Making a Firehouse a Good Neighbor

The Potomac Yard developer averted safety issues by donating land and money for the firehouse, which will have affordable housing above it.
The Potomac Yard developer averted safety issues by donating land and money for the firehouse, which will have affordable housing above it. (Courtesy Of City Of Alexandria)
By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 10, 2007

Residents of the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria have complained that the firehouse proposed for nearby Potomac Yard, the first new fire station in the city in more than 30 years, would be too far from their homes to provide them with fire protection in an emergency.

Now Alexandria officials have approved the final design of the firehouse, where about 64 families will be plenty close to safety -- in fact, they will be living atop the noisy firehouse itself.

The new station -- about a mile and a half from Del Ray -- is part of an unusual deal brokered by the city in which the developer of the sprawling Potomac Yard complex headed off safety concerns by giving the city land and $6 million toward the cost of building the four-bay station.

Then it occurred to the planners that the site could also provide a rare opportunity in this densely developed city to create additional housing for low-income people and city workers, many of whom have been priced out of the city by the real estate boom. Alexandria, once a home to a large working-class population, has lost more than half of its more affordable rental units in the past six years, said Helen McIlvaine, deputy director of the city housing office.

"Solving the affordable-housing problem is going to take a lot of new ideas," McIlvaine said.

But housing and a fire station on the same site? It is an unusual combination, except in the places where firefighters bunk upstairs when they are not battling blazes.

"It's definitely unique," said Greg Toritto, associate publisher of Chicago-based Fire Chief Magazine, which follows firehouse design trends. "We've never heard of residential housing combined with a firehouse."

It is also the latest example of how private entrepreneurs -- in this case, the Potomac Yard developers, are playing an increasingly important role in providing vital public infrastructure. The high-occupancy toll lanes on the Capital Beltway, for example, are being built by private companies.

Several elected officials, including Mayor William D. Euille and Vice Mayor Andrew H. MacDonald, publicly questioned whether a firehouse was a suitable site for housing families.

"Initially, I thought that sounded like an awkward place for housing," MacDonald said. "At first glance, you'd think it would be noisy and not a right environment. It seemed an incongruous thing."

Planning officials, however, said they have done a lot to reduce the sound problem, including requiring a concrete pad, wood framing and special additional padding to be placed between the firehouse and the first housing level. The windows will be at least double-glazed, the doors to the bays that house the firetrucks will fold open rather than rise with a thud, and firefighting equipment that hangs from the ceiling will be attached with springs to limit vibration.

Al Cox, city architect for code enforcement, said the picture people have of firetrucks screaming out of a station, sirens blaring, is a cinematic myth. Most jurisdictions, including Virginia, prohibit firetrucks from turning on their sirens until they have moved a distance from the stations. Cox said people across Alexandria live next to fire stations with few complaints.

Ultimately, city officials were convinced that the project made sense, and the City Council unanimously approved it last week. The housing units will have one to three bedrooms and will be available as rentals to people who make between $37,920 and $73,000. The complex is expected to be completed by October 2009.

"We see it as a unique opportunity, especially in the situation where there is so much demand for affordable housing," said Cathy Puskar, an attorney for the Potomac Yard development, a $700 million project with more than 1,600 homes, shops, offices and a hotel.

Del Ray residents have been concerned that the new fire station would siphon resources, including personnel and firetrucks, from their station, on East Windsor Avenue. The question about the adequacy of fire response arose after it became apparent that some of the city's firetrucks would not be able to negotiate some of the streets in Potomac Yard. A task force study on fire response times allayed some of those fears, and many Del Ray residents became reconciled to the new plan, particularly because of the affordable housing component.

"It's a win-win situation for the city -- 64 housing units and a new fire station coming at little expense to the taxpayer," said Del Ray resident Justin Wilson, former president of the Del Ray Citizens Association.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company