City Council expressed strong support for redeveloping the Upper Potomac West area of the city as a business owner moves ahead with an interim use that is not part of the plan.
When the city’s Planning Commission meets on Feb. 5, commissioners will consider a request for a special use permit that will bring commercial activity back to the old Safeway site on West Glebe Road.
The Weissberg Group, owners of the site, plans to lease space to three businesses: a Chinese buffet restaurant; a Dollar Store and a market and deli carryout. The planning staff is supporting the request.
“It was a very difficult decision, but we are reluctantly supporting the application,” said Eileen Fogarty, the director of the Department of Planning and Zoning. “We have some concerns, and this is certainly not the way in which we would like to see this site redeveloped; but for several reasons, we are recommending approval.”
The Upper Potomac West Task Force worked for a year to develop a comprehensive plan for redeveloping the area on West Glebe and Mount Vernon Avenue, where the site in question is located, and East Reed Avenue. That plan was presented to City Council in June of last year, and last week Council instructed planning staff to move forward with changes to the city’s master plan that would codify some of the recommendations in the plan.
“The type of redevelopment that we want to see on this site is comprehensive and mixed use,” Fogarty said. “We envision office space, residential and retail. We want green space where people can sit and enjoy lunch or the evening and where people in the neighborhood can come on foot or in vehicles.”
While the Safeway site is part of this redevelopment area, the plan also includes the long abandoned Datatel Building. In total, the overall site contains approximately four acres.
When the task force held its meetings last year, members sought the agreement of the owners of the various parcels of land included in the redevelopment area. Nina Weissberg attended many of these meetings. The sense of the task force was that she was committed to redevelopment and willing to work with the city and members of the community to develop a viable plan.
“As the economy worsened this summer, I think she [Weissberg] began to have concerns,” Fogarty said. “Then, after Sept. 11, she made a decision to move forward with the interim uses that are now planned. I think it was strictly a business decision, and you can’t fault her for that. Her assessment is that the market is not right just now for redevelopment.”
Mayor Kerry J. Donley agreed with Fogarty’s assessment. “I think it is strictly a business decision, and I can understand that,” he said. “What we want to do is try to get the owner to agree to a shorter-term lease than 10 years. We are certainly hopeful that the economy will turn around and that redeveloping this area will be viable within the next two to three years.”
City Council has asked the Planning staff to look into the feasibility of offering certain incentives to Weissberg to induce her to shorten the terms of her leases. First, they will look at land acquisition.
“I strongly believe that it is government’s role to create economic incentives for the redevelopment of struggling business districts,” said Councilwoman Claire Eberwein. “Zoning changes and property consolidation are some of the tools that government can most effectively employ. The payback to citizens in physical activeness, neighborhood cohesiveness, lower crime and increased city tax revenues more than pays for the initial planning investment. Upper Potomac West is a perfect place for these activities, and I am excited by the possibilities.”
As for the Datatel building, Fogarty said her office was going to look at the feasibility of purchasing or somehow obtaining the building. “That building has stood empty for more than a decade and would cost a great deal just to bring up to code so that it could be used.”
Staff will also look at the possibility of building a parking garage on that site. “Parking is a real issue in that area, so we need to make it possible for people to park when they come to work in the proposed offices or to use the proposed retail shops,”” said Councilman Bill Euille. “A parking structure makes a lot of sense.”
Also, staff will recommend changes to the zoning to allow for maximum density. “That area will certainly support more density, but we want to make sure that we do not lose sight of quality-of-life issues for residents of the neighborhood,” Fogarty said.
One of those quality-of-life issues is traffic. “I am concerned about the amount of traffic that this plan will bring into the neighborhood,” said Councilwoman Joyce Woodson. “We need to study the traffic issues and have a plan for how we will handle them.”
Another quality-of-life issue is that the site has been boarded up since the Safeway left three years ago.
“That was one of the issues that we considered in recommending approval of these interim uses,” Fogarty said. “Something, after all, is better than nothing. The neighbors expressed some concerns about the sale of alcohol for carryout and the hours of operation of that particular business. There are also a number of landscaping improvements that need to be made to the site. I think that most of these issues have been resolved, though. We just hope that we can get a shorter lease so that we can move forward with redevelopment sooner than later.”