Andrew Macdonald is a former vice mayor of Alexandria.
Alexandria residents have every right to be angry about design and funding changes for the Metro station the city is planning to build in Potomac Yard.
But Alexandria’s decision to construct the station in wetlands adjacent to the George Washington Memorial Parkway should concern us even more. These wetlands were once part of a much larger network of marshes that existed along the tidal Potomac River until the early 1900s. This gives preserving what’s left added importance.
Until recently, the land in question was protected by a scenic easement held in perpetuity by the National Park Service. Despite this, the Park Service agreed to give protected land at Potomac Yard to the city of Alexandria to use for development. In exchange, Alexandria will give the Park Service land it owns nearby and fund the restoration of wetlands somewhere along the C&O Canal.
But what about our wetlands? Aren’t they worth preserving? I think so, and the volunteers who are trying to restore these wetlands by removing non-native species think so, too.
The Park Service should never have acquiesced to Alexandria’s request to build a new Metro station at this location. Instead, Alexandria and the Park Service should have made protecting and preserving the wetlands in Potomac Yard a priority.
City officials argue in their defense that other proposed sites, though less ecologically sensitive, are too expensive or too far from planned development to be feasible.
But is this really true? The draft Environmental Impact Statement provided the city with alternative sites farther from the wetlands and the parkway. So why choose a site with wetlands? The answer is that Alexandria officials have always viewed Potomac Yard as another Crystal City when they should have been more interested in creating a truly sustainable community made up of large and varied parks, healthy wetlands and a scenic corridor.
The city claims that only about five acres of wetlands will be either permanently or temporarily lost. The truth is that the project is likely to harm a much larger area composed of even more valuable wetlands. This is because the wetlands in Potomac Yard are connected to a historic freshwater tidal marsh that extends all the way to the Potomac River.
The fate of the wetlands now appears to rest with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which must approve the filling-in of the wetlands. The good news is that residents have just been informed that they have until Monday to submit comments to the state regarding the wetlands permit, which may result in a public hearing on the issue.
Although the wetlands in Potomac Yard are not as pristine or extensive as those of the nearby Dyke Marsh, they should be off-limits to development, too. Alexandria should have picked another location for its new Metro station, one that didn’t denigrate the parkway’s historic character or harm wetlands.
Environmentalists are right to be furious about this mess.