City staff and representatives of Pulte-Centex, the new owners of the undeveloped Potomac Yard property in Alexandria, came before members of the Alexandria Planning Commission and other interested parties on Nov. 16 to present the new concept development plan.
“Most of the major issues have been resolved,” said Eileen Fogarty, the city’s director of Planning and Zoning. “The new owners know that they are going to have to request an amendment to the approved site plan for the town center in Block G but, generally, we are pleased with the result of several months of negotiation.”
Including the shopping center that currently exists, the Potomac Yard property contains 295 acres. It is bounded on the north by Four Mile Run, on the south by Braddock Road and on the west by Jefferson Davis Highway from Four Mile Run to the Monroe Avenue bridge. Potomac Greens has been developed. Pulte-Centex bought the remaining undeveloped property last summer and has been negotiating strategies for its development.
One of the considerations is the new owners’ offer to pay for infrastructure changes, including the straightening of Route 1.
“That has been characterized as a 'carrot' but we don’t see it that way,” said Duncan Blair, one of the local attorneys who represent the new owners. “We see that as a win/win for everyone. We get the infrastructure done more quickly and so do the citizens of Alexandria. This way, we are not dependent on state or local funding that may or may not be there when we all need it.”
Mayor William D. Euille agrees. “This is definitely a big deal for the city,” he said. “What Pulte is proposing is to pay for the up front costs of straightening Route 1 and bringing all of the parts of the yard together,” he said. “That being said, the plan for Potomac Yard was approved. It can be tweaked but not changed substantially.”
The cost to the city for the straightening of Route 1 was estimated at around $15 million. “That’s $15 million that can be used for something else,” Blair said.
WHILE MANY ISSUES have been resolved, some remain. Jeff Farner, a staff member in the Planning Department, discussed the Four Mile Run project. “The Pulte-Centex partnership now owns the part of Four Mile Run and the old railroad bridges that lie in Alexandria,” he said. “Crescent owns the portion in Arlington. The result is that the western two bridges have a split ownership due to the fact that the county/city line follows the center line of the original course of Four Mile Run before it was channelized. The bridges will be a prime focus of the federally funded Four Mile Run project.”
Potomac Avenue is part of this issue. “Potomac Avenue will have a transit lane from Arlington but not on our side? Does it meet up with the Braddock Metro stop or just circulate back to Route 1?,” asked Planning Commissioner John Komoroske.
Emily Baker, city engineer for Alexandria, responded. “Not all that has been worked out yet but it is under discussion,” she said. “A full blown study has not been undertaken. There is no money to look at heavy rail, light rail or bus rapid transit.”
THE TOWN CENTER is an issue that will not be resolved for some time. The development team is proposing additional retail space here and less commercial development. “The thinking on town centers has evolved a lot in the past few years and we are looking at making it more vibrant,” said Kathy Puscar, another attorney working with the development team. “We’ll have a consultant on board to make sure that this works.”
The city and members of the community have concerns about this new concept. The last proposal showed less open space in the center of the retail/commercial area. Some fear that this may make it less usable for public functions.
“We know we are going to have to come forward and ask for a major site plan amendment here,” Blair said. “We are very much in the conceptual stage, however, and have made no definite decisions.”
In an early plan, the 625-room hotel that was planned for this area had been removed. Blair says that Pulte-Centex is now looking at a much smaller hotel of around 300 rooms. Plans for the town center are not expected to be ready for submission to the Planning Commission until some time next year.
JUDY NORITAKE, chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission and also the co-chair of the Four Mile Run Task Force, expressed concern about Potomac Yard Park, the open space next to Simpson Field. These seven acres were to be set aside for use as sports fields until and unless it is needed for a school site. The open space is now five acres and contains above-ground storm water retention ponds.
“During the planning at Cameron Station, the developer expanded an existing small pond on the park side of the site and used it as a regional storm water detention facility for the entire development,” Noritake said. “Every summer in hot weather, foam begins to build up in the pond and the neighborhood calls parks and recreation to clean it up. I can’t tell you how much the department spends every year on that pond. Though we have explained that it’s for catching run-off, the residents do not understand that the worse that pond looks, the better job it’s doing keeping contaminants out of the Potomac. They see a lake and they want their kids to be able to play in it. I don’t want to see that same problem develop here.”
Eric Wagner, Planning Commission chair, agreed. “… Ponds with foam on them are not what we want to see nor are pumping stations a function of open space,” he said. “In this commissioner’s mind, that acreage will be deducted from the open space.”
Stan Settle. Jr., vice president of land acquisition for Pulte Homes Corporation, said, “Potomac Yard is a great opportunity for us to contribute to the community fabric of Alexandria. We look forward to working with city officials and the community as we strive to create the unique vision we all hold for Potomac Yard.”
The next step is to look at infrastructure plans — streets, storm water retention and the Monroe Avenue bridge. Blair said that work could begin on these items as soon as next summer. Then the developer will develop and submit plans for each section of the project, including numbers of residential units and the location of small retail areas that are currently planned for each land bay. Parking and open space are also on the table.
The Potomac Yard Design Advisory Committee will be an integral part of this process. At its last legislative session, City Council expanded this group to include representatives from the Northeast Citizens Association and from Inner City Civic Association. This group serves as advisors to the director of Planning.