Alexandria’s rapid urbanization


The redevelopment in the Braddock Metro neighborhood includes new townhouses, such as these in Old Town Commons. (City of Alexandria)
January 11, 2013

For many people, the character of Alexandria is defined by its historic Old Town. Some still view Alexandria as a suburb. But as its name — City of Alexandria — affirms, it is neither a town nor suburban.

Experiencing a pace and type of growth that many residents may not fully discern or appreciate, Alexandria is a place becoming ever more citylike.

Nowhere is the city’s accelerating urbanization more robust than in two contiguous areas of northeastern Alexandria: the newly developing Potomac Yard and the redeveloping Braddock neighborhood immediately south of Potomac Yard.

Transit-oriented and walkable, both areas are being transformed by higher density, mixed-use development and redevelopment. Financed primarily through private investment, new real estate both in Potomac Yard and in the Braddock neighborhood is making the city more urban and urbane.

Within just these two areas, dozens of new buildings are now going up or soon will be going up. They will contain about 3,000 sale or rental apartments and townhomes. Accompanying all this housing will be hundreds of thousands of square feet of new shopping, office, hotel and institutional space, along with new parks and other recreational and civic amenities.


(Roger K. Lewis)

Whether the city’s citizens realize it, this part of Alexandria will acquire millions of square feet of new, taxable property. And the city will acquire several thousand new voters, taxpayers and workers. Inevitably, Alexandria’s demographic and fiscal center of gravity will shift northward.

An entirely new urban environment, Potomac Yard is taking shape on a 295-acre former railroad yard stretching southward from East Glebe Road. About a mile long but only two blocks wide, the Potomac Yard site is bounded on the west by U.S. Route 1, also known as Jefferson Davis Highway, and on the east by the Blue and Yellow Metrorail line.

At Potomac Yard, Pulte Homes already has developed several blocks of traditionally styled, three-story townhomes and “townhome condominium” duplexes. The latter are two-level units stacked one above the other within four-story structures designed to look like large, vaguely neoclassical apartment buildings. Eventually, the Pulte development will contain about 450 dwellings.

In the approval pipeline elsewhere at Potomac Yard are five mid-rise apartment buildings containing more than 1,000 units. A couple of these buildings will include street-level space for a small store. But one of the largest will house a 70,000-square-foot supermarket with 291 apartments above and 479 residential and retail parking spaces in the garage below. In fact, there will be no large surface parking lots at Potomac Yard.

Regrettably, out of all these units, only a few are destined to be “affordable” workforce housing. Unlike in Maryland and D.C., zoning in Virginia does not require developers to provide a minimum percentage of below-market-price units. Any affordable units will be linked to density bonuses.

Also regrettably, there is so far little to celebrate architecturally at Potomac Yard. Design preferences remain conservative rather than contemporary. But this could change as development progresses and density increases.

Planned for Potomac Yard’s northernmost, densest blocks are several new office and institutional buildings, a hotel and additional retail space. Currently the location of the future Blue and Yellow Line Metro station favors the denser, northern section of Potomac Yard.

In the Braddock neighborhood near the Braddock Road Metrorail station and rail right-of-way, multi-family housing developers are rapidly revitalizing this previously sketchy area. Six new residential in-fill projects are under construction or soon will be under construction. Together they encompass more than 1,500 units and more than 20,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space.

One of the six projects entails demolition and redevelopment of an existing, multi-block public housing site. When completed, this project makeover will encompass 379 dwellings: 134 public housing units, 159 market-rate townhomes and 86 market-rate apartments.

Potomac Yard and the Braddock neighborhood enjoy very favorable locations. Served by Metro — a Potomac Yard Metrorail station is planned — both areas are very close to downtown D.C. and Old Town. With public schools not far away, both areas also are near many employment and shopping destinations in Arlington and Alexandria. Crystal City and Reagan National Airport are virtually next door to Potomac Yard, clearly a convenience but also one necessitating noise abatement in buildings near takeoff and landing flight paths over the river.

Each area likewise benefits from having a rational, gridlike street-block network. The already existing Braddock neighborhood pattern is to a large degree an extension of the Old Town network to the south, while the new Potomac Yard street-block pattern fits the site’s unique geometry. Two north-south streets, Main Line Boulevard and Potomac Avenue, run the length of Potomac Yard parallel to Route 1. Crossing them are eight east-west, two-block long streets, three of which are widened to embrace medians serving as local parks.

But Potomac Yard’s main public park is the mile-long, 24-acre sliver of landscape between Potomac Avenue and the Metrorail line at the site’s eastern edge. This linear, well-landscaped park will have playgrounds, sport courts, picnic areas, space for summertime concerts, a dog park and hiker-biker trails.

Alexandria gets high planning marks for its efforts to manage and wisely shape dynamic growth in the city’s northeast. But I have one concern as growth continues: that architectural quality may not match urban design quality.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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