The changes will put the Metro entrance farther from hundreds of residents and future office tenants who were lured to Potomac Yard by the prospect of having a Metro station within a short walk.
But the design adjustments will keep the project’s cost down at a time when both construction materials and labor prices are up, while remaining consistent with its objectives to support mixed-use development, City Manager Mark Jinks said in a memo Friday to Mayor Allison Silberberg (D) and the City Council.
In April, city officials announced that bids received for the project had significantly exceeded its initial budget of $268 million, and said changes to the design were necessary to bring down the cost. Even with the scaled-back design, the project is estimated to cost $52 million more than the initial budget.
“This is a big change, and it is a very, very disappointing change,” Alexandria Vice Mayor Justin Wilson (D) said. “But it is a very important project for our city’s future and we just want to keep it on schedule and keep it going.”
That means moving the project to construction phase this year for a 2022 opening. The station will have one entrance, on the north side, where the city envisions it as a spark for redevelopment in what is now essentially a shopping center.
The eliminated entrance would have been closest to the Potomac Greens neighborhood and the Exchange at Potomac Yard, a two-million-square-foot development that has lured residential and commercial tenants with a promise of proximity to Metro.
The development is home to the future headquarters of the American Physical Therapy Association and the National Industries for the Blind (NIB). Last year when NIB announced that it would lease Kaiser Permanente 40,000 square-feet in its mega building for a medical office to open next year, it highlighted the benefits of the location: “Across the street will be the Potomac Yard Metro Station.”
Stephanie Landrum, president and chief executive of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, said the design changes will trouble businesses that picked the location for Metro access. She said the group wants to make sure the city and Metro “have explored every alternative to assure that what we build serves as many people and creates as much economic benefit as possible.”
Because development at Potomac Yard started in the south, the vast majority of remaining density will be built on the north side of the Metro station. Business leaders say the adjustments to the station shouldn’t hurt Alexandria’s bid to woo Amazon to Potomac Yard, one of the finalists for the so-called H2Q.
“For any potential business looking to come to Potomac Yard, that access and amenity of transit has not changed,” Landrum said.
But residents say they are troubled by the abrupt decision to redesign the station, without any public input, and what that change would mean not only for their access to the station but also the impact on growth on their side of the neighborhood. For many residents, the change means walking an extra third of a mile to enter the station.
The project was intended to spur mixed-use development within a quarter mile and maximize ridership from residents who have moved to residential units built in recent years south of the station site.
“When I moved here in 2013, the Metro was supposed to open in 2017, and obviously that has not happened. We have been patient, but the reality is that now it’s not going to open at all in a meaningful way to our neighborhood,” resident Elena Caudle Hutchison said.
“While there is a ton of commercial development around the north entrance, we lose all the potential development that is close to me, and that is something the city has been promising for years,” she said.
If the one-entrance design moves forward as planned, the Potomac Yard station will open in 2022, although much of the redevelopment in the area is not projected to be ready for at least a decade.
“There are so many reasons why this outcome is unfair to us as a community, but it essentially means that the very purpose of doing this project has been distorted,” said Rafael Lima, a Potomac Yard resident who with his wife Adrien Lopez moved to the area four years ago.
What’s worse, they said, residents in their community are subject to a special tax to pay for a station that will no longer be the closest station to them. With the elimination of the south entrance, Braddock Road station will be their nearest Metro access. Alexandria has proposed eliminating the special tax, with the condition that the residents agree to allow the construction of an underground power line that will generate the revenue.
“[Metro] and the bidders are designing their station, not the city and its residents,” Lima said. “This is a sad, sad state of affairs.”
The station will be on Metro’s Blue and Yellow lines, between the Braddock Road and National Airport stations. The new stop is viewed as a critical component of Alexandria’s vision for Potomac Yard, a 295-acre former railroad yard that is being transformed into an urban center with residential, commercial and office development.
Alexandria and Metro last month approved an increase in the project’s budget from $268 million to $320 million. Metro, which is overseeing construction of the project, is expected to award a contract this spring. The city is funding the project through a variety of sources, including state and federal grants, revenue from a special tax district and developer contributions.
In the memo to the City Council, Jinks said the south entrance could be added after the station is completed, noting that the King Street station got a new north entrance two decades after it was built.
“The City will actively consider future grant opportunities that may expand capacity and improve access to the station based on need,” Jinks said. He said it is the city’s intent that “construction at the new Potomac Yard Metrorail Station now will not preclude the future improvements of adding back the south entrance at Glebe Road at some point after the station is constructed and opened for revenue operations.”
The design changes will need to be revised by various agencies, including the National Park Service, which owns land near the station site, the city’s Planning Commission, Board of Architectural Review and the City Council.
Although tweaks could be made, Jinks said, adding back the south entrance, after many negotiations with the bidders, would only delay the project.
“Even if significant monies to add back the descoped elements were identified, the station construction procurement process is now too far along to add back the descoped project elements such as the south entrance,” Jinks wrote in his council memo. “If those elements were added back the station construction start date would be significantly delayed.”
The Potomac Yard Metrorail Improvement Working Group, which includes council members and citizens, will meet at 7 p.m. Wednesday to be briefed on the changes. The meeting will be at City Hall, 301 King St.