When the Alexandria City Council approved the massive transformation of the old Potomac Rail Yard in 1999, it marked a milestone in development for the entire Washington region.
The 400-acre parcel that straddles Alexandria and Arlington, once the East Coast's main railroad hub, was the last major tract of undeveloped land inside the Capital Beltway. For years, residents had battled to keep the land from being overdeveloped, fighting off efforts to make it the home of a new Washington Redskins stadium or of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Bill Hendrickson, chair of the Potomac Yard Design Advisory Committee, looks out over an undeveloped section of Potomac Yards. More than four years after site redevelopment was approved, Alexandria's plans have languished.
(Larry Morris - The Washington Post)
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The plan approved by the City Council struck what many considered a grand compromise. Alexandria's portion of Potomac Yard, which stretches from the Braddock Road Metro station in Alexandria to Crystal City in Arlington, would have nearly 2 million square feet of office space along with extensive retail space, residential development and a 625-room hotel. But that would be balanced by 61 acres of parkland and several "town centers" in a series of new pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods reminiscent of Old Town or Del Ray.
More than four years later, that vision has yet to become reality. Although Arlington has started construction on a large office building next to Crystal City and is about to begin building residential units, Alexandria's section of Potomac Yard has languished for the past few years, with only one small townhouse development under construction. Now, the Alexandria site has been sold for the second time in three years, and some residents are raising questions about the intentions of the latest developers, Pulte Homes Inc. and Centex Corp. Residents fear the two companies want to change the plan, possibly making the project too dense with development and jeopardizing the open space and other amenities.
"They're opening up a big can of worms, because if you make changes, then everything is back on the table," said Poul Hertel, former president of the Northeast Citizens Association, which represents a neighborhood that abuts the southern end of Potomac Yard. "The stakes are extremely high here because we need to make sure this is a very livable community that fits within the fabric of Alexandria."
Others are questioning whether Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Pulte, which has taken the lead in negotiations with the city, is fully committed to what city officials call the sophisticated "new urbanist" style of design envisioned for the development.
"Some people think that Pulte is basically a cookie-cutter townhouse developer. There's a sense out there that they don't do the best possible job," said Bill Hendrickson, chair of the Potomac Yard Design Advisory Committee, which helps ensure that design standards are met.
City officials confirm that before the two companies purchased Potomac Yard for $105 million in late June, Pulte presented a preliminary design that was substantially different from the plan approved in 1999. Eileen Fogarty, Alexandria's director of planning and zoning, said the design was "more traditionally suburban" than the city wanted and failed to integrate the residential, retail and commercial components into "an urban village type of plan."
"The city has been very clear that we expect a very high-quality project and that there has been a tremendous amount of work by the community on this, and we expect them to comply with the existing plan," Fogarty said.
Since the city's critique, Fogarty said Pulte has submitted a revised plan that she said is much closer to what officials and the community want. She praised Pulte's enthusiasm for charging forward, saying the company is offering to do millions of dollars in initial infrastructure work the city would have had to do.
"We're very excited about this project," said Fogarty, who could not provide an estimate of the project's total projected cost.
Steve Coniglio, director of acquisitions for Pulte's Washington region, vowed to respect the wishes of both the city and the neighbors and said the development will eventually "have a Del Ray kind of look, but a bit more eclectic."
"This will not look like Centreville," he said, he said referring to the Fairfax County community. "I consider this to be one of my flagship projects. This is going to be a special place."
Asked why Pulte's initial proposal differed so substantially from the existing plan, Coniglio called it "kind of a first blush" meant only to gauge the city's initial reaction. He noted that Pulte and Dallas-based Centex are both among the nation's top five homebuilders and that Pulte recently won a major national award for quality in homebuilding.