Letter to the Editor: Where Potomac Yard Metro Went Wrong

Letter to the Editor: Where Potomac Yard Metro Went Wrong

The Potomac Yard Metro has been on the mind of Alexandria for 30 years, since Potomac Yard was first sold to Commonwealth Atlantic Properties and a small area plan for Potomac Greens was passed in 1992. Good things happened like when my mother, former Alexandria City Council member Lois Walker, convinced CAP Properties to give Union Station to the City of Alexandria. It seemed like a golden goose that could lay a golden nest egg. But the Metro Station has been more like an Achilles heel. The original proposal for 14 million feet of development that would have included a Metro was turned down, and a new plan for only 7 million Square feet and no Metro was passed. This was a missed opportunity to have a developer pay for the Metro. Now it is probably too late because of earlier councils’ decisions. But it is not too late to go back and get this right.

The density of the development has crept back up with a commitment to the Metro and some financing from one bay of the development only if the entrance, which is 800 ft. long, is a quarter mile from the proposed densest part of the Yard. What is proposed is a very large station connected to the development and over the CSX tracks by a very long walkway. And it is not the plan that was promised. At a planning commission hearing in 2010 “Commissioner (Stephen) Koenig confirmed with staff that the community and the city’s elected leadership would be provided an updated cost estimate prior to finalization of the project.” Clearly, notifying the public did not happen. Members of the current City Council, some of whom negotiated for the current development in 2010 re-planning effort, say the train is headed down the tracks and it is too late to turn back. Sometimes we have to admit mistakes.

First, if we go back to the drawing board and the much less expensive and less damaging to wetlands proposal is chosen, the developer will have “no obligation for financial contributions or undertakings contemplated by this agreement.” Second, the city should have already issued bonds in order for project to move forward (city’s webpage on bonds has not been updated in 2018). I believe we need to find out what the return on this investment is and who benefits. “Commissioner (Maria) Wasowski emphasized that a long-term view needs to be considered with a significant public investment such as this one, further noting the economic benefits that will be realized by this investment.” They have taken away the entrance that serves residents, and kept the one that rewards commercial development. Shouldn’t residents have the priority? The benefit seems to go mainly to Land Bay F. Construction must start before the DSUP Expires June 28, 2021 or the project must be extended, so the clock is ticking.

In 2010 the number 1 priority was to have “walkable access to the regional heavy rail transportation system for neighborhoods in the northeast portion of the City.” Taking away one entrance diminishes this goal. The concept of the Metro is that it will spur development for “Future significant growth in tax revenues for the city’s General Fund from real estate development near the new station.” But this ignores the costs of development, including school capacity, and lack of affordable housing, and paying back the money borrowed to build the station. In fact, there will be no significant tax benefit till many years in the future.

Another goal, “restoration of a protected wetland,” fails to mention how much wetland is being lost. Last Saturday I visited the site where the Metro Station is supposed to be built. It is right in the middle of a wetland where we saw a beautiful painted turtle, redwing blackbirds on cattails, and there is a nature trail. This area will not only be the site of massive infill since the Metro tracks are at least 20 feet above the surrounding land but the construction site. My guess is that many of the people in Potomac Greens will not ride Metro as they have already gotten used to getting places by car, and each has a private garage space. In fact we saw a neighbor at the end of Potomac Greens taking an Uber, so transportation has changed significantly since this station was contemplated, and yet we are still willing to sacrifice a natural area to fuel development on the other side of the tracks.

I believe that is where I believe the transit investment should go, to the other side of the tracks, and converting the BRT to Streetcar which will serve more people for less money, and be on an already existing right of way. If there is to be a be a station, I propose we look at moving it back to option A, where it will best serve residents of Potomac Greens, apartments along the Parkway, North Old Town Residents, and buildings like Marina Towers. Those will all be in short walking distance. It will be millions of dollar less, as it can be built using the existing track alignment. It will be more environmentally sound, cost less up front and take less time to pay back, meaning a faster return on investment.

On June 28, 2017, two pavilions and entrances were promised just a month before it was discovered by WMATA board members and the city manager that it would not be possible within the approved $320 million budget. Now this promise has been broken and the secret was held by the city manager and WMATA for nearly a year. Why is what we should all be asking. I look forward to the public hearings so we can hear the answers and what the alternatives are.

Boyd Walker