Alexandria officials say construction of the Potomac Yard Metro station is on track for a spring 2022 opening, but it remains unclear whether the station will have the second entrance that the city killed last year — even after having received a $50 million state grant to restore it.
Cost estimates that the city received this summer for three possible options for a second entrance all exceeded the $50 million budget. To meet the construction schedule, a decision needs to be made this fall on whether to proceed with a scaled-back design or wait and add the second entrance in the future, officials said.
“It really comes down to what is the cost and is it something that we can afford,” Deputy City Manager Emily Baker said.
Neither option is acceptable to many of the residents and tenants of south Potomac Yard who say the Metro entrance originally planned for East Glebe Road drove their decision to move to the area.
A scaled-back entrance would probably mean a bridge or ramp connecting to the north entrance instead of a direct entry into the Metro station.
“We want the access from the south, not a bridge to the north entrance,” said Rafael Lima, who moved to Potomac Yard five years ago with his wife. A bridge would create a longer route to the station — a longer walk than going to the Braddock Road Metro station for him and his wife.
“We feel very frustrated. We feel this is completely unacceptable,” Lima said.
Residents have been frustrated for over a year now, since Alexandria abruptly announced in May 2018 that it was scrapping the south entrance.
The city had kept its intention secret for a year, taking a beating from residents in the months after the news became public but sticking to its plan to move forward with the $320 million station — Alexandria’s biggest transit project — without a second entrance.
Officials cited high costs as the reason. Neighbors and business leaders called the decision “a violation of trust.”
The city then agreed to build a short ramp that would give people from the south side access to the north entrance, a solution that some neighbors characterized as an insult. Then came a $50 million grant this year as part of the state incentives offered to lure Amazon to Northern Virginia. The funding revived hopes of returning to the original two-entrance design.
But since the project broke ground this spring, the fate of the south entrance has remained unclear. Adding the entrance this late in the contract entails significant added costs, officials said. Some residents say they were told the high costs are due to a “change fee” of up to 40 percent. Baker said there is no change fee; however, other charges have been discussed.
Among the three alternatives the city explored this summer was a pavilion with a small mezzanine at East Glebe Road with a direct access to the Metro platform. This option, according to city documents, would cost $100 million to build and could potentially push the station opening back as much as a year. It is no longer being considered, Baker said.
Two other options are more likely: a southwest access pavilion with a bridge to the north entrance, which would cost an estimated $75 million or a ramp from East Glebe Road with a moving walkway to the north entrance, for an estimated $90 million.
Baker said the city has asked the contractor — Potomac Yard Constructors — to study how to scale back those two options and provide reduced estimates at the end of September.
“We will see if we can get it within the $50 million and then we can make a decision as to how to go forward,” Baker said.
The station is being built on Metro’s Blue and Yellow lines, between the Braddock Road and Reagan National Airport stations. It is just east of the existing Potomac Yard Retail Center, on a site north of the Potomac Greens townhouse community, between the George Washington Memorial Parkway and the CSX railroad tracks.
The track location is already used by Metro, so construction will have to be completed alongside active tracks. Metro is overseeing construction of the project and Alexandria is paying for it — through a variety of sources, including state and federal grants, revenue from a special tax district and developer contributions. City officials said the state has said $50 million is the maximum amount available for the second entrance.
So far, most of the work at the site has been preliminary — chiefly the staging of construction facilities. Work near the train tracks did not advance as expected this summer because the project is still awaiting some necessary permits, officials said.
A significant portion of the station will be built on wetlands, which requires permits from the state Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. City officials said they anticipate both permits will be granted in September.
“Frankly this summer we were not able to get the amount of work we wanted to get done, done,” Fred Robertson, Metro’s project manager for the station, told residents and city leaders at an August meeting. Robertson said Potomac Yard Constructors had hoped to make progress on work near the train tracks during the 15-week Metro shutdown of six stations on the Yellow and Blue lines.
This fall, crews are expected to advance the utility work under the Metro tracks and those who live and work in the area should anticipate new travel patterns. The construction will also create temporary impacts on wetlands, which city officials said will be restored once the station is built.
In August, Metro, Potomac Yard Constructors — a joint venture of Halmar International and Schiavone Construction Co. — and their architectural partners released three video tours of the station. The design features an open layout with earth-tone colors and windows that maximize views of the Potomac River and the George Washington Memorial Parkway view shed.
The videos are part of a package to be reviewed at an upcoming meeting of Alexandria’s Board of Architectural Review, which has yet to give final approval to the project design.
The project has been in the city’s plans for more than two decades. It is touted as an investment that will facilitate growth at Potomac Yard, a 295-acre former railroad yard that is being transformed into an urban center. Plans include the addition of 7.5 million square feet of mixed-use development in north Potomac Yard.
South Potomac Yard also is expected to grow. The south entrance would be closest to the Potomac Greens neighborhood and the Exchange at Potomac Yard, a 2 million-square-foot development that has lured residential and commercial tenants with a promise of proximity to Metro.
The development is home to the National Industries for the Blind (NIB), which last year denounced the city’s decision to eliminate the south entrance, saying that proximity to that Metro entrance — just across the street — was a key factor in picking Potomac Yard as the location for its new national training center.
NIB president and chief executive Kevin A. Lynch said recently that NIB is still urging Metro and Alexandria to ensure that the south entrance is done and fully accessible. He said it was reassuring to learn about the state funding and the resumed plans to build a southwest access point.
“As an organization serving people who are blind across the United States, access to reliable public transportation is critical to ensuring the safety and well-being of our employees and visitors,” Lynch said.
Baker said the city will assess the new estimates for the south entrance and determine whether it’s feasible to make an addition. If it is not, she said, the city will consider other options, which could include putting the south entrance out for bid separately.
That uncertainty troubles residents and businesses in south Potomac Yard. They say they are concerned not only about their access to the station but also about the growth on their side of the neighborhood.
Some point to the relocation of the $1 billion Virginia Tech Innovation Campus from a site on the south side to the north side as a clear example of the impact of the city’s decision.
Michael Stowe, a Virginia Tech spokesman, confirmed that the school did explore a site in south Potomac Yard. But he said the decision to put the campus on 15 acres just south of Four Mile Run stream, closer to the north entrance, was driven by the opportunity to be part of a 65-acre mixed-use and innovation district planned for the site.
“This site offers us more future expansion opportunities,” he said. “The fact that our site is closer to the north Metro entrance was an added benefit, but not a driving factor in our decision to pick this site.”