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Votes

New Fire Station Approved

Out with the old, In with the new: 13 home replacement project for Taft Avenue.

Another major step was taken Tuesday night by the Alexandria Planning Commission to bring to fruition what was described by Commission Vice Chairman John Komoroske as "one of the most unique and exciting projects" ever to come before the Commission. He was referring to the proposed Potomac Yard Fire Station that includes 64 affordable/workforce housing units.

With little discussion and no debate the Commissioners unanimously adopted the necessary amendments to the CDD Concept and Master plans plus approving the Development Special Use Permit (SUP) to move the project forward.

"We have been thoroughly briefed on this several times and there is obviously no controversy. As far as I'm concerned this could have been on the consent calendar," said Commission Chairman Eric Walker prior to the formal vote recommending approval.

Commissioner H. Stewart Dunn Jr., made a series of motions that authorized the donation of land for the station, permitting community facilities in Potomac Yard, and approval of the SUP for "construction of a fire station, with 64 affordable residential units and underground parking." With no opposition or any public speakers, the entire process took no more than five minutes of the two hour and 45 minute monthly meeting.

Upon completion, the new station will replace the Del Ray station on Windsor Avenue as a first response facility. The existing station will be maintained for "at least eight years" as a paramedic station. It will undergo extensive renovations to bring it up to modern day standards as well as to create a departmental training area and community meeting space.

Plans for the new station, the first in the City in more than 20 years, call for Potomac Yard LLC to donate approximately 17,600 square feet of land to the City, provide $6.6 million for construction, and make a $6 million contribution to affordable housing. An estimated $1 million additional funds will be provided by the City for a fourth bay in the station and "green building" elements, according to the staff report.

The total cost for the residential components is an estimated $21 million. Of that amount, $11 million is proposed to be funded through tax credits. The remainder will be provided through conventional financing and a $6 million developer contribution, staff stated in their report to the Commission.

In addition to the fire station and residential units, the five-story, 70-foot tall building, will include an 800 square foot community room, 1,500 square feet of ground floor retail space, and 142 underground parking space for residents, fire personnel and retail customers. The latter is portioned: 20 spaces for fire personnel; 109 for residents and five for residential visitors; and eight for retail. These will be complemented by one parking spot for the Fire Chief and 11 additional residential visitor spots at surface level.

THE AGENDA ITEM that drew the greatest interest and number of public speakers was the proposed demolition of 13 one story, 1950s-era, aging homes to be replaced by 13 two story modern ones that will have brick facade fronts on aluminum siding structures. Ten of the homes will front on Taft Avenue while the other three will face North Donaldson Street.

"This is a fairly unique case based on the number of homes being razed and the number of new homes being proposed for the site. It is also one of the first major residential redevelopments in the City," said Jeffrey Farner, division chief, Planning & Zoning Department.

The existing homes on the site have been vacant for nearly two years thereby having a blighting effect on the surrounding area, according to several speakers who voiced total support for the project being proposed by Kelly Atkinson of Calvert Homes, Inc.

"Since we first heard of this proposal we have heard no opposition from the community," said Ken Billingsley, president, Strawberry Hill Civic Association. "The developer has worked with us and we are in total support. However, we would like the Commission to speed up the approval process."

Asking how long the process would take before construction could get underway, residents of the area, who came to support the project, were told an estimated "four to six months." This brought forth a concerted groan and plea for it to be expedited.

That triggered a warning by Dunn that the process should not be short circuited. "It is better to leave it run its course and have it done right," he said.

When Komoroske, who expressed a dislike for the design, asked why all the homes except one only had a brick facade with aluminum siding on the other three sides, Atkinson said it was "market driven." The unit backing up to Duke street will have brick on all sides. Atkinson admitted this was for appearance’s sake.

The project includes a stream restoration element that will be undertaken by the developer. Strawberry Run Resource Protection Area (RPA) runs behind the homes on the eastern side of Taft Avenue. Approximately half of two of the lots are in the RPA, according to staff.

"The developer has worked with the City to reduce the overall RPA encroachment with the new development. In addition, a stream restoration plan has also been proposed to improve the quality of the RPA environment," staff stated in their report.

During construction a number of actions will be taken to protect the RPA and minimize soil erosion, according to staff. "The applicant is also providing a buffer and stream restoration plan" to satisfy encroachment requirements, they pointed out in their report.

Although the new homes raised the issue of "infill development," staff noted that the project differs from most infill situations in that it is replacing an entire subdivision rather than placing one new, larger structure next to smaller existing structures. The latter has caused infill controversy in several areas of the City based on the "neighborhood character" issue.

While the footprints of the new homes will be 25 percent larger than the structures they are replacing and 10 to 15 feet taller than surrounding existing homes, they "comply with the zoning for the neighborhood and the City's interim infill regulations," according to staff. The application was unanimously recommended for approval.