with the roadway, even for two years or less.
Alternative D, located closest to existing and planned density in the area, probably has the most impact on the GW Parkway. This alternative requires elevating tracks to cross over the existing Metrorail and CSX tracks, passing through an aerial station roughly where the movie theater now stands, and then passing back over the CSX tracks to rejoin existing tracks.
There are construction benefits and drawbacks for this option, but it undoubtedly puts the infill station much closer to existing neighborhoods and the densest portion of future planned development.
At least two speakers at the meeting asked for a traffic study, but this study has already been done as part of the Potomac Yard small area plan (chapter 6). One infill Metro station isn't a traffic panacea, but according to the study, traffic will be worse in the Potomac Yards area if the station is not built.
The Potomac Yard small area plan calls for drastically-reduced density without a Metro station. But even in this scenario, traffic will be worse than with higher density and a Metro station. The closer the Metro station is to existing and planned density, the more cars it will take off the road.
Nonetheless, Old Town resident Poul Hertel reached as far back as 1902 to protest impacts on the Parkway, quoting a document from the McKinley Commission referring to the "Mount Vernon Road" as "affording an opportunity for the most refreshing and delightful drive to be had in any direction from Washington and not to be equaled at any great capital of the world."
While historical context is important, the massive back-ups on this main artery into the city mean McKinley's commission surely would have enjoyed the "refreshing and delightful" drive far less today. They probably would have made a temporary trade-off in parkway accessibility to save green space farther out from the city and temper traffic increases long-term.
The EIS process
Alexandria staff explained at the meeting that they are working with the National Park Service, and nothing will go forward without approval by the NPS. There are also other requirements regarding technical and financial viability, among other things.
Officials cannot throw out alternatives during the EIS phase until the city puts forward a locally-preferred alternative. But speakers demanding staff eliminate parkway-disturbing options did not yield, as speaker after speaker stood up to call for the city to change course in a way that is not possible.
David Fromm of Del Ray pointed out that the city could have done a better job explaining the reasons the screening process put forward each alternative. He was right, but it didn't appear that the most vocal in the audience would have been convinced by any option that breached the sanctity of the GW Parkway, regardless of long-term traffic benefits.
City staff periodically referred speakers to the PY website since they could not cover the vast amount of information about the potential development in a single public meeting.
Density, transit and the urban core
One speaker seemed to understand the larger point. Though she is a Potomac Greens resident who surely will be impacted by the construction, she pointed out that without the infill station, future growth in the area will make it so everyone will have plenty of time to admire things along the GW Parkway-turned-parking-lot, as traffic continues to get worse.
Large growth in the DC area is coming, so area municipalities need to responsibly manage that growth with improved infrastructure. Her statement brought sporadic applause, indicating she was not the lone supporter of the station.
For tangible proof of the traffic-reducing impacts of public transit and responsible land use planning, look no further than the Rosslyn-Ballston-Clarendon corridor. In this corridor, with access to public transit, people choose to live closer to jobs, stores, restaurants, etc.
In turn, people use their cars less, if they keep a car at all. This is why traffic volumes in that corridor have stayed relatively flat over the past 30 years despite massive development. Creating these livable communities reduces driving and therefore traffic.
With growth coming to the DC area, we can either clear-cut and pave over more outlying forests, or add more density close to the core. The most responsible action is to create dense, livable communities with good access to multi-modal transportation.
Even if urban living isn't for everyone, real estate pricing and trends indicate there's a shortage of walkable, transit-oriented communities and an over-supply of distant, exurban sprawl.
To be good stewards of our region, we simply must build density near transit near the urban core. If the most feasible option requires disturbing the GW Parkway during construction, that should not be a reason to avoid it. Temporarily interfering with GW Parkway traffic patterns does not outweigh losing acres of land that would have to be built farther out to replace the lost units and transportation capacity in Alexandria.
Cross-posted at The Arlandrian.
The city of Alexandria is in a period of transition. As older suburban strips come under increasing pressure to redevelop, the city is working hard on solutions to transportation issues and increasing the supply of affordable housing. The Beauregard area plan is a key example of these challenges and potential solutions.
"We're growing as a city and as a region, so how do we manage that growth?" This was the focus of Alexandria Deputy Director of Planning and Zoning Jeff Farner as he presented the draft Beauregard Small Area Plan at a recent press conference.
Beauregard, which lies northwest of I-395 between the Landmark area and King St, is currently comprised of low density garden style apartments. But with the addition of Bus Rapid Transit, additional density, and the preservation of 703 units of affordable housing, the area is primed for change.
Alexandria is in a period of urbanization, a transformation from largely suburban apartment housing, strip mall shopping centers, and industrial brownfield areas to a series of walkable, mixed-use, transit oriented places. At the same time, the housing stock in much of Alexandria is aging and reaching the end of its useful life.
Now the city is working feverishly, using a rare opportunity when so many developments need to be replaced within a few decades to undo mistakes of the past 40 to 50 years. Simultaneously, the city is riding the Transit Oriented Development wave and filling in formerly industrial brownfield sites while trying to keep traffic impacts to a minimum.
Not everyone welcomes all these changes. Real estate values in walkable neighborhoods are on the rise, a sure sign that demand for such units outstrips supply. Unfortunately, that also means creating new walkable places will often drive housing prices out of the affordable range, even for those making 70 or 80% of Area Median Income (AMI).
But what can be done when a building reaches the end of its useful life? With today's construction costs, even renovating or rebuilding an old building will drive rent prices out of reach for many existing residents.
Deputy City Manager Mark Jinks highlighted one example of this in the Beauregard corridor, where the Encore building saw rent increases of 90% after renovation. Jinks warned that without proper planning, this pattern will be repeated as developers update and replace their aging buildings and look to recoup costs.
With the Beauregard Small Area Plan, Alexandria may have partially solved that problem. Under the proposed plan, as the corridor rebuilds, the 5 developers involved will fund the majority of the creation of 703 dedicated affordable and workforce housing units. The development footprint currently contains over 5,500 total units of housing.
According to the plan, "approximately 44% of the existing units [in the plan area] are market rate affordable units, which constitutes more than 25% of the City's total market affordable housing inventory." Of the current 2515 units of market rate affordable housing, the plan as drafted would ensure that 28% of the existing affordable housing units are retained as dedicated affordable and workforce housing units. Depending on future market rates, additional housing may stay in the affordable range.
The units will be broken down into three levels of affordability, with those making a maximum of 55%, 65%, and 80% of AMI eligible to rent the various units. As is the standard, rents of affordable housing units will be set to a maximum 30% of the AMI tier.
For example from the following chart, 60% of AMI is currently about $58,050 for a three-person household, and rent for a two bedroom apartment is set to a maximum of $1,432 per month and a three bedroom comes in at no more than $1,655. The two bedroom rate is below 30% of their earnings, while the three bedroom comes in slightly above. Of course, those making less than 55% of of AMI are still eligible to rent the units as long as they are tenants in good standing. In some cases, housing vouchers could help lower earning tenants make rent.
Each affordable housing unit will cost the City somewhere in the ballpark of $47,000. Montgomery County recently posed as much as $90,000 per affordable housing unit in a similarly sized affordable housing push. Alexandria's lower share per unit in this plan appears due to the developer picking up a substantial chunk of the cost in exchange for upzoning.
The Beauregard Small Area Plan covers 220 acres, more than three times the 70 acres of the North Potomac Yard Small Area Plan. The planning process was led by a developer-funded consultant working closely with the City and the community over a 2-year planning period.
The study area currently contains development totaling about 6 million square feet. Current zoning allows up to about 10 million square feet, but the plan calls for upzoning to allow 12-million square feet of development. This would include a minimum of 250,000 square feet of retail between a town center area and around a traffic oval dubbed "the ellipse".
As a comparison, the Potomac Yard plan allows up to 7.5 million square feet in approximately one third of the acreage, making the Beauregard plan almost exactly half as dense as the Potomac Yard plan. However, even at half the density of the Potomac Yard plan, this upzoning would bring a very large development proffer.
The developer contribution of $187 million will be augmented by $33 million from tax revenues for an extensive list of community benefits.
The most dramatic changes will be Bus Rapid Transit along the entire corridor, the dedicated affordable housing units, the creation of the "ellipse" traffic oval at the intersection of Seminary and Beauregard Roads, a new fire station, and an expanded street-grid with smaller block sizes. These specific contributions will be in addition to typical developer public benefits such as streetscape enhancement, sewer and utility upgrades, public art, etc.
The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) route will run the length of the corridor and connect to the Landmark area and Van Dorn Metro. The plan calls for the BRT route to run in a separate right-of-way where possible and includes the possibility of future conversion to streetcars. This BRT line would likely connect to the City's other BRT corridors at Landmark and the Pentagon.
A selling point of the draft plan is that many of the community benefits would be in place by 2020. Alexandria plans to use Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to fund the BRT corridor, the "ellipse" improvements, initial street grid improvements, and Beauregard landscaping.
One common concern with TIF is that if too much of the incremental tax value is obligated to repay the debt service, the area benefited by the TIF ends up without enough tax revenue to cover general city services, which are then essentially paid for by tax revenue from the rest of the City.
Mark Jinks ensured this would not be the case, as the projected demographics of the plan area include fewer school aged kids than in more suburban portions of the City. Since schools are the main cost driver on the list of general City services, the plan area will be relatively low cost.
Despite an additional 2,800 units of housing, additional retail and office space, Alexandria Division Chief of Transportation Planning Sandra Marks stated traffic conditions are expected to improve as the plan area is built out.
The introduction of mixed-use development, a more connected street grid that applies complete streets principles, the BRT corridor, and parking maximums are primary factors that are expected to lead to fewer traffic delays. Parking maximums will be 1.75 spaces per multi-family unit (and 2 spaces per townhouse) before transit is built out, and 1.33 spaces per unit afterwards.
Marks pointed out how little the existing streets and bike and pedestrian facilities connect to those of surrounding neighborhoods. The Beauregard Small Area Plan seeks to remedy that problem, which should distribute traffic more evenly throughout the neighborhood. It also helps that all residential units within the plan area will be within a 5-7 minute walk to a transit stop.
Alexandria will hold a community meeting about the plan on Tuesday, Feb. 21 from 7:00 PM - 9:00 PM at John Adams Elementary School. Alexandria is currently accepting comments on the plan through the City website. There is room for revision as the plan is in a draft stage.
One thing is clear. The City of Alexandria plans to gradually increase density into a more urban development pattern over the next few decades. Arguments for and against this change are sure to rage for years to come, but as Jeff Farner said, people are coming, so the City and other regional municipalities must absorb this demand and grow responsibly.
Do we want urban, transit oriented development close to and within the District, or additional exurban sprawl? Alexandria is making it clear that while it plans to manage that growth, it definitely plans to grow.
While most plans for a Potomac Yard Metro station place it along the current tracks, hope remains alive for a better option: placing the station on the west side of the CSX tracks, closer to planned infill development. This would maximize the number of potential riders and best reduce traffic.
At a meeting last night on station alternatives, staff revealed that they're still evaluating this option, D3. They don't yet have a cost estimate, but expect to know by February. Meanwhile, this option is tentatively listed as "technically and financially feasible."
The Potomac Yard infill metro station began its environmental review process late last year. There are 4 general alternatives, A through D, with various sub-options. Alternatives A and B propose a station in the current Metrorail right-of-way, separated from existing and future development by the CSX tracks.
Alternative C, meanwhile, proposed an underground station to the west of the CSX tracks under the existing shopping center. The station entrances would be between Potomac Avenue and Jefferson Davis Highway.
While this location would maximize projected ridership and effect on development, the underground station would be extremely expensive. Based on the EIS scoping document, they were ruled out as technically and financially unfeasible. The proximity to Four Mile Run and the CSX tracks appears to be to blame.
Finally, Alternative D proposed an aerial station where the tracks would rise over their current location, cross over to the west side of the the CSX tracks, then return to the east side after the station to rejoin the existing tracks. This alternative doesn't have the station as far west as the underground alternatives, instead leaving it just to the east of Potomac Avenue.
Like the underground options, the original two aerial alternatives, D1 and D2, had been deemed prohibitively expensive and/or technically unfeasible. But during the scoping phase of the EIS, a new D3 option arose that would place the station inside the Potomac Yard development footprint.
Though D3 was listed as financially feasible, at the meeting to review the report last night, it was revealed that an estimate for option D3 hasn't been nailed down yet. However, the implementation group must have a ballpark figure in mind to list D3 as financially feasible. An estimate will be revealed by a meeting on February 6.
While the A and all 3 B alternatives that remain also meet these four criteria, D3 has a benefit the others do not.
Alternative D3 is the last remaining alternative which places the station on the west side of the CSX right-of-way. This is important, because options the Route 1 side of the CSX tracks move the Metro closer to more potential riders and will therefore increase potential ridership. Proposed development will surely increase the number of trips to and from the area, so capturing the most possible trips via transit is essential for traffic mitigation.
With option D3 still on the table, the Potomac Yard Metro station could serve almost as many people as the underground and alternate aerial options for a much smaller cost.
The advisory group found that the D (aerial station) and C (underground station) alternatives significantly increase the amount of potential development, and therefore people, that fall within the ¼-mile and ½-mile walkshed. They move the station further into the eventual PY development area, and closer to the existing medium density neighborhoods to the west.
Alternative A would serve significantly fewer people without a lengthy walk. This will drive many away from Metro as a feasible transportation option. The new D3 option is closer to options B1, B2, and B3 than the other rejected aerial options, but will still save a lot of walking as well as stairs, escalators, and elevators required to go up, over the CSX tracks, and back down to a Metro platform.
Unfortunately, options D1 and D2 were rejected as they did not prove technically feasible. Both aerial options were farther north and so would have served the densest part of the planned development most conveniently. You can review the scoping presentation for more information about feasibility.
Other new alternatives that were considered during the scoping session and found incompatible with stated goals were a VRE station, parking garages, and additional stations developed in other parts of Alexandria. When a final alternative is chosen, it will be compared with the no-build scenario.
At that point, the PY Metro Station Implementation Work Group will send the EIS forward to WMATA. The public has opportunities for input throughout. Here is the high level project schedule, with the station projected to open in 2016.
The final decision on the station alternative is far from made. One of the reasons the 'D' series of alternatives was rejected earlier was the developer didn't want to deal with building out the PY development while working around Metro construction. This is still a possible concern, though the new alignment may have been devised to mitigate this impact.
It is also possible that option D3 is still more expensive than option 'A' and the various 'B' options. However the D3 option remains the last possibility to make the Potomac Yard metro station truly the center of a future transit oriented development node.
The Potomac Yard infill station in Alexandria is on track to open in 2016. It had better, because any delays could imperil Alexandria's funding for the project.
An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is now underway, as required by law. As governments commonly do with EISes, they have launched a project website to disseminate information to the public.
The EIS process should last through 2013, and the city is closely managing the project against a goal of opening by the end of 2016. Vice Mayor Kerry Donley emphatically reminded staff at a meeting Tuesday that funding for the new Potomac Yard station is dependent upon on-time completion:
Any slippage in time along the way costs more money in one of two ways. Either in expense or inability to gather revenue as quickly as we would like... all of our projections on bonds, all of our projections on repayment of the bond are all predicated on opening in 2016.The City of Alexandria created a special tax district and tax increment financing (TIF) area to pay for the station. That revenue depends on development around the station, but the development depends on the station. The city has issued bonds to pay for the station and budgeted funds to cover the bond debt service the first few years, but is counting on the TIF for later years. If the station and surrounding development are delayed, the bond repayment costs could cut into other city services or cause other financial complications.
To allay fears, staff informed Council that the city has hired a project manager to keep it on task. Also, WMATA is partially responsible for project oversight, and John Thomas, the project manager for the New York Avenue infill station, is overseeing the station for WMATA.
The EIS process will include refining the Metro station location alternatives. All alternatives are on the table, including not building the station, our preferred option that would better benefit existing neighborhoods, and any other alternatives they might think of during the process. All station configurations There are two meetings coming up to inform the public about the EIS and the scope of the alternatives, the afternoon and evening of Feburary 10 at Cora Kelly Rec Center in Arlandria, 25 West Reed Ave, Alexandria.
To watch video of the Potomac Yard Metro presentation from Tuesday's city council meeting, click here and go to docket item 21 (this will take you to 49:45 on the video). The oresentation and discussion runs about 18 minutes. Cross-posted at The Arlandrian.
There are two meetings coming up to inform the public about the EIS and the scope of the alternatives, the afternoon and evening of Feburary 10 at Cora Kelly Rec Center in Arlandria, 25 West Reed Ave, Alexandria.
To watch video of the Potomac Yard Metro presentation from Tuesday's city council meeting, click here and go to docket item 21 (this will take you to 49:45 on the video). The oresentation and discussion runs about 18 minutes.
Cross-posted at The Arlandrian.
At last Thursday's Potomac Yard Planning Advisory Group (PYPAG) meeting, Alexandria's Deputy Director of Planning and Zoning Jeff Farner joked that this will "probably" be the last one, which drew a few tentative chuckles from the group. The planning of Potomac Yard seems to have gone on for years if not decades.
The goal for the product of over a year of effort, the "North Potomac Yard Small Area Plan" (draft PDF), is set to go before the Alexandria Planning Commission and City Council for approval in April. But, truth be told, until the Metro station funding is resolved, there is probably no point in sending it forward.
Deputy City Manager Mark Jinks danced around the funding questions as everyone present tried to read between the lines. The good news is that what was an original gap was $75 million has been worked it down to $32 million by capitalizing the debt, rolling early debt service payments into the loan. Based on discussion later in the meeting, the City expects the rest of the gap to be closed by developers.
Planning Commissioner Eric Wagner ended an awkward question session by saying that it is not the time or place to discuss negotiating points, but that they can "see the finish line," something they could not have said just a month or two ago. As it stands, the $32 million funding gap is still a problem, but they expect to resolve it before a plan goes to City Council.
Item 2 on the agenda was a so-called "flex-zone" centered around the area reserved for the sought-after Metro station. Fellow blogger Froggie wrote up a good summary of this discussion in a recent post:
This is a planned area immediately around the northern Metro station entrance (Blocks 14 thru 21, except for Block 17) that is intended to be a pedestrian-intensive zone. The plan includes a roughly 0.75 acre park centrally located within the "Zone", surrounded on all sides by streets, with adjacent buildings facing the park. Much of the immediate area is intended for Office use with street-level retail.I think the real item at issue is trying to maximize the value and quantity of the office space in the development without losing the vibrancy of quality mixed-use development. One citizen complained that they don't see how the proposed plan presented for the Yard decreases Alexandria's burden on the residential tax base (a much desired tenet of Alexandria's long range plans since 60% of its tax revenue is derived from residential property with only 40% commercial). Ultimately, the plan should bring in a tremendous amount tax revenue.
There was a request from one Group member for a clarification and a more precise definition of just what constitutes "mixed-use". This turned into a discussion on what should be appropriate land use next to the Metro station, which produced a couple of interesting (yet somewhat contradictory) statements (below are paraphrased and not verbatim):
- "Residents living next to Metro use it more than office workers next to Metro". Meanwhile...
- "Residents are willing to walk farther to Metro than office workers."
The general consensus appeared to be that Office use was more appropriate closest to Metro.
PYPAG members were divided about whether or not to include a reservation for a school in the plan. Deputy Planning Director Farner proposed that a school not be ruled-out, which would require shifting some proposed uses and building heights to accommodate the possibility of a school. Planning Commisioner Wagner and others thought that it made little sense to include a school on a prime residential block adjacent to the Circle Park and Four Mile Run. Mr. Wagner proposed postponing the decision about the location of a school in order to try to identify the best overall location as opposed to adjusting the plan to include the possibility for a school on-site. This item will be revisited by City staff.
The transportation element of the plan brought about some of the most heated discussion of the evening. Planning Commissioner Wagner made note of a line in the draft "Implementation" chapter of the plan that he'd only just noticed: "... 16 million dollars in construction costs are anticipated for the dedicated transitway, with an additional $5 million anticipated for other transportation improvements, including a future east-west connection to Commonwealth Ave..."
This last portion drew the ire of Mr. Wagner. He said he'd never heard any discussion of the east-west connection to Commonwealth Avenue and he thought it amounted to a "deal-breaker." City Transportation Planner Sandra Marks stated the likely location would be somewhere on or near the Jack Taylor Toyota site (see orange line on map below). Mr. Wagner and another Del Ray resident were very concerned that this item would dramatically increase the effect on the surrounding neighborhoods...mainly Del Ray.
View Potomac Yard Transportation Discussion in a larger map
Ms. Marks defended the need for the extra east-west connection by stating that both E. Glebe Road and E. Reed Avenue are (or will be) at service level F, the lowest level of road performance. (I wasn't 100% sure whether or not they were talking current service level or expected service level in a build or no build scenario).
Lastly, City Planners went around the table and had each person voice his or her overall opinion of the plan, whether or not they support it, and any specific issues. All but three of the attendees supported the plan, and the three were among the most important members of the group: Planning Commissioner Eric Wagner, Potomac Yard Development, LLC (owner/developer of Landbays D, E, H, I, J, K, and L), and MRP Realty (owner/developer of landbay G).
Mr. Wagner's lone issue was the east-west connector to Commonwealth Avenue. He supports the plan without the extra connector, but said that one street is a deal-breaker for him. He seems to think that all the work that was put into "protecting the neighborhoods" would be undone by this one additional street that is likely to just break up the logjams of E. Glebe Road and E. Reed Avenue. I'm skeptical that it would make any difference at all on Commonwealth south of intersection with East/West Glebe.
Both owners of the properties south of the planning area (from just south of the existing Target location all the way down to Old Town) were not supportive of the plan as-is. They are both upset about an expected $10 per sqft proffer demanded by the City as well as the fact that they feel they are not being treated equally to Landbay F (the current retail center) in terms of the amount of public benefit expected of them. They also complained that they are being required to underground more parking than Landbay F, among other unnamed inequities. Planning Director Farrol Hamer said the City will be sure to treat the developers equally in comparable zoning uses and asked if the developers would support the plan without the $10 per sqft proffer.
I was surprised at the public display and have a feeling they are headed back to the negotiating table. The representative of Potomac Yard Development, LLC essentially said they feel McCaffery Interests (Landbay F owner) should cut a check for the Metro funding gap since the upzoning in the proposed plan gives him an instant property value increase of about $240 million. Potomac Yard Development, LLC has already spent about $100 million in infrastructure improvements, including a new fire-station with 64 affordable housing units, and the new Monroe Avenue Bridge, among other projects.
Mr. Wagner wrapped up by saying he thinks the Metro funding gap might be more than $32 million because of how slow build-out usually occurs. He thinks they might be too optimistic with the build-out schedule based on experience. Still, they're hopeful to finalize a financing plan by the City Council meeting on April 17th.
This was not the positive message we've been hoping for, but despite the posturing between the city and various development interests, City staff insists that they're closing in on that coveted goal of a new Metro station.
Cross-posted at The Arlandrian.
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