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Votes

Letter: GenOn Plant Site’s Possibilities

To the Editor:

I am a former long-time resident of the Northeast neighborhood in Alexandria and advocate for the closing of the GenOn power plant. I offer congratulations to the city and in particular to my former neighbors, Poul Hertel and Elizabeth Chimento for spearheading the effort to first reveal the harmful health effects of the operation of the plant on city residents and then to join with other citizens and environmental groups to pressure GenOn to finally close the plant.

Many years ago I urged that the city update its Small Area Plan to change the land use designation for the GenOn Plant site from Utility/Transportation to Open Space/Recreation. This was posed as a tactic to demonstrate to the owner that the city's long-term objective as reflected in its Master Plan was to see the plant closed, to remove the Utility/Transportation designation as not in keeping with that goal and to propose reuse of the site for public open space. Now the plant is closed and the Utility/Transportation designation is no longer appropriate due to changed circumstances. The city did not update the North Old Town Small Area Plan to reflect this objective nor did it include the GenOn Property in its updated plan for the waterfront. But certainly an update to the plan is now appropriate if not urgent.

I have read about plans to redevelop the site for mixed use development and what a revenue bonanza such redevelopment could bring to the city's tax base. No doubt rezoning the property from the highly restrictive Utility/Transportation designation to a Mixed Use Land Use/Zoning category would vastly increase the value of the property; its development would offset the demolition and cleanup costs of preparing this site for residential uses. There are also the opportunities and associated costs of removing the CSX rail spur and at grade rail crossing on the George Washington Memorial Parkway including the trackage linked to the Robinson Terminal North facility (also subject to closure and possible redevelopment). There is also the removal of the rail tracks and signalization infrastructure west of the parkway north of Slater's Lane and possible conversion of the entire right of way to a bicycle trail.

So mixed use redevelopment may be a way of recouping these costs and finance these amenities. On the other side of the ledger it should be recognized that the GenOn site is not near a metro station and that the traffic impacts of redevelopment will impact a road system with little capacity to accommodate new traffic generation. The heavily used George Washington Memorial Parkway must favor north/south commuter traffic and limit green time for east west movement. Turning lanes are limited and it would be detrimental to the historic character of the George Washington Memorial Parkway to start removing greened/treed medians to accommodate more turning lanes from Bashford and Slater's Lane, the only two points of vehicular access.

I would advocate conversion of the site to open space and recreation with a thought to restore part of the site to a more natural state with a grove of trees. The property abuts the Mt. Vernon Trail and serves as an important pedestrian/bicycle connection along the Potomac River. The site enjoys a panoramic view of the Potomac from a rare bluff along the river. East/west pedestrian/bicycle access to the site is difficult but could be improved with conversion of the rail right of way. These public features of the site need to be part of the consideration of any scheme for its reuse yet private redevelopment could eviscerate these opportunities as site residents resent public use intrusions to their privacy and sense of safety. This tension between residents and visitors is apparent all along the Alexandria waterfront.

Alexandria has major industrial and utility/transportation sites that have been converted for dense urban redevelopment, notably the Potomac Yard and Carlyle/Norfolk Southern. Yet open space along the river is lacking and at a premium. There are few opportunities to restore a more natural environment for public enjoyment and sense of relief from urban bustle and stress. One thought I had was to use a concept of a mitigation bank that could sell credits to other development or corporate interests who needed offsets for unavoidable environmental damage due to their operations and development. This is done in Virginia and in Florida for watershed restoration but perhaps could be applied to former power plant sites. Maybe there is an opportunity to consider Federal acquisition of the site as part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway system. One could argue that the city needs to be compensated for the dimunition of another National Park Service site, Jones Point, due to the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Undoubtedly there is room for negotiation and navigation between private redevelopment and public open space reuse options. Nevertheless, redevelopment of the GenOn site along the Potomac River as just another site for revenue generation may shortchange the uniqueness of the site for restoring the heritage of the Potomac River as George Washington may have experienced it. I wonder in the future when we finally face the global climate change that is already here we would wish we had left more of our land as green lungs and not grey asphalt.

Larry Grossman

Longboat Key, Fla.