Sunday, March 29, 2009

At What Cost?

Sign for the Potomac Yard Metro Station on the east side of the tracks.

Yesterday's post on the Arlandrian raised an interesting issue prompted by discussion of the Potomac Yard Planning Advisory Group.

This group, charged with giving input into some basic issues confronting the proposed redevelopment of the Potomac Yard Retail Center, discussed possible options for the placement of a new, in-fill Metro station. There's a lot of history behind previous land-use decisions that have gotten us to this point -- too much to review here (once up a time there was talk of TWO stations with another at South Glebe Road) -- but instructive nonetheless regarding whether the current vision will ever see fruition.

The bottom line is that it's a matter of cost. The estimate for an in-fill station at the current location reserved for Metro is approximately $120 million. This is what it would take to put a station at the end of East Glebe Road behind the future town center (recently approved) that is slated to come just south of the current Target store. What complicates the new construction is that the Metro rail line runs to the east of freight rail lines. That is, the new Metro station would have to be built on the wrong side of the tracks from where any new development would occur in Potomac Yard.

The advisory group's idea would instead underground the station and tracks and place a station closer to Route 1. This would put the station nearer existing populations and in the middle of any new development that comes out of the current studies. The back of the envelope cost estimate puts this at 3-4 times the cost of the in-fill station. A lot of money.

The current strategy is the find a level of development amenable to the public that also provides a developer enough revenue to pay for the station. The $100 million would be a big hit to any developer's plan...$300-$400 million even more so. But is it unprecedented?

BeyondDC had this story yesterday that gives a little perspective. It talks about the complaints about new VRE service that is costing the Commonwealth almost $20 million, but "less than the $20 million it costs to design and build a one-mile stretch of new road." It goes on to talk about the relative costs of other projects, such as the $127 million-per-mile that the Inter-County Connector will cost in Maryland and the $27 million-per-mile that the Columbia Pike Street Car project will cost in Arlington.

So what's is really worth to get Metro in Potomac Yard? Is it worth a mile of new highway?

Metro Station marker with view of new Potomac Yard Fire Station construction on East Glebe in background.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Potomac Yard Metro Location Alternatives


There is an existing Potomac Yard Metro reservation, but the Potomac Yard Planning Advisory Group (PYPAG) discussed alternative locations at a past meeting. I snagged the image from Alexandria Planning and Zoning (original PDF here). The proposed location indicated by the big red circle directly in the middle of the current Potomac Yard shopping center would be an underground location. Undergrounding the station would be a more costly alternative (an estimate from a member of the PYPAG was 2-3 times as much as another station), but it would maximize the density around the station with redevelopment of Landbay F (current shopping center). Proposed density in Landbay F will be similar to Landbay G (south of Landbay F, adjacent to the initial Metro reservation), but the reservation would be across the tracks from the development. Development under Landbay F would allow more integration with the neighborhood, shorter walks to Metro for more people, and possibly more connection to the proposed Route 1 Streetcar or Bus Rapid Transit corridor (GGW discusses those plans here).


The underground station would be a 0.7 mile (about 13 minute walk) from the Birchmere the potential redeveloped Safeway/Datatel site. No hop, skip, and jump, but certainly closer than the 1 mile walk from the same starting point to the current metro reservation.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Help Clean Up Four Mile Run or other Potmac Watershed Sites

The City of Alexandria is seeking volunteers to participate in the Alice Ferguson Foundation’s 21st Annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup (PRWC), and join others across the region in cleaning up local streams and the Potomac River on Saturday, April 4, from 9 a.m. to noon. In case of heavy rain that day, the event will be held on Saturday, April 11, from 9 a.m. to noon. The City is hosting a cleanup site at Four Mile Run Park at the end of Commonwealth Avenue. For directions, more information, and a complete list of PRWC sites in Alexandria, please visit the Furguson Foundataion Site. The PRWC is the largest cleanup in the watershed. Last year, 12,078 dedicated volunteers removed more than 285 tons of trash from regional streams. Volunteers should wear shoes and clothes that they do not mind getting dirty; trash bags and gloves will be provided. To volunteer at the Four Mile Run cleanup, please contact Jesse Maines at 703.519.3400, ext. 166, or via e-mail. Volunteers are also needed for additional sites throughout the region. For a complete list of PRWC sites, visit http://www.potomaccleanup.org/ or call 301.292.5665.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Alexandria Aces Collegiate Summer Baseball Club in Four Mile Run Park



The Alexandria Aces are a Collegiate Summer Baseball club whose home is Frank Mann Field along Commonwealth Avenue in Four Mile Run Park (where historically the minor league Alexandria Dukes also played.)





View Larger Map

Their inaugural season last year brought with it some dramatic improvements there. With their return this year, they are looking for community support to continue. Here's a note from the founder:
The Alexandria Aces Collegiate Summer Baseball Club (www.AlexandriaAces.org), a 501(c)3 non profit community-based organization, is looking for volunteers to help with the team this summer and have a lot of fun enjoying the great game of baseball.

We have various volunteer opportunities, such as doing food concessions, ticket takers, getting ice before games, booster club chair person, public relations, marketing/fund raising, and working in the press box during home games.

If you'd like to volunteer to work and have fun with the Aces this season, please contact me by e-mail at pat@alexandriaaces.org.

Thanks in advance and "Go Aces!!

Pat Malone
703-232-8867




View Larger Map

Design Guidelines Open House for Four Mile Run Restoration, April 2nd.


Open House
The Four Mile Run Restoration Project Joint Task Force is hosting an Open House on Thursday, April 2, from 7pm until 9pm. The event will be held at the conference room at the Arlington County Park Operations Building at 2700 S. Taylor St (off of Arlington Mill Road in Shirlington). Click here for directions.





View Larger Map

The meeting will focus on the latest draft of the Design Guidelines for Four Mile Run. The Four Mile Run Agency Coordinating Group created design guidelines to coordinate and preserve the master plan vision for the corridor. Restoration of the corridor will take many years, with Alexandria, Arlington, the US Army Corps of Engineers, residents, and private landowners all playing roles in its transformation. A comprehensive set of design guidelines is meant to ensure consistent materials and styles throughout the restoration area while complementing design and style elements of adjacent neighborhoods. The guidelines will provide a framework of guidance for private and public spaces.

About the Four Mile Run Restoration Project:
The lower portion of Four Mile Run, from I-395 at the upstream end to the mouth at National Airport, marks a rough boundary between Arlington County and the City of Alexandria. Along this stretch of Four Mile Run are neighborhoods, commercial districts, and some industrial facilities, including the Arlington County Water Pollution Control Plant.

Because of the highly urbanized nature of the Four Mile Run watershed, the neighborhoods and businesses adjacent to this portion of the run were subjected to repeated flooding, beginning in the 1940s.

In response to this flooding, the municipalities forged a partnership with the US Army Corps of Engineers to build a flood-control channel in the lower portion of Four Mile Run. Construction of that channel took place during the 1970s and early 1980s.

Since its completion over twenty years ago, the channel has safely conveyed the high storm flows through the two jurisdictions.

Although the engineered 2.3-mile channel has been successful in the area of flood control, that reach subsequently has lost many of its natural and aesthetically pleasing characteristics. The maintenance requirements for the channel have resulted in the loss of vegetation. In addition, the trapezoidal shape of the channel does not offer the riffles, pools, and shady areas needed to sustain aquatic life.


Four Mile Run Master Plan
Encouraged by the possibility of improving stream habitat and recreational potential, the work group began to search for funding that would be used toward developing plans for the 2.3-mile stretch of Four Mile Run. A $1 million federal allocation through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was utilized to develop the Four Mile Run Master Plan, which outlines a 30-year vision of enhancements to the 2.3-mile stream corridor.

The first efforts to implement the master plan will focus on a demonstration project that includes both environmental improvements and urban components between Mt. Vernon Avenue and US Route 1.

See the above links for more information on the Master Plan and Draft Design Guidelines. Or watch the 6-minute video here.







Wednesday, March 18, 2009

An Arlandria by Any Other Name...

It didn't take long for someone to raise the issue last night. My wife has mentioned it at least a dozen times and I noticed a sigh of relief on several faces yesterday when a Hume Springs resident who's been there since the beginning (almost 60 years) brought it up. Many people seem to think the name itself doesn't really roll of the tongue and carries negative connotations.

Should Arlandria really be called Arlandria? Arlandria has such a negative stigma associated with it from non-residents that I think it's at least worth considering. If a name change were suggested to re-brand the neighborhood away from the negative perceptions of the past, what actually makes sense? This is completely a what-if discussion. Here are a couple of ideas, feel free to add your own in the comments:

  • Four Mile Village - wrapped around Four Mile Run Park, this emphasises the park and hopefully promotes additional green space (other similar names include Park View, Four Mile Park, Stream View, etc).
  • North Del Ray - promotes us as a neighbor and almost a part of the hugely resurgent Del Ray much like Potomac/North Potomac in Montgomery County
  • Potomac West North - Arlandria literally is the northern portion of Potomac West, so this probably makes the most sense geographically
  • Sunnyside - A portion of Arlandria that just has a positive ring to it.

Tell me which you like or if you have better ideas... or if you think it's a terrible idea to change it. I only bring it up because there was more support from a wide range of people than I expected for a rename.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Arlandria/Del Ray Trolley Line Mock-Ups

This very well may be a pipe-dream, but perhaps the city of Alexandria will see the benefit of additional free trolley lines between Metro stations and other portions of the city. You might ask, why do we need a trolley when there is Dash and Metro bus service all around Alexandria. Truthfully, I'd love to hear additional arguments about the benefits of a free trolley. Feel free to provide opinions or statistics about the benefits, besides a free ride to Metro for residents (which is a good place to start). Would a line bring people in? Would it's ridership justify its cost (The cost of the King St. trolley could be up to $800K/year).

I mocked-up two potential trolley routes. The Mt. Vernon Ave line could happen. In fact, I've even heard rumors that Old Town might want to give up theirs because the in-between businesses miss out on a lot of potential window shoppers. Del Ray and Arlandria don't have the "problem" that Old Town has -- a main attraction. Trolley riders in Old Town are primarily trying to get from the King St. Metro station to the waterfront. In Del Ray and Arlandria, it's more about a sojourn than a destination. The Birchmere could be one destination, but no one is walking from the Braddock Rd. Metro to the Birchmere as it is.

The green colored route would be a nice-to-have whenever Potomac Yard development gets further along and the Potomac Yard Metro gets built (yes, I said when, not if... I'm an optimist).

Take a look, let me know what you think and if you have any other potential stops to add or an idea for a better route.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Permits In One Day - Business Just Got Easier

Ribbon Cutting with the Mayor, City Council and City Staff
Ask businesses whether Alexandria has been an inviting place to set up shop and many would likely look at you like you had two heads. Getting permits alone could be a 2 week affair, and that's if everything is right the first time (personal experience with home renovations). Hopefully, all that has changed now with the opening of the Multi-Agency Permit Center on the fourth floor of Alexandria City Hall. The grand opening took place on March 5th. Customer Service Manager at the Office of Building & Fire Code Administration, Mr. Frank Ward , was kind enough to provide some information on the center for the blog.

I asked for some general info and here was Mr. Ward's response:

"The Multi-Agency Permit Center was established to improve customer service to Alexandria's residents and business owners by offering one central location for the same day processing of many of the required City permits and licenses. City departments represented in the Center include Planning & Zoning, Transportation & Environmental Services, Finance and Fire Department's Office of Building and Fire Code Administration."

For a bit of a case study in how the center will help local businesses, I asked Mr. Ward to describe how the center would help a business that is applying to change it's awning and signage in Arlandria. He replied, "many of our services should be a welcome addition." Mr. Ward mentioned the City Zoning Ordinance that applies to signage in Arlandria (4-1410, pg. 22 of this PDF) and said, "our Planning & Zoning representative Richard Bray is available to assist you in review of awning and sign applications in Arlandria." There is also a facade ordinance for Arlandria (4-1411 on pg 24 of the same PDF). The ordinances are short and are a good read to get a feel for the art deco, mixed-use, urban character that planners are trying to achieve and maintain. Specifically, with regard to sign and awning permits for businesses , Mr. Ward had this to say:

"The awnings will require a Building Permit and any signs will require a Sign Permit. The applications can be found on-line using our link to Permit Processing off of the City of Alexandria's BFCA website. Applicants will need to submit the application along with 5 copies of their proposed plans for review/comment and approval as part of any formal application proposal."

The good news is that, even though permits are required, "many building, electrical, mechanical, plumbing, signage and King Street outdoor dining permits can be issued in one day." That should be a welcome relief from the past procedures. From personal experience, the permitting process was anything but smooth sailing in the past.

If you're reading this as a small business owner in Arlandria or you know of one that has been deterred in the past, it might be time for another try. Between this new center and up to $5,000 in matching grants for Arlandria businesses from the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership's Facade Improvement Grant program, it could be a cheap and easy time to change out those tired old signs, paint that storefront, and even add a few new architectural elements to that boxy old building. Ignore the Facade Improvement program expiration date on that link. We talked to AEDP and they're keeping the program open for a while longer for Arlandria businesses.

Mock-Ups of Arlandria Wayfinding Signs

Thanks to Google Maps Street View and a little "Photoshop magic", here are three different views of what Arlandria might look like with some way-finding signs in place. Click to see a larger view of each.

Note: "Photoshop magic" should really read "negligible Photoshop skill." Magic just sounded better.

Gateway from Arlington Ridge on Mt. Vernon Ave:


Northbound near Russel Rd. intersection:



Gateway from Del Ray (near Calvert):

Friday, March 13, 2009

If We Build It, Will They Come?

With the economic downturn stalling development projects all around the city, one has to wonder what drives developers willing to continue moving forward. There are likely countless subjective reasons for a project to still appear viable to a developer in the face of falling home values and diminished financing availability. I don't claim to be an expert, or even a novice for that matter at evaluating real estate potential, but I think it's worth wondering what it takes for a well positioned project to bring commercial and residential renters and buyers. In Arlandria, there is a bit of a chicken vs. egg problem -- an area must be high income, low crime for development to make sense vs. development brings in a new demographic, lowering crime and helping raise the average income.


Arlandria is not a well-to-do area on average, but it is chock-full of amenities necessary to a lively, urban community. There are negative perceptions due to loitering and a higher than average crime rate. However, it seems positioned to be a very popular, eclectic neighborhood if the right domino falls. Arlandria amenities include:



  • Neighborhood is closest portion of Alexandria to DC and Crystal City.

  • Two bus routes to the Pentagon bus terminal with ~ 12 min. rush hour headways.

  • Hundreds of visitors are drawn to the area almost daily by the Birchmere.

  • Wrapped around Four Mile Run Park, which is getting ready to be expanded and re-naturalized (search page for "four mile run").

  • Adjacent to the Four Mile bike trail, and only a mile from the Mount Vernon Trail and the Potomac River.

  • The Alexandria Aces, a summer league baseball team, play at Four Mile Run Park on a newly revitalized field.

  • Cora Kelly Magnet School (math, science, and technology focused)

When you add all of the amenities up, then consider that Arlandria is situated between Del Ray, Beverly Hills, Arlington Ridge, Crystal City, and the soon-to-be developed Potomac Yard, you wonder how Arlandria isn't a priority for redevelopment. A Coordinated Development District is long established at the Safeway/Datatel site (across the street from the Birchmere), a large parcel the Planning and Zoning identified as a potential town center-like mixed use development. The Arlandria plan only includes vision-level plans and is probably too restrictive, requiring 10% below market-rate housing and limiting the project to approximately 3 floors. Were the city to loosen its plans so it has greater potential for profitability, perhaps that would be the necessary component to bring in the investors.


Under the auspices of the current restrictions for the site, the project likely isn't profitable. Though with falling real-estate prices and building costs, it may be more so than it was even just last year. According to a feasibility study conduced in 2007 and early 2008, viable development would need to fetch $360/sqft for condos and $29.65/sqft per month in rent for office and retail. The developer simply asks themself, "if we build it, will people pay those rates to buy and lease in this location?". The answer is likely "no" based on perceptions of the socioeconomic conditions in the area. These rates seem exorbitant in many areas, and may be overly inflated from the real estate market at the time the study was conducted. The question, though, probably should be, "if we build it, will current perceptions of the area still apply?" With a little help from the City to loosen some of the revenue limiting requirements and a little forward thinking, maybe this site will get snatched up. Maybe not. All we can do is try, make it appealing as possible for development, and see if someone from the market can make it work.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Arlandrian Anecdotes from the Del Ray Meet and Greet

I'm not sure if any Arlandria residents made it down to the Meet and Greet, but it was an opportunity to learn about many projects and plans in Alexandria. I brought along some information on the effort Arlandria residents are undertaking to improve the neighborhood to share with some of the key players. Kevin Beekman and I spoke with representatives from various organizations. The meet and greet took place in the cafeteria of GW Middle School in Del Ray from 7 to 9 PM on March 9. There were dozens of booths set up with representation from many city services and local organizations, including Planning and Zoning (P&Z), the Fire Department & Code Enforcement, the Police Department & Sheriff's Office, the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, and the Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC).

There were a number of development projects on display. P&Z had a large model of the Potomac Yard redevelopment (which they expect to break ground on in the fall with buildings just south of Target). The development projects closest to Arlandria are Mt. Vernon Commons (triangle site), Lofts at Del Ray (see Street View of Site: Raymond St and Mt. Vernon Ave), and a newer plan for development at the former Anthony's Auto site (see Street View of site: Mt. Vernon and Commonwealth Aves.). These are all important bridge projects that bring population density northward towards Arlandria and will hopefully provide positive network effects to the southern border of Arlandria. The area is still far from the density that will be required to support new shops and businesses in the future.

I spoke with the head of P&Z for awhile, discussing Arlandria potential and ways to realize it. We discussed the creation of an Arts District, the creation of additional coordinated development districts in Arlandria, and harnessing the draw of the Birchmere. I introduced our ideas to bring in streetscape improvements to help brand the area (signage, street banners) and she was very receptive.
I also spoke to Aimee Vosper, the Director of Environmental & Planning Services with NVRC. She expects the Four Mile Run Restoration Project to move forward in the not-too-distant future. Our Senators and Congressmen may be working on federal funds to actually begin the stream bed restoration. The Commonwealth Ave to Eads St bridge will likely break ground very soon. The planning phase for park expansion on the northwest corner, a future gateway for park visitors, should begin this spring once Open Space has finished the environmental remediation of the land where a dry cleaner once stood.

Kevin and I had other conversations with Warwick Village members about getting involved with Arlandria improvements, with Alexandria Convention & Visitors Association about the Alexandria Aces and the Birchmere, and with the head of the Del Ray Business Association about their experience installing street banners. We also discussed ways to improve the look and feel of Hume Springs with Inspector John Javelle of Code Enforcement. Several future blogs will no doubt go into depth on each of these topics.

All in all, it was a productive set of meetings and greetings for Arlandria and a lot of people were very interested to hear of all the activity amongst the various Arlandria citizens associations.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Planning for Pedestrian & Traffic Improvements in Arlandria

Study Kick-off Wednesday March 25th, 8am

The City's "Long Term Vision and Action Plan for the Arlandria Neighborhood" (found here) was adopted by the City Council in May of 2003 called for a number of physical improvements in Arlandria including improvements to the intersections at the old Safeway site:

  • Mt. Vernon Avenue and W. Glebe Road
  • Mt. Vernon Avenue and W. Reed Ave
(Click here to see map of these intersections)



The City has contracted with consulting firm Kimley-Horn to conduct an engineering study to develop recommendations for short term and long term improvements to the intersections that will focus on pedestrian safety, improving the geometry of the intersection, driveway access and general intersection efficiency and safety.

As part of this effort, the City and Kimley-Horn are hosting an open house to hear observations, concerns and suggestions from those of you that live and work in the area. We want to hear your thoughts specifically relating to:
  • Pedestrian safety (are there particular places that are difficult to cross?)
  • Intersection functionality (how do the intersections function? are there particular movements that are difficult at different times of day?)
  • Driveway access (are there businesses you visit that are difficult to access?)

We would like to invite you attend an open house:

Wednesday morning, March 25, 2009
8-10am
Tenants and Workers United
3801 Mt. Vernon Avenue
Alexandria VA 22305

If you are unable to attend the open house, feel free to send an email with your comments to sandra.marks@alexandriava.gov. We will be following up this open house with a community meeting later in the spring to present study findings and recommendations.

Your thoughts on these intersections are important to the City and Kimley-Horn as we initiate this study effort. I hope that you will be able to share your observations, concerns and suggestions with us.

If you have any questions please feel free to contact me at (703) 838-4411x170 or via email at sandra.marks@alexandriava.gov.


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Triangle Site Demo Underway

After a few years of planning and waiting, demo at the triangle project site (Mt. Vernon Commons) has begun.
The developer had until June to begin work or request a second extension. The first-12 month extension was approved last June. A couple of weeks ago, the construction fences went up, then last week, the buildings were leveled within a few days. Workers are busy clearing the site of trees and debris.
The real-estate focused blog, DC Mud, posted a good recap of the project last month before things got started.









Monday, March 02, 2009

Meeting with City Council Candidate Frank Fannon

Members of Lennox Place at Sunnyside and Hume Springs Citizens Associations met with Republican candidate for Alexandria City Council Frank Fannon last night. We met and discussed Arlandria community concerns for over an hour, ensuring he left aware of some of the key issues.

We began by discussing the Alexandria Aces, Alexandria's new collegiate summer league baseball team that plays in Four Mile Run Park (on the baseball diamond shown in our banner, actually). Mr. Fannon and Patrick Malone were both instrumental in bringing baseball to Alexandria.

We then got into the key topics:
  • Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA) shortcomings. Residents listed a littany of complaints about ARHA and their horrid mismanagement of Glebe Park (dangerous mold problems (see on youtube), code violations, etc). Community members also discussed the problems with selection of ARHA property residents. Despite the long waiting list for affordable and low-income housing, disruptive individuals are often selected and allowed to negatively impact those trying to turn their lives around. Mr. Fannon acknowledged that he had heard complaints about ARHA wherever he went in Alexandria.
  • In order to improve the area drastically and soon, city council needs to remove hurdles for redevelopment of the Safeway/Datatel site. Additionally, to spur future improvements, the city needs to form additional CDDs on nearby property (specifically along W. Glebe Rd and on Mt. Vernon between W. Glebe and Commonwealth Ave). Mr. Fannon was somewhat skeptical of what could be done with the current economy, but residents brought it to his attention that other projects in the area are moving forward. The Safeway/Datatel site is not, largely due to the overly restrictive way that it was written. Mr. Fannon did point to the fact that he wants to clear the hurdles for businesses to establish in Alexandria. Alexandria can be a difficult place to establish a business due to strict regulations.
  • Other issues raised were support for local police and code enforcement efforts and reducing the ratio of below market-value to market-value housing in Arlandria. Residents pointed out that Alexandria has the highest ratio of below-market to market-rate housing in the city, yet the Safeway/Datatel site requires a 10% set-aside for affordable/low-income housing, which would further skew this figure.