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April 30, 2014 Published in Editorials

Into The Triangle

If you drive north along Route 1 in Alexandria, not long after you cross the new Monroe Avenue bridge you come to a fairly dense concentration of commercial and light industrial uses on the west side of the highway across from the Potomac Yard development.

The site contains 13 acres which is about 566,000 square feet of land. Its triangular shape comes from the westward boundary which is against the abandoned right of way of the Washington and Old Dominion Railway line. The eastern boundary of the site runs along Route 1 from Fannon Street to Calvert Avenue. The northern boundary is Calvert Avenue.

The site is currently home to about 28 small businesses who occupy about 440,000 square feet of building space. The site is zoned for light industrial with a permitted floor area ratio of about 0.85 which can rise to about 1.25 with a special use permit.

The site is owned by the Blackstone Group, a very large investment company headquartered in New York City. They have engaged a large Bethesda based developer, StonebridgeCarras, to oversee the redevelopment.

Blackstone is proposing a development of about 1.5 million square feet of space which translates to a floor area ration of about 3.0. They are proposing some retail, a small hotel and residential uses.

Blackstone has also stated that if they cannot gain rapid consideration of their plan, they would extend the leases of their current tenants for ten years and maintain the Triangle as a light industrial use.

The City has agreed to move ahead rapidly with a planning process. They have defined the work plan, set a timeline and appointed an advisory committee. This is all well and good but we are concerned about many aspects of this proposed plan and process.

The first is that the proposed development is very dense. For comparison purposes, the Potomac Yard site contains 264 acres according to the Potomac Yard/Potomac Greens Small Area Plan. That is about 11,500,000 square feet of land. If it were built out to a FAR of 3.0 that development would contain 34.5 million square feet. That is more than twice as much as is currently approved.

The second is that the proposed development is very heavy on residential. City Council has decried the dwindling proportion of commercial (non-residential) properties in the city and this project as proposed will exacerbate that problem. Residents demand many more city services than commercial users so the net revenue contributed by new residential development will be considerably less than that contributed by commercial.

The third factor is that this property lacks proximity to a Metro station which is a necessity for dense development under the “smart growth” philosophy. It is true that bus rapid transit is close and that bus rapid transit should help, but there is a great difference between walking to a bus that takes you to a Metro station that is a mile away and transferring to the train, rather than walking directly to the train. Studies of transit have shown that each additional transfer point diminishes ridership.

Finally, we are concerned that the developer is pushing for a rapid process for such a major change. What is needed is time for thoughtful consideration. The neighborhoods near Potomac Yard were very concerned about the large increase in density brought by that project. Adding 10% additional density to the area by redeveloping the Oakville Triangle across the street is not a minor matter.

City Council has welcomed increased density as a way to generate the revenues necessary to keep up with City expenditures. To the City’s long term and involved residents, this process is perplexing. They have seen monumental increases in density and the revenue picture is still dreary. When will the process stop? When the entire city is built out to a 3.0 FAR?

If density increases are only short term band aids for revenue deficiencies, then why not address the real expenditure problem directly so we can live within our means? Why continue to add to the problem by approving ever denser residential developments?

We are familiar with the Bermuda Triangle in the Atlantic Ocean where it is alleged that ships and planes lose their bearings and disappear. We do not want to see the Oakville Triangle play that role for Alexandria. The focus should not be on a small plan for Oakville but the long term health and desirability of Alexandria. The focus cannot be on what the developer wants to do in the next six months but on what our City needs for the next 100 years.

We hope the advisory committee appointed by City Council has the wisdom to sift through the many issues surrounding this proposal. It certainly needs some very careful scrutiny.

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