The Potomac Yard Metro station debate: Is the city on the right track?

By Bill Hendrickson, President
Del Ray Citizens Association

I have long been a supporter of a Metro station at Potomac Yard, and continue to be. But I am concerned about recent talk indicating that the city may be considering changing its preferred location from alternative site B to site A. It’s not clear that site A will work. Let me explain.

In building a Metro station at Potomac Yard, the city would be making the biggest investment in its history. To make that investment work, it needs to generate a substantial return, in the form of a big, long-term increase in tax revenues to fund city services and provide tax relief.

The key to making the investment work is being able to attract a large amount of top-quality commercial office space to Potomac Yard. This type of office development generates a lot of tax revenue because the cost to the city of providing services is low. Very little of this type of office space has been built in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area during the past decade. When it is built, it is being built mostly next to or very close to Metro stations.

The 2010 Potomac Yard plan included a huge amount of office space and located it near a Metro site located on the east side of the rail corridor across from the existing Potomac Yard shopping center, which would be redeveloped under the 2010 plan. The city calls this the alternative B site. The northern end of this station would be across from where the Target store is now.

But during the current required legal process in which the impacts of three alternative Metro sites as well as a no-build alternative are being considered, the National Park Service has objected to site B largely because it would intrude on a scenic easement that protects views of the George Washington Parkway. A portion of the site is also on Park Service property.

Given the Park Service’s strong objection, some key city leaders have begun to make a case for the A site, located at the north end of the Potomac Greens development on the east side of the railroad tracks. The northern end of this station would be directly across from the multifamily residential buildings now being built at Potomac Yard.

The challenge is that this site would entail a considerably longer walk to the new office buildings approved in the 2010 plan, although site A would be close to the office space approved in the 1999 Potomac Yard plan.

The northern point of the site A station would be 900 feet south of the northern point of the site B station, according to city estimates. In both alternatives, Metro riders would need to walk over the rail tracks to reach the development on the west side.

The key question is whether office developers would consider this distance acceptable. Unless the city has a very high degree of assurance that site A is would work for top-quality office space, building a station there would be risky.

According to a city staff analysis, the majority of the office buildings approved in the North Potomac Yard Plan would be within a one-half mile walk of station alternative A. The General Services Administration currently requires that federal government offices be built within a one-half mile (2,640 walk-able linear feet) of a Metro station, with office buildings within one-quarter mile of a station having the highest percentage of employees using the Metro. According to city staff, there would be approximately six blocks currently planned for office within North Potomac Yard that would be outside the one-quarter mile radius with alternative A compared to alternative B.

The decision to select site A would require re-planning of the 2010 plan, which might be able to move some of the office closer to the station.

There is one big advantage to alternate A: the cost. Because it is located along the existing Metro tracks, it would cost about $60 million less than alternative B. It would, however, mean the loss of a chunk of the just-built Potomac Yard Park.
Despite uncertainty, the city still might decide to go ahead with building a station at site A. Officials see Potomac Yard as the last place in Alexandria where the city could realistically secure the large amount of high-quality commercial office space that would bring in substantial tax revenues.

The city has been facing a revenue crunch for a number of years, resulting in tax increases and service cuts. Service cuts will become more severe and the tax increases much steeper if the city can’t find new revenue streams.

Thus, though outwardly calm, city officials are clearly and justifiably worried about the future. They might be more inclined to make a decision that would not be in the city’s interest.

More detail and analysis should be available this fall, when the federal government is expected to release a draft Environmental Impact Statement on the Metro station alternatives.

I hope that the city and the Park Service can settle their differences and that site B will be chosen, because site B would provide much greater assurance that vital class A commercial office space could be attracted and the overall 2010 plan will be viable. There is too much at stake here economically, for the city as well as the region, especially if site A proves to be problematic to the point that no station is built.

The Park Service’s concern about the scenic easement has always seemed somewhat questionable, given the impacts the federal government has already allowed on the George Washington Parkway: an international airport, a major commuter highway, and high-rise buildings in Arlington.

Good landscaping and station design would go a long way to dealing with concerns about the station’s impact on the scenic views of those traversing the Parkway.

Indeed, one clear solution to the scenic easement issue would be for Metro to design a smaller, more streamlined, and much cheaper station than is being proposed.

In 1999, I organized a DRCA-sponsored meeting to discuss a Metro station at Potomac Yard, and more important, how the station could be designed in a more streamlined way so that it would be affordable to build.

The speakers on the panel that night were a stellar cast that included some of the top transportation officials in the Washington area, including Metro’s general manager and the chairman of Metro’s board. All of the panelists agreed that a more streamlined, cheaper Metro station design was worth examining.

Alas, the Potomac Yard developer chose not to propose a project that included a Metro station, and the idea of a less costly Metro station in the 1999 plan was dropped.

Given how expensive the proposed station alternatives are at Potomac Yard, ranging from $209 million for alternative site A to $493 million for alternative D, it’s time to revive this idea.

The Potomac Yard Metro station would be an infill station, and not a major one at that. Thus, it makes a lot of sense to go with a smaller, less costly station design. Most important, it would also significantly minimize the city’s risk.

2 thoughts on “The Potomac Yard Metro station debate: Is the city on the right track?”

  1. Bill, the merits of Alternative B are well-known and you didn’t even mention the additional money the developers would chip in if that alternative was chosen. However, the city has had years to demonstrate that it is viable and has failed to do so. If it was going to happen it would have happened by now. Alternative A or bust.

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