A critical piece of the Old Town North Small Area Plan may be on the auction block — if the price is right. But, that price may prove to be too high.
Monday night interested citizens, civic activists, North Old Town area residents, developers, and attorneys who often represent developers before the Alexandria Planning Commission and City Council, gathered at the United Way International headquarters building on North Fairfax Street. The subject was the possible redevelopment of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) bus barn.
In announcing the meeting, the Planning and Zoning Department (PZD) noted, "As a result of WMATA's recent issuance of a request for proposals (RFP) to developers, the City of Alexandria is initiating a community discussion regarding what would be appropriate for the site." For most in attendance that boiled down to one conclusion — townhouses. And, only townhouses.
However, the catch is in the requirements WMATA has established for purchase of the property:
1. Any potential developer needs to find WMATA another property within a "reasonable" distance of the present site.
2. Such developer will build a new bus barn.
3. The size of the new site is to be approximately five acres, twice the size of the present 2.5 acre location, bounded by Wythe, Pendleton, Pitt, and Royal streets.
In order to make these requirements financially feasible for a potential developer, the PZD is considering rezoning the site to allow mixed use development, according to Jeffrey Farner, division chief, PZD, who conducted Monday night's session.
"This is an exciting project for all of us. It has been anticipated by both Planning and Zoning and the citizens for quite some time," Farner said. "The area has mixed use throughout with office, commercial and residential."
APPROXIMATELY 60 TOWNHOUSES could fit on the site, according to the PZD. Farner assured the audience that these residences would be townhouses, not condominiums. "The present zoning is strictly for fee simple townhouses. There are no condominiums permitted under the present classification," Farner said.
"The Alexandria House Condominium Association is very much concerned about any rezoning of this site. We have insisted for years that it should only be redeveloped for residential use," said Liz Clark-West, vice president of the association, but was speaking for herself.
She also said, "I don't see how a developer can develop this into residences only and build a new bus barn. It is not financially realistic."
Another Alexandria House resident and member of the 1992 Old Town North Committee that helped develop the Old Town North Small Area Plan, Marian Clarke, said, "I would like to see only townhouses on that site. There is a need for us to connect with Old Town. I don't think townhouses and commercial mix."
Farner pointed out that WMATA does not have anything in its budget to relocate the bus barn. He also pointed out, when asked what a new ideal site would be, "WMATA said right where we are."
This was buttressed by Dana Kauffman, chairman, WMATA Board of Directors and Fairfax County Lee District supervisor, a portion of which abuts the City of Alexandria. "The bottom line is that we have to have a bus barn in that area and it's a very long process to establish such a facility," he said.
"We just put a new one in the Ox Road area of Fairfax County and conversations started on that when I was a teenager. I'm now about two years away from qualifying for my AARP card," Kauffman said.
"Land use needs are to be locally decided and that applies to zoning as well. We have no time constraints on this change," he said.
WMATA'S ALEXANDRIA bus barn has been in its present location since 1945. It serves approximately 83 buses Monday through Friday on a 24 hour basis. The building is 25 feet tall with the second story devoted to maintenance, according to Candice Smith, public information office, WMATA.
The site is presently zoned RM, residential medium. A suggested change in that zoning would be to CRMUX which allows for mixed use. "This isn't necessarily contradictory. Just because it allows for mixed use doesn't mean that it will be used that way," Farner said.
"Portner's Landing is zoned CRMUX which allows for mixed use but it is entirely residential," he said. Portner's Landing is a condominium complex immediately to the west of the bus barn site.
One of the options being considered by the city is a proffer rezoning, according to Farner. "But we are speculating that the new site will not be within the city because there doesn't seem to be five acres available that meets WMATA's needs," he said.
"Rezoning as a proffer begs the question," said Michael Hobbs, president, Old Town Civic Association. "It is not consistent with the Old Town North Small Area Plan."
With the site located across from Alexandria Redevelopment Authority's Ladrey High-Rise, adjacent to Hopkins Tancil Section 8 Housing and the newly developed Chatham Square, which contains public housing units, the question was raised as to the inclusion of public housing units on the WMATA site. "The city has no intention of putting public housing on this site," Farner said.
Another question was raised about the environmental status of the site due to the fact that it has served as a vehicle service area for so long. These types of site can have serious soil pollution due to the seepage of oil and gasoline, according to resident Philip Matyas, who identified himself as a real estate broker.
"Having been in the Coast Guard in a previous life I had to deal with such a clean up at one point in my career. If you have ever seen the price of cleaning a cubic yard of soil you would be amazed. It would add considerably to the cost of this site," he said.
"Whomever the developer is will have to mitigate the environmental situation. To what level they will have to do that is regulated not only by the city but also the state and federal governments," Farner said.
There was also the question of whether this site will be considered in tandem with the Giant grocery store site and the adjacent state liquor store site on First and North St. Asaph streets. Farner stated, "These two sites [WMATA and the Giant/state store] are tracking on different time frames."
The deadline for RFP submissions is May 13, according to Farner. "We intend to have subsequent meetings on this proposal potentially in June or September. We try not to schedule meetings over the summer," he said.
Monday's meeting was "for the city and potential developers to hear from the community," Farner said. In addition to the sign-in sheet, Farner asked those attending to supply their email address so they can be kept up to date on developments.