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Planning Approves Potomac Yard Fire Station

Mixed use development and new Houston Rec Center also OK'ed.

An original creation for Alexandria of a new fire station combined with approximately 60 units of affordable housing in a four story structure to be part of the Potomac Yard Development was unanimously approved by the Alexandria Planning Commission Oct. 4. The concept was recommended by the Potomac Yard Fire Station & Affordable Housing Task Force after a series of community public meetings.

As an integral part of their application for approval of a development special use permit (SUP), with site plan, for the construction of residential, retail and office uses in Landbays H and I of the old railroad switching yard site, Potomac Yard Development LLC committed to "contributing a total of $10.5 million" toward creating workforce/affordable housing. "Approximately $6 million will be used by the City to leverage other federal housing tax credits and affordable housing grants," according to the staff report.

<b>THE NEW STATION,</b> to be designated Station 209, will replace Station 202 located on Windsor Avenue in Del Ray as a first response station for fire suppression and Hazmat apparatus. Station 202 will remain operative as an Emergency Medical Services location for "at least the next five to eight years," according to the plan.

EMS personnel from Station 202 will serve the present coverage area as well as the new Potomac Yard Development. Station 209 will provide the same four minute response time as the current first due response unit for the areas in the communities of Rosemont, Del Ray, Mt.Jefferson, Lynhaven, Arlandria, and Warwick Village, according to Fire Department analysis.

"I applaud what has been proposed and urge your approval. This project is creative. It's fiscally responsible and continues the City's commitment to affordable housing," said James Hogan, co-chair, Alexandria Housing Action.

"This is an extraordinary opportunity for Alexandria. It's a tremendous boost for affordable housing," said Jean Cummings, development director, Alexandria Housing.

John Starcher, chair, Potomac Yard/Affordable Housing Task Force, recognized the emotional attachment of Del Ray citizens to Station 202 which has been there for 80 years. "It makes the community feel safe. However, when you come down to brass tacks the fact is that the response time is still within the four minute goal. Nationally that goal is six to eight minutes. We could not ask for better response time compared to the national average," Starcher said.

"As for affordable housing, what better recruiting tool could we have. It enables us to keep our staff here rather than have them commute from as far away as Front Royal," he said.

The new station is to be built at no cost to the City except if a fourth bay is desired. Starcher also pointed out that a new station if needed five years from now could cost could as high as $12 million. "Plus there is a proposed new station for Eisenhower Valley. Who's going to pay for that?" Starcher asked.

"With respect to the fire station I feel this is a very creative solution. I live very close to Station 202 and I one hundred percent endorse this plan," said Eric Wagner, chairman, Alexandria Planning Commission.

"I look at this map and see my house is served by three fire stations within the four minute response time. It can't get any better than that," he said.

One of the concerns discussed in the various Task Force public meetings was that of the proposed streets in Potomac Yard being too narrow to provide the proper turning radius for fire apparatus. "The turning radius will accommodate the largest apparatus. Limitations only pertain to the alleys not the main thoroughfares," Starcher told the Commission.

In addition to the combined fire station/affordable housing units, the application also addressed the issues of the character of Route 1, urban design and approval of new street names. As for street names, "The Planning Commission is authorized to name public streets in the City," according to the staff report.

<b>SINCE THERE WILL BE</b> numerous streets within Potomac Yard to be named, staff developed the following format. All east-west streets will be named for the site's railroad/transportation history and African-American history of the City. North-south streets will be named for Native-American or other relevant history of Potomac Yard.

Street names recommended by staff as per this application were:

* Maskell Road: Named after Lieutenant Maskell Ewing, U.S. Topographical Corps, engineer for the Alexandria Canal.

* McCarty Square: Charles Edward McCarty was appointed as the Potomac Yard manager in 1943 and served for 13 years.

* Watson Street: In honor of Charles and Laura Watson, early African-American Alexandria landowners.

* Valkenburgh Lane: In honor of Lois Van Valkenburgh, a long time civic activist instrumental in producing Alexandria's first voter's guide and worked "in support of education and school desegregation."

<b>AN APPLICATION</b> for a site plan to construct 21 residential units combined with approximately 2,000 square feet of ground floor retail space and underground parking at 1125 N. Royal Street, also received the Commission's unanimous approval. However, there were questions raised as to whether the Commission should promote development so close to the Mirant power plant.

As the staff report noted, "The Old Town North Small Area Plan specifically designates this site as a redevelopment site and a retail focus area." Comprised of 30,274 square feet, the site stretches from the corner of Third Street half way to Second Street along North Royal Street.

During the public discussion, North Old Town resident and civic activist Poul Hertel raised the question, "Should we encourage people to move into an area we know is unsafe?" His reference was to the continuing controversy over air quality in relation to the Mirant facility and the proximity of the development site to that facility.

"These concerns are not planning concerns, but rather health ones. I would recommend we okay this to City Council with the recommendation they check with the health authorities," said Commissioner H. Stewart Dunn Jr.

Commission Vice Chairman John Komoroske raised the question as to whether or not realtors had the responsibility to inform clients of potential health risks. "If we get into these health issues we are way beyond our responsibilities," Dunn said.

<b>FINALLY THE COMMISSION</b> gave unanimous approval to the City's application for a development SUP with site plan, a parking reduction, and increase in height to construct a new Charles Houston Recreation Center with outdoor swimming pool and playground at its present location.

Bounded by Madison, Wythe, North Patrick and North Alfred streets, the present 20,856 square feet center was constructed in 1976. It will be demolished and replaced by a new 34,935 square feet facility that will include a civic open space plaza in addition to an array of active recreational amenities.

By designing the square block facility "as an urban focal point with active streetwalls, street frontages, and an architectural relationship to the adjoining Black History Museum and Watson Reading Room, and by treating Wythe Street as a major east-west pedestrian connection envisioned by the up-coming Braddock Plan, it provides a focus, in both function and design, for the community," according to the staff report.

Renovation of the Center was first included in the City's Fiscal Year 2004 Capital Improvements Program. However, through a series of public meetings and analysis by City staff and the Park & Recreation Commission it was decided to rebuild rather than renovate the Center.

Construction is anticipated to commence during the winter of 2007 with completion projected by summer 2008. The price tag is estimated at $8.5 to $9 million, nearly double the estimated renovation cost of $4.6 million, according to Mark Jinks, assistant city manager, Fiscal and Financial Affairs, during a November 17, 2005 Parks and Recreation Commission public meeting.