Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Potomac Yard Metro: "We Can See the Finish Line"

At last Thursday's Potomac Yard Planning Advisory Group (PYPAG) meeting, Alexandria's Deputy Director of Planning and Zoning Jeff Farner joked that this will "probably" be the last one, which drew a few tentative chuckles from the group. The planning of Potomac Yard seems to have gone on for years if not decades. The goal for the product of over a year of effort, the North Potomac Yard Small Area Plan (Draft PDF), is set to go before the Alexandria Planning Commission and City Council for approval in April. But, truth be told, until the Metro station funding is resolved, there is probably no point in sending it forward.

Deputy City Manager Mark Jinks danced around the funding questions as everyone present tried to read between the lines. The good news is that what was an original gap was $75 million has been worked it down to $32 million by capitalizing the debt; rolling early debt service payments into the loan. Based on discussion later in the meeting, the City expects the rest of the gap to be closed by developers.

Planning Commissioner Eric Wagner ended an awkward question session by saying that it is not the time or place to discuss negotiating points, but that they can "see the finish line," something they could not have said just a month or two ago. As it stands, the $32 million funding gap is still a problem, but they expect to resolve it before a plan goes to City Council.

Item 2 on the agenda was a so-called "flex-zone" centered around the area reserved for the sought-after Metro station. Fellow blogger "Froggie" wrote up a good summary of this discussion in a recent post:
This is a planned area immediately around the northern Metro station entrance (Blocks 14 thru 21, except for Block 17) that is intended to be a pedestrian-intensive zone. The plan includes a roughly 0.75 acre park centrally located within the "Zone", surrounded on all sides by streets, with adjacent buildings facing the park. Much of the immediate area is intended for Office use with street-level retail.

There was a request from one Group member for a clarification and a more precise definition of just what constitutes "mixed-use". This turned into a discussion on what should be apprpriate land use next to the Metro station, which produced a couple of interesting (yet somewhat contradictory) statements (below are paraphrased and not verbatim):

- "Residents living next to Metro use it more than office workers next to Metro". Meanwhile...
- "Residents are willing to walk farther to Metro than office workers."

The general concensus (sic) appeared to be that Office use was more appropriate closest to Metro.
I think the real item at issue is trying to maximize the value and quantity of the office space in the development without losing the vibrancy of quality mixed-use development. One citizen complained that they don't see how the proposed plan presented for the Yard decreases Alexandria's burden on the residential tax base (a much desired tenet of Alexandria's long range plans since 60% of its tax revenue is derived from residential property with only 40% commercial). Ultimately, the plan should bring in a tremendous amount tax revenue.

PYPAG members were divided about whether or not to include a reservation for a school in the plan. Dept Planning Director Farner proposed that a school not be ruled-out, which would require shifting some proposed uses and building heights to accommodate the possibility of a school. Planning Commisioner Wagner and others thought that it made little sense to include a school on a prime residential block adjacent to the Circle Park and Four Mile Run. Mr. Wagner proposed postponing the decision about the location of a school in order to try to identify the best overall location as opposed to adjusting the plan to include the possibility for a school on-site. This item will be revisited by City staff.

The transportation element of the plan brought about some of the most heated discussion of the evening. Planning Commissioner Wagner made note of a line in the draft "Implementation" chapter of the plan that he'd only just noticed:
"... 16 million dollars in construction costs are anticipated for the dedicated transitway, with an additional $5 million anticipated for other transportation improvements, including a future east-west connection to Commonwealth Ave...".
This last portion drew the ire of Mr. Wagner. He said he'd never heard any discussion of the east-west connection to Commonwealth Avenue and he thought it amounted to a "deal-breaker". City Transportation Planner Sandra Marks stated the likely location would be somewhere on or near the Jack Taylor Toyota site (see orange line on map below). Mr. Wagner and another Del Ray resident were very concerned that this item would dramatically increase the effect on the surrounding neighborhoods...mainly Del Ray.


Ms. Marks defended the need for the extra east-west connection by stating that both E. Glebe Road and E. Reed Avenue are (or will be) at service level F, the lowest level of road performance. (I wasn't 100% sure whether or not they were talking current service level or expected service level in a build or no build scenario)

Lastly, City Planners went around the table and had each person voice his or her overall opinion of the plan, whether or not they support it, and any specific issues. All but three of the attendees supported the plan, and the three were among the most important members of the group: Planning Commissioner Eric Wagner, Potomac Yard Development, LLC (owner/developer of Landbays D, E, H, I, J, K, and L), and MRP Realty (owner/developer of landbay G).

Mr. Wagner's lone issue was the east-west connector to Commonwealth Avenue. He supports the plan without the extra connector, but said that one street is a deal-breaker for him. He seems to think that all the work that was put into "protecting the neighborhoods" would be undone by this one additional street that is likely to just break up the logjams of E. Glebe Road and E. Reed Avenue. I'm skeptical that it would make any difference at all on Commonwealth south of intersection with East/West Glebe.


Both owners of the properties south of the planning area (from just south of the existing Target location all the way down to Old Town) were not supportive of the plan as-is. They are both upset about an expected $10 per sqft proffer demanded by the City as well as the fact that they feel they are not being treated equally to Landbay F (the current retail center) in terms of the amount of public benefit expected of them. They also complained that they are being required to underground more parking than Landbay F, among other unnamed inequities. Planning Director Farrol Hamer said the City will be sure to treat the developers equally in comparable zoning uses and asked if the developers would support the plan without the $10 per sqft proffer.

I was surprised at the public display and have a feeling they are headed back to the negotiating table. The representative of Potomac Yard Development, LLC essentially said they feel McCaffery Interests (Landbay F owner) should cut a check for the Metro funding gap since the upzoning in the proposed plan gives him an instant property value increase of about $240 million. Potomac Yard Development, LLC has already spent about $100 million in infrastructure improvements, including a new fire-station with 64 affordable housing units, and the new Monroe Avenue Bridge, among other projects.

Mr. Wagner wrapped up by saying he thinks the Metro funding gap might be more than $32 million because of how slow build-out usually occurs. He thinks they might be too optimistic with the build-out schedule based on experience. Still, they're hopeful to finalize a financing plan by the City Council meeting on April 17th.

This was not the positive message we've been hoping for, but despite the posturing between the city and various development interests, City staff insists that they're closing in on that coveted goal of a new Metro station.

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