Alexandria kept city residents in the dark for months about its plans to eliminate the southern entrance to the Potomac Yard Metro station, making public the changes to the project only weeks before Metro is expected to award a construction contract.
The scaled-back design for the $320 million station has angered residents and businesses lured to the Potomac Yard area by the promise of a Metro stop. Many say the changes reduce the benefits that the rail station was expected to provide for their side of the neighborhood, putting residents farther from the transit stop and possibly jeopardizing the commercial development planned for South Potomac Yard.
Worse, residents say, the city’s decision to reduce the scope of the project without public input shows a troubling lack of transparency on its most important transportation venture of the era.
“They have known for months and didn’t engage the community in any way to find solutions,” said Mila Yochum, president of the Potomac Yard Civic Association, which represents homeowners in a community of about 500 homes. “We are very shocked and extremely disappointed.”
Despite mounting criticism and pleas to bring back the two-entrance design, Alexandria officials say they are moving forward with one entrance only, on the north side, where the city envisions Metro will serve as a catalyst for redevelopment.
“It is very disappointing to all of us that we are not able to include the south entrance at this time,” Deputy City Manager Emily Baker said. “But it is a critical project for the city, and we feel it is important that it moves forward and we get the station open as soon as possible.”
After bids for the project came in higher than the project budget in March 2017, Baker said, the city talked with Metro about reducing the project’s scope. They decided to eliminate the southern entrance, and Metro officially notified the bidders of those changes in July, she said.
The City Council was notified about the plan before July. Baker said the city staff had signed a confidentiality agreement to participate in Metro’s procurement process, which bound them to keep the plans secret.
City Manager Mark Jinks described the scaled-back project in a May 4 letter to the Alexandria City Council, touting the changes as necessary to keep the already over-budget project financially feasible.
Under the revised design, the station will no longer have an entrance or mezzanine accessible from East Glebe Road. Two ramps will be eliminated, as will a south pedestrian and bicycle bridge. Park improvements planned as part of the project also are off the table.
“As soon as [Metro] confirmed that the information regarding the changes to the scope could be disclosed, the City released the information to the public,” Baker said via email.
Metro is overseeing construction of the project and is expected to award a contract this summer. The city is funding the project using a variety of sources, including state and federal grants, revenue from a special tax district and developer contributions. The project’s budget recently increased to $320 million from $268 million.
Officials said the station will be built with improved access to shorten the distance for people coming from the Glebe Road area. Instead of walking all the way to the main entrance, those commuters would be able to enter through a new access point that is about two blocks from the Glebe Road and Potomac Avenue intersection. The city will seek grants to add the southern entrance in the future, Baker said.
The Alexandria Chamber of Commerce called the decision to scale back the project “a violation of trust” with the businesses and residents who moved to Potomac Yard expecting a “fully functioning” Metro stop.
“To spring this on them now, when many have already signed leases or begun construction, suggests a partner acting in bad faith,” the chamber said in a statement last week.
The National Industries for the Blind, which is building a $50 million headquarters at Potomac Avenue, said the proximity to the Metro entrance just across the street was a key factor in picking Potomac Yard as the location for its new national training center. Now that East Glebe Road entrance won’t be there.
“This change in plans will require people who are blind to navigate a longer, more hazardous path to access public transportation,” Kevin A. Lynch, president and chief executive of NIB, said in an email via a spokeswoman. “While we understand the budgetary challenges facing the Metro project, this decision — reached behind closed doors with no input from affected parties — is hard to reconcile with the transparency the City had previously demonstrated.”
The south entrance was designed to serve established neighborhoods and office complexes already under construction, while the north entrance will be in an area awaiting development. The 100,000-square-foot NIB building is to open in October in the Exchange at Potomac Yard development, a 2-million-square-foot town center that includes a Giant Food store and apartments.
The station will be served by Metro’s Blue and Yellow lines and is between the Braddock Road and National Airport stations. The new stop is viewed as a crucial 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.
It is expected to boost mass transit along the Route 1 corridor in Alexandria, breaking up a 3.1-mile stretch that is the longest inside the Capital Beltway without a Metro station.
Residents of some communities across from Potomac Yard, on the other side of Route 1, have expressed support for the one-entrance design saying the urgency is to get the project moving. The construction of the station, once slated to open in 2016, has already been delayed too long to endure another hurdle, they say.
South Potomac Yard residents and business groups say they too want the station built as soon as possible, but the city should explore all alternatives including restoring the southern entrance.
A south entrance would increase the project costs significantly and further delay the opening of the station, Jinks said in a memo to Mayor Allison Silberberg (D) and the City Council on Friday.
“On an order of magnitude measure, it is roughly estimated to add $40 million to $60 million or more to the current $320 million project,” he said. “If the revised pricing is deemed unaffordable, issuing another amendment to delete an entrance, again, would surely end the contracting community’s interest in continuing to pursue the contract, and make rebidding difficult.”
Restoring the southern entrance could add up to six months to the procurement process, which has been active for a year and a half, Jinks said. That delay could put various funding sources at risk, he said, noting that a $50 million low-interest state loan already has been extended because of project delays.
“There is a possibility that the procurement could be canceled. This would trigger a new procurement process adding even significantly more time to the completion date,” Jinks wrote.
Baker said that reducing the scope of the project was a “difficult decision” but that there were “no good choices.”
Even after the contract is awarded, the new design will need to be approved by the City Council and other agencies, including the National Park Service and the Board of Architectural Review.
If Metro selects a contractor this summer, the station could open in late 2021 or early 2022.