By Bill Hendrickson, President
Del Ray Citizens Association
On Tuesday, the city will begin a yearlong community planning process for a potentially huge redevelopment project on the west side of Route 1, across from the street from the massive Potomac Yard project, and adjacent to Del Ray. The owner of about 13 acres of the 20-acre Oakville Triangle industrial park is proposing as much as 1.5 million square feet of retail and residential development, and perhaps a hotel.
Such a large project is almost certain to have effects on Del Ray, and the community will need to explore what those effects could be and whether they can be managed or are simply unacceptable.
At the same time, the community will need to explore the potential benefits of such a project.
The city has selected a nine-person advisory group to city staff (see separate article), but has pledged that all members of the community will be able to actively participate.
The first planning meeting will be held on Tuesday, April 29, at 7 p.m. in the community room of the fire station at Potomac Yard. An agenda and background materials are available on the Department of Planning and Zoning section of the city website at www.alexandriava.gov/planning.
The owner of the 13 acres to be redeveloped is the Blackstone Group, a large and wealthy investment firm with headquarters in New York. Blackstone has selected StonebridgeCarras of Bethesda as the project’s developer. The firm has extensive experience in mixed-used, urban infill, transit-oriented projects.
StonebridgeCarras has been discussing with city staff and the community, including the DRCA, a project that would have a retail focus, with shops and restaurants along Route 1 as well as the central east-west street through the project, Swann Avenue. The conceptual design shows a finger park on Swann that would continue the design of the finger park on the east side on Route 1 in the Potomac Yard development.
As described in meetings with the developer, the project seems to bear a resemblance to retail and mixed-use projects at Clarendon Commons and Shirlington in Arlington County. But Douglas Firstenberg, a partner in StonebridgeCarras, said the company wants to create a unique identity for the area.
Here are some issues that I believe the community should explore.
First, will it create more in tax revenue than it costs the city to service the project? Revenues have been increasing very slowly in the city in recent years, resulting in cuts in services as well as tax increases. Consequently, the mix of uses selected should produce substantially more revenue than added costs. Retail meets this criteria; hotels, even more so. But residential tends to cost more in services than it generates in additional revenues.
Second, what will the traffic effects be? The traffic analysis done for the 2010 North Potomac Yard plan essentially concluded that the Yard project would fill up the remaining vehicle capacity on Route 1. How much vehicle traffic will this project generate and how will it be dealt with?
In this case, there is an X factor: the dedicated bus rapid transit lanes that are expected to open this year. One of the stops is directly in front of the proposed project.
But just because a transit option exists doesn’t mean people are going to use it. Still, there is a relatively recent trend in which many young professional people have opted not to buy cars but take transit instead. Could this group be targeted for the apartments to be built at the Oakville Triangle and thus reduce the number of people who drive, at least at rush hour?
Third, how much in public benefits should the community expect? The developer is asking for a large increase in development rights. The city has been approving many such projects in recent years, but it has asked in return that the developer provide a certain amount of public benefits. The city has essentially developed a formula for determining how much the developer should provide. The mix is different for each project.
Clearly, the developer will be asked to provide affordable housing, a major city priority. It will need to be negotiated whether affordable units should be provided on site, whether the developer will make a contribution to the city’s affordable housing fund, or both.
The developer will be expected to put the power lines along the site underground. Whether this should be considered a public benefit is unclear, because as the developer would likely do this for business reasons. But there is also an opportunity to ask the developer to pay for undergrounding the utility lines along adjacent properties as well. Clearly, this would be a public benefit, and the community will need to decide if this should be a priority or if the public benefits should be site-based only.
Fourth, the city has defined the scope of this project as not just the site itself, but adjacent properties along Route 1. For many years, the city has discussed the need for a master plan for the west side of Route 1. Now, with this project, it will essentially happen. How far the planning will go is uncertain. The community will need to develop a vision for what it would like to see on the west side of Route 1 in the future.
Fifth, the proposed development would displace industrial-type businesses that provide services or products to many people in the city. The city has been losing these types of business for years, because the land they occupy has greater value for residential and commercial use. But what will be the effects of losing these businesses? Are certain kinds of business valuable enough for residents that the city should try to relocate them within Alexandria?
Sixth, perhaps the most important issue for Del Ray may be the degree to which we want our residential neighborhood to connect to the new Oakville community.
Currently, the Oakville Triangle and Del Ray are separated by a long chain link fence and by a buffer area, part of the rail bed of the defunct Washington and Old Dominion Railroad. This is an orphaned section of the rail bed. Much of the former right-of-way has been converted into the W&OD bicycle and walking trail.
Since the demise of the railroad, this section, now called the Mount Jefferson Greenway, has been allowed to revert to a more “natural” state. It is a public area, managed by the city. Many nearby residents use it for a relaxing walk, exercise for their dogs, and so forth. It is a lovely area, and one that the new residents of the Oakville Triangle will undoubtedly want to use as well, especially given that the developer is considering locating much of the housing for the project along this area. As a result, how much connectivity do we want and where should the connections be?
Such a discussion must consider the views of existing residents whose backyards are next to the Greenway.
I will further discuss this question of connectivity between Del Ray and Oakville and the possible future of the Greenway in a later article.