Posts about Waterfront
After a year of fevered debates over Alexandria's waterfront, it is time to embrace the basic framework approved by the planning commission. The commission's approach is the most economically feasible way to proceed, and it is also the plan most likely to actually produce the attractive waterfront we deserve.
A recently released alternative proposal falls far short and requires the city to borrow more than a hundred million dollars to buy, through eminent domain or otherwise, private land to add more open space to those already provided in the commission's plan.
The budget forecast recently delivered to the council anticipates years of slow economic growth. The reality is that Alexandria can't afford such outlandish spending.
In addition to increasing park space and including a new museum, the proposal approved by the planning commission addresses flooding problems and allows for better pedestrian access, and it does all of this within the current low-building heights and architectural care that characterize Old Town. Further, it uses a public-private financing approach that takes much of the economic burden off of taxpayers.
There are ideas in the alternative concept that merit consideration. For example, council should evaluate the appropriate number of hotels allowed along the waterfront, as well as work to prevent privatization of the remaining waterfront with more townhomes.
Encouraging adaptive re-use of historic spaces is important. And the idea of a waterfront not-for-profit that raises funds to improve and take care of the waterfront is a good one. But the sheer audacity of spending proposed in the alternative concept makes this a budget issue.
In addition to land purchases, the alternative would use funds to build and operate a maritime museum, which would allegedly attract thousands of people a day paying up to $5 per person.
This idea fails any basic test of reasonableness as evidenced by the failed maritime museum in New York, our fiscally challenged Carlyle House and Torpedo Factory, and the reality that no city museum has been able to pay for itself with an admission charge. To speak nothing of the impact of thousands of daily visitors attempting to park around Union Street.
Proponents of the alternative say that their plan will attract people and tax dollars to Old Town. It likely would. But the planning commission proposal would as well.
In fact, opponents once criticized the commission recommendation by saying more visitors to Old Town was a bad idea, raising concerns about traffic. They also once professed concerns about costs in the planning commission plan. Now they want to spend millions more and need a higher number of visitors to make up lost tax revenues and pay for their enormous borrowing binge. Their proposal contradicts their own arguments.
After 5 years of budget cuts, with our nation's lackluster economy, the council has to carefully manage city resources. The city manager recently asked departments to suggest up to 6 percent cuts in their budgets. Staff reductions and cuts over the years have already strained city services.
New city open space funding was killed by the recession. Our combined sewer system in Old Town needs hundreds of millions to fix. Library services have been reduced. Parks like Ft. Ward, Windmill Hill, and Four Mile Run, city pools and other public infrastructure have unfunded maintenance needs. We must improve fire and emergency services so residents on the west-end are treated as quickly as those on the east. And our police department can't sustain more cuts without diminishing services.
"Just borrow the money," some say. But they fail to consider the significant new taxes required for the bond payments or the impact of borrowing on our city's AAA credit rating. Or the risk that new borrowing undermines school and transportation needs.
We have a multi-year plan to add classrooms for our growing student population; it requires new funds each year. We will likely need even more to address continued crowding. And transportation and Metro costs continue to burden our city as state and federal funds vanish.
In short, we can't put basic needs on hold in exchange for a Quixotic quest for a few acres of land on the waterfront.
"Just get a grant," some say. There is no easy money from foundations and conservation organizations. I've talked to the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. Funds for land conservation are scarce, and existing funds are prioritized for less expensive and much larger swaths of land outside the Beltway.
I'd welcome any private citizens or groups that want to raise or donate funds to buy waterfront land. Anybody interested can contribute to the city open space account or can buy land themselves.
By working with the planning commission framework, we can have a waterfront that is a pleasure to walk along and visit without an extravagant waterfront spending spree. Opponents are entitled to hold the view that their proposed spending is a higher priority than education, public safety or transportation. Or that the city should do it all by raising taxes to be among the highest in the region. Or that the city should abandon its AAA credit rating to make the alternative work.
But they should be clear about what they want to give up and who it will impact. There are no free lunches. Not even on the waterfront.
This morning, the City of Alexandria announced an agreement with GenOn Energy that will shut down the Potomac River Generating Station on Alexandria's waterfront by October 2012.
The closure is an air quality and environmental justice win for the region. The plant had been a significant point source of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide air pollution for the region, according to Bill Skrabak, deputy director of Transportation and Environmental Services for the City of Alexandria. Much of this pollution blew across the Potomac River to Ward 8 and Prince George's County.
In the longer term, the waterfront site offers redevelopment opportunities. It had not been included in the city's Waterfront Small Area Plan. On a conference call this morning, city representatives said that they will continue to view the Waterfront Plan and potential redevelopment of the power plant as "discrete, separate issues."
The American Clean Skies Foundation, an advocate for closing the plant, released a plan for redeveloping the site several weeks ago as discussions heated up about a potential closure.
The closure could also help the Mount Vernon Trail. The Clean Skies plan, called Potomac River Green, includes moving the MVT out of the cage along the river and onto a greenway along Slater's Lane, a second trail on Dangerfield Island, connections along the extended street grid, and a bike station near a new water taxi pier.
The plant has become both less critical to the region's energy needs and more expensive to GenOn as a result of pollution reduction agreements with the City of Alexandria. In 2005, additional power lines were installed under the Potomac River to improve reliability for the region's electric grid. This reduced the need for the Alexandria plant. Over the past few years, the plant was used less often; there were even entire months over the past year where the generating station was not in use.
In 2008, the operators of the power station signed an agreement with the city that committed GenOn to over $32 million in pollution reduction investments. Funds for these improvements were placed in a city escrow account. The first phase included dust and particulate matter reduction, primarily focused on the coal pile. These improvements cost approximately $2 million and have already been implemented. The remainder of the funds were to be spent on emission recirculation systems that would reduce harmful content emitted from the station's smokestacks.
As GenOn worked with the city on the more expensive second phase, however, it became clear that closure was a realistic alternative. Before spending money on the improvements, GenOn and the city instead signed the closure agreement. The city will release funds in the escrow account to GenOn, which will in turn close the plant by October 2012. If unforeseen circumstances lead the closure to be delayed until or beyond January 2014, the city will receive a one-time payment of $750,000 from GenOn.
The city will provide tax relief to GenOn after the plant's closure by taxing only the value of the site's land and none of its improvements, since the plant will be inactive. This tax relief will last 5 years, starting when the plant closes, and could be renewed for another 5 year term.
There are currently approximately 120 people employed at the GenOn plant; about 40 percent of those jobs are held by Alexandria residents. Calling it an "unexpected announcement," Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille pledged that the city will work with affected employees as they find new work after the plant's closure.
Lydia DePillis's constant attendance at community meetings turned up a fascinating plan from the Catholic University Urban Design Studio to improve some of Foggy Bottom's biggest flaws: the mess of freeways between the neighborhood and the waterfront.
A professor and team of students came up with the vision, which has no funding but which DePillis reports they hope the Office of Planning will incorporate into the DC Comprehensive Plan.
Left: Area around 27th and K now. Image from Google Maps.
Right: The same area in the plan. Images via Housing Complex.
The "ramp spaghetti" in front of the Kennedy Center, the freeway under Juarez Circle, the ramps to the Whitehurst, and Rock Creek create a big barrier between Foggy Bottom and the waterfront, and many small park segments many of which are inaccessible or underutilized.
The plan includes new pedestrian connections across Rock Creek and the Potomac, and suggests decking some of the freeway ramps to the Whitehurst to build better parks. It also resurrects the Kennedy Center's ideas to cover the ramps between it and E Street to connect it to the neighborhood.
Of course, covering freeways is expensive, or we'd do it all the time. That freeway is also wider than it needs to be, since it was originally built to continue up along Florida Avenue or K Street. Some of the ramps could probably come down instead of being decked over.
Besides improving the waterfront access, DePillis reports that the plan includes a new entrance to Foggy Bottom Metro, benches at Juarez Circle, a Native American cultural center, and another performing arts center near the Kennedy Center. DePillis couldn't post the entire plan, but we look forward to seeing more!
As Arlington County prepares a redevelopment plan for East Falls Church, the City of Falls Church is considering its own options. One is to use Four Mile Run as the centerpiece of an East Falls Church Waterfront District.
Yes that's right, a waterfront district. Falls Church may be 6 miles from the Potomac, but why let that stop them?
The waterfront plan was prepared by Virginia Tech students as an academic exercise, but the idea so intrigued Falls Church city leaders that they are seriously considering it as a vision for future planning.
Rendering of a possible East Falls Church waterfront at Four Mile Run.
The idea is to redevelop the low-density industrial block between West Jefferson Street and Four Mile Run (see map) as a series of mid-rise mixed-use buildings, with a park along the side of the creek.
In truth, it will take years for the City of agree to a plan, convince the landowners, find a developer, get financing, and construct the project. This is an idea, not an action proposal. But it's a really good idea that seems to have legs. It meshes well with other likely redevelopment around the East Falls Church Metro, and could in the long term be a real winner.
It's definitely something to keep an eye on.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
NCPC will debate whether "closing" portions of three nonexistent "paper streets" along the Anacostia waterfront adequately respects the L'Enfant Plan. The way to best fulfill the spirit of the L'Enfant Plan, however, would be to focus on connecting the Barney Circle neighborhood to the waterfront.
The railroad first separated the two when it was built in 1872, and the freeway created an even bigger barrier in 1974. The Barney Circle Freeway was planned to extend this segment across the river to the Anacostia Freeway, but was canceled in 1996.
The current 11th Street Bridges project aims to provide the all-freeway link from the Anacostia Freeway to the Southeast Freeway. As a result, this segment is no longer needed, and DDOT plans to remove it at the end of the bridge project.
Freeing up a large strip of land provides an opportunity to add some development and also reconnect across the bridge. Today, L Street, SE runs for three blocks, from 13th to 15th Street, with a fence on one side separating it from the freeway below. There's then a much larger drop to the surface CSX tracks; this portion is east of the tunnel. M Street runs adjacent to the tracks to the south.
The freeway here is actually four separate roadways, two in each direction. The middle two lead to ramps to the 11th Street Bridges, which are being removed; the outer two connect to the Southeast Freeway. On the eastern end, the ramps connect to Pennsylvania Avenue at Barney Circle and also pass underneath as a roadway that runs along the waterfront to RFK Stadium.
Without the freeway, DDOT could reconstruct this roadway as a new local road between L and M. Let's call it Lamp Street. It no longer needs to cary Pennsylvania Avenue traffic to the freeway, as those cars should take 295 to the 11th Street Bridge. Therefore, it only would carry cars going to and from the stadium and local traffic.
1-2 lanes each way, plus parallel parking, sidewalks, and a two-way cycle track along the railroad side would suffice. With the remaining land, DC could allow some new development fronting onto Lamp Street and onto L. I don't know what neighbors would like to see, but if I lived there, I'd like to see some townhouses facing L, connected in the back to taller buildings along Lamp.
The townhouses could be 2½-3½ stories above ground. The larger portions could be set back enough to keep L feeling low-rise while also providing more opportunities for adding housing and some nice views of the water on the Lamp Street side.
Best of all, bridges could then connect over the railroad tracks. If the existing grade of the freeway (and what will become Lamp Street) is high enough above the tracks to allow the CSX double-height trains to pass completely below, then 13th, 14th, and 15th could continue to new intersections with Lamp (with a downward slope), and pedestrian bridges could then cross the tracks.
If that's not high enough, the grade could be raised to make Lamp the same height as L, or else the extensions of 13th, 14th, and 15th could simply be pedestrian plazas atop the ground floor of the Lamp apartment buildings connecting to bridges over both Lamp and the tracks. That would avoid direct connections from Lamp to the other streets, which some residents might like to avoid drivers using those streets, but would also diminish connectivity.
The next question becomes how the bridges can let pedestrians and cyclists down from the high altitude over the tracks. Extending the bridges down to the waterfront should be part of the Cohen project. Pedestrians and cyclists shouldn't have to travel long distances to the east or west to get down; they should be able to descend directly toward the waterfront.
These could be standalone bridges extending along the streets' right-of-way, and they could also connect directly to parts of the new buildings. Cohen should plan to build these bridges and ensure any overpasses between the buildings aren't in the way. DC could also require CSX to go along with these bridges as one of the conditions of their Virginia Avenue tunnel project.
The bridge at 14th, in particular, would make this new waterfront plaza and the riverfront boathouses easily accessible from the Potomac Avenue Metro. The L'Enfant Plan was about connections: avenues and roadways connected major circles and squares to each other and to the edges of the city. Ensuring an easy connection from the major intersection at Potomac Avenue to the waterfront, and reconnecting the grid across the tracks even for non-vehicular traffic, best fulfills the true spirit of the plan.
Rather than worrying about the width of the right-of-way for paper streets that don't actually go anywhere, NCPC should focus on guaranteeing these connections and upholding the intent of the L'Enfant Plan.
most recent designs for the 11th Street Bridges include a ramp from the current northernmost freeway road up to 8th Street.
If Lamp (or whatever it's ultimately called) ends up using the south side of the freeway right-of-way, DDOT should make sure Skanska lines up the new ramp with the final road.
Instead of directly flowing into the freeway on the western end, DDOT could reconnect 9th Street between I and Virginia Avenue, where current ramps lead to the defunct freeway. The reclaimed land on each side, between the 11th Street Bridge ramps, could provide space for the Marine Barracks expansion instead of taking the nearby community garden.
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