In Alexandria’s summer haze, it materializes like a mirage. As you get closer on Interstate 395, it looms enormous, and you wonder, “Who dropped this giant casino and hotel next to the crowded highway, and the middle school, and the apartment complex, and the wildlife preserve?”
BRAC. It rolls off the tongue like a true four-letter word. Hard consonants, spiteful. And in the neighborhoods around the new 6,400-person Defense Department complex off Seminary Road, it’s used like a four-letter word, accompanied by facial expressions of torture or severe nausea.
“I dread it mightily.” “It’s gonna be a mess.” “It took away my sun.” “I hate it.”
BRAC is short for Base Realignment and Closure, an effort by the Pentagon to consolidate and better locate Defense offices. The pleas and ploys to try to delay or stop this federal invasion have failed. This week, the Defense Department started moving in the first few dozens of the incoming masses, mostly technical folks. The bulk will come next month as part of a staggered start by Sept. 15. About 2,200 more should be in by mid-December, and about 1,800 more in early spring will complete the occupancy.
The City of Alexandria, which approved the site for development long before anyone knew it would look like this, has raced to accommodate the influx of 6,400 people and what one state official feared would be “carmageddon.” (The last of the “-geddon” jokes, I’m sure.) City transportation heads Rich Baier and Abi Lerner have devised all sorts of bus and shuttle routes, neighborhood parking plans, traffic calming, signal timing, lane widening, free rides for BRAC employees, express buses. It’s all there – except for a Metro station, which is miles away.
Which leaves both the residents and city officials with so many questions, and so many still unresolved problems. Where do we start?
[For a very cool time-lapse video of the BRAC building and parking lot being built, from vacant lot to today, go here and then click on the “time lapse” button.]
Why not start with the actual interchange of I-395, good ol’ Shirley Highway to the locals, and Seminary Road and Van Dorn Street? It’s already a mini-Mixing Bowl of its own, even without the Bellagio being plopped down on its southwest corner. It has three levels: Van Dorn Street and I-395, running north and south next to each other; the ramps to I-395 form the second level; and Seminary Road rising over all, going east-west on level three.
Remarkably (or perhaps unfortunately), there is no exit ramp from the HOV lanes of northbound 395 to Seminary Road, which would reduce the number of cars taking that exit, right? So the future plan is to build a fourth level, a Super Ramp from the HOV lanes to Seminary Road. They’re cadging up the $80 million from somewhere to do that. But imagine what happens when it’s time to build that monstrosity. Hoo boy.
Also, for people simply driving 395 on the way to Washington, Alexandria estimates a delay of five to 15 minutes just trying to pass through. About 200,000 people use 395 each weekday. One West End resident told me her friend from Fairfax County was retiring rather than keep driving 395 after BRAC.
Neighborhoods can, and have, voted to make themselves into regulated parking districts, with stickers, visitor passes and strict enforcement. But the many neighbors I spoke to weren’t nearly so concerned with the parked cars as the moving ones.
Owen Curtis, both a resident and a traffic engineer, said he has worked in an office building overlooking the interchange. He watched children from the Southern Towers apartments and elsewhere walking to Francis Hammond Middle School, on the other side of 395.
There are sidewalks and overpasses, but scientific studies show that kids sometimes wander off such things. Into streets. Perhaps, Curtis said, into a Seminary Road jammed with more cars and more angry drivers.
“People are just going to be miserable,” Curtis predicted.
Curtis said he participated in a study 10 years ago, when the Navy was looking to move out of Crystal City. One place the study considered was the current BRAC site, next to the Winkler Botanical Preserve. For many reasons, including its extreme proximity to the highway, the “Winkler” site was the lowest-rated option, Curtis said.
Traffic lanes and lights have been rearranged around the Mark Center, the existing office complex next to BRAC, and intersections have been improved, Baier said. But Curtis said cars are already starting to back up in the Seminary Road intersection.
Alexandria has free buses for BRAC employees to and from the King Street Metro station, Baier said. All Alexandria DASH buses are free for BRACers, actually. Metro is running buses from the Pentagon Metro station, express at peak hours, and from the Van Dorn and Ballston Metro stations. For more information, you can go to this very complete Web site.
OK, so the people are all in there. Where are they going to eat lunch? Cafeterias in the BRAC building? Maybe. Because there are very few options outside of that in walking distance. There’s a Clyde’s nearby, which reportedly is ramping up in anticipation of increased business, but who can afford to eat there every day? There’s a small strip mall with a McDonald’s and a Thai place, a bit of a walk. And then there’s the Build America complex of kabobs and African cuisines over by Bailey’s Crossroads, but that means ...
Driving. More midday traffic.
That would add to the neighbors’ misery, which now feels like a hanging cloud of angst in Alexandria’s West End. “I don’t know a single person around here that’s happy about this,” resident Lynnae Henderson said. “I don’t know how I’m ever going to get across Seminary to Old Town. It’s going to be such a nightmare.”
Henderson said construction of the new Army Casino and Office Building has disrupted the wildlife in the adjacent Winkler Botanical Preserve. Her neighborhood now is flush with deer, foxes, raccoons and other animals who never used to venture out of the woods.
“They just basically didn’t care about the West End,” Henderson said, “and they just dumped it here.” She pointed out that school buses coming to John Adams Elementary School in her neighborhood, as well as Hammond Middle School and the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College, will have to wade through BRAC traffic.
Alexandria’s transportation planners are looking ahead, trying to create more mass transit options, such as transit up Route 1 from Fairfax County, connections to the Van Dorn Metro, and the Super Ramp. Virginia on Monday announced a new task force to manage the traffic.
But for now, the city and state have done what they can. Now, in the next few weeks and months, we find out the answers to the many questions BRAC hath wrought.