The prospect of a home at Potomac Yard sounds less than appetizing. Why choose to live on a long, pimento-shaped sliver of land, a former railroad yard in northern Alexandria sandwiched between the George Washington Parkway and U.S. Route 1 and a stone's throw from the main runway at Reagan National Airport?
But Potomac Yard's 295 acres of real estate soon could be among the hottest in the area, thanks to a sensible urban design process involving not only the developer, talented consultants and the city of Alexandria, but also citizens of the neighborhoods nearby.
In September, the Alexandria City Council unanimously approved the plan for Potomac Yard after a laborious 16-month planning effort, during which detailed surveys were conducted and 19 meetings were held to engage local citizens, community groups and businesses in the creative act of design.
Commonwealth Atlantic Properties, the developer, sponsored the process. The development team documented public concerns and solicited suggestions about land use, density, traffic management, public transportation, parking, open space, housing types and community amenities. The final plan embodies many of the suggestions.
Cooper, Robertson & Partners, a respected urban design firm in New York, took the lead in generating the master plan and urban design guidelines. Alexandria is not new to Cooper, Robertson. The firm planned Carlyle, a mixed-use development underway south of the King Street Metro station.
Collaborating with Cooper, Robertson were local architects Cunningham & Quill; Oculus, a landscape architecture firm; Christopher Consultants Ltd., civil engineers; and Wells & Associates, transportation consultants.
The approved plan for this transit-oriented development is straightforward and logical. Indeed the master plan seems almost inevitable, as if there could be no other reasonable approach to configuring this slender, tapering parcel.
The parcel converges to a point at its southern end next to Braddock Road and the Braddock Road Metro station. Its eastern edge is constrained by the active rail corridor. On the north is the sprawling Potomac Yard Retail Center. And to the west are three residential neighborhoods--Del Ray, Mount Jefferson and Lynhaven--with grid-pattern streets that terminate abruptly at Route 1.
Given this context, the planners made all the right moves.
Potomac Yard's basic "framework plan" establishes a gridded street network throughout the site, half of which is open space. The street framework has a north-south parkway, Potomac Avenue, next to the rail corridor; a north-south spine forming Potomac Yard's Main Street; and east-west cross streets, some of which connect to the residential streets west of Route 1.
These roads serve five walkable, "quarter-mile" neighborhoods linked by Main Street, which leads to the Braddock Road Metro station. At the center of each neighborhood, on Main Street, are convenience stores no more than a five-minute walk from any place in the neighborhood. Each neighborhood also will have its own park. The northernmost neighborhood, adjacent to the Potomac Yard Retail Center, will be the "town center," with high-density office, retail, apartment and hotel uses.
Generally, higher-density mixed-use buildings--apartments and retail--will rise on the blocks between Route 1 and Main Street. Office buildings facing Route 1 will line the blocks in the southern half. Moderate-density town houses will occupy blocks between Main Street and Potomac Avenue.
Except for curbside parking along public streets, all on-site parking will be either below grade or in garages behind dwelling units.
According to designer Brian Shea of Cooper, Robertson, one of the goals of the plan was to "knit" Potomac Yard to the residential communities to the west, while at the same time creating streetscapes like those found in Old Town. To achieve this, the Potomac Yard Urban Design Guidelines describe the dimensions and landscaping of each type of street in Potomac Yard, and the position and "massing" of buildings relative to the streets they face.
One existing fact of Potomac Yard may change significantly. Today Route 1 turns and rises abruptly to leap over the railroad tracks near the narrowed southern end of the site. The bridge is clearly a development liability. An alternative plan calls for demolishing the bridge and continuing Route 1 as an on-grade boulevard straight through the southern part of Potomac Yard.
Supported by the city, the development team and the community, the goal is to obtain state transportation funds to realign and rebuild Route 1, with the developer paying for demolition of the state-built bridge. This alternative would unify Potomac Yard visually; allow Route 1 traffic to flow more smoothly; and allow existing sports fields and open space just west of Route 1 to be expanded eastward.
When completed, Potomac Yard will contain about 2,200 dwelling units, 1.9 million square feet of office space, 625 hotel rooms and 115,000 square feet of new retail space in addition to the existing 620,000-square-foot Potomac Yard Retail Center. This sounds dense, but it could be denser--or much less dense if some citizens had gotten their way. It represents an intelligent compromise.
And why will Potomac Yard be a desirable place to live?
Start with a fabulous location: only minutes from Old Town Alexandria and downtown Washington; access to diverse services, ranging from neighborhood shops to Pentagon City; and access to Metro. Of course, the one drawback is airport noise, something plenty of Washingtonians seem willing to put up with to avoid long commutes.
But the other reason people will choose to live at Potomac Yard is the urbanity and sense of place promised by Potomac Yard's explicit development plan. It is a plan that demonstrates how managed growth, to be truly smart, must be built on community consensus and shaped by prudent urban design.
Roger Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.