The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A coal power plant was shuttered for nearly a decade. Hundreds of residents are getting a peek at its future.

Two hundred and fifty people signed up to take a tour of the shuttered Potomac River Generating Station in Alexandria on Friday, May 4. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

In the three decades since Bill Brousseau moved next to a massive coal-fired power plant in Alexandria, he had only seen the facility — long considered an eyesore — from afar.

Brousseau, 65, and his wife spent many mornings walking the nature trail alongside the plant, as it belched out gray clouds of smoke. Even after damage from years of built-up exhaust forced them to remodel their balcony, they say, their outsize neighbor down the street — shuttered in 2012 — remained a mystery.

On Friday, however, he and his wife, Yvonne Cooper, 67, finally got a peek behind the fencing at the 72-year-old Potomac River Generating Station — and a glimpse at its possible future.

“It’s amazing and startling,” he said, following a tour by Hilco Redevelopment Partners, which bought the site last November. “We used to pass by and see mounds of coal, and it’s a bigger monstrosity than I thought. It’s aged quite appreciably.”

Alexandria power plant along the Potomac to become mixed-use project

About 250 residents and community members, including many of the couple’s neighbors in North Old Town, jumped at the chance for a tour Friday morning with the developer, which plans to transform the 18.8-acre plant along the Potomac River into a mixed-use area with housing, office space and retail.

Another 250 people on Saturday are set to tour the facility, where nature has effectively taken over: Vines have wrapped themselves around rusted railroad carts, climbing up the corrugated metal structures dotted around the plant. Abandoned rail tracks once used to cart in coal are now dotted with grass and weeds. Some neighbors say they have spotted ospreys and turkey hawks nesting atop one part of the site.

Melissa Schrock, Hilco’s senior vice president of mixed-use development, said the company “views this as a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity to take this frankly defunct relic of the industrial era … and turn it into a real community asset.”

Exactly what it will become, though, is yet to be defined.

In sketching out plans for the redevelopment, Hilco will follow the city’s 2017 Old Town North Small Area Plan and consult with residents in meetings and engagement events like the tours. The project is likely to include dining options, public green space by the riverfront, and a park running along railroad tracks at the edge of the property. Developers are also looking to screen off an electrical substation on the site, which Pepco will continue to operate.

“I think everybody’s ready for something to happen here. It’s just a matter of what,” said Mary Harris, 73, who has lived nearby for more than 16 years. “I call it the field of dreams, because every group is hoping for something different.”

She and other longtime residents have asked for a grassy waterfront space to gaze out at the river. Others are hoping for some sort of cultural institution — a museum or an art school, perhaps — to anchor a possible arts corridor on Fairfax Street. And some say that the project must include affordable housing, particularly given the city’s dramatic loss in units for middle- and low-income residents.

When pressed by the North Old Town Independent Citizens’ Association, the neighborhood’s civic group, 10 of the 13 candidates running for Alexandria City Council had just as many answers: Market-rate condos. An athletic field. A wider bike path. Restaurants and a hotel, complete with transit connections to the rest of the city.

Neighbors spent years speaking out about the possible environmental and health impacts of the Mirant power plant, as it was known at the time, before it was closed. After a pair of residents noticed gray residue from the facility landing on their windows, they lobbied the city of Alexandria, which eventually ordered an environmental cleanup and the facility’s closure.

But as Hilco now looks to dismantle what has remained — now partially covered in vines and roots — new worries are brewing.

“My biggest concern is, how do they take it down safely? I don’t want to breathe it,” Cooper said. “We trust that they know what they’re doing, but I don’t want any asbestos or whatever else is up there.”

While Hilco has renovated or is in the process of renovating five other coal-fired plants across the country, those endeavors have not been without controversy. In Chicago, where the company is transforming one facility into a Target logistics center, a botched smokestack implosion by a contractor last April released a massive plume of dust across the city’s Little Village neighborhood.

Schrock said Hilco is committed to transparency and safety on plans to demolish and remediate the site. The plant has already gone through remediation efforts for pollutants that have bled into the soil through leaky storage tanks, and the developer must work with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to abate and demolish the existing structures.

Catherine Miliaras, principal planner in the Alexandria Department of Planning & Zoning, said that Hilco and the city will host at least four community meetings in the fall to receive additional input, organized around topics like open space, infrastructure, and transit and biking. In late spring 2022, redevelopment plans will go through the city’s planning commission and then to the Alexandria City Council.

For now, however, some residents say they are lucky to get a closer look at a facility they had only seen from a distance.

“It looks completely different from the inside,” said Mary-Jane Rogh, 72, a Potomac Greens resident, following her Hilco tour on Friday. “Not that I won’t be happy to see it go.”