Del Ray plan realizes citys ideal approach to development

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Julie Wadler has been described as a serial entrepreneur. She must be, because her apparent addiction to starting businesses has landed her four, with probably six degrees of separation between them: A consulting firm, an event management and fundraising company, a courier service and an information technology business. 

For a woman who knows how to start things from scratch, it is hardly surprising that her newest project, developing an environmentally sustainable parcel with a decadence of community input to please its Del Ray surroundings, is frontier-ish territory for the average resident particularly business owners of Alexandria. 

Im a local business owner and I like this community a great deal, Wadler said. And I think that if you put roots down, they should be roots that grow.

The project also happens to sync with the citys initiative to plant a green, community-involved mindset to building and living in Alexandria, which the city government hopes will become the norm. Its Eco-City Alexandria initiative and Mount Vernon Avenue Business Area Plan promote both environmental and neighborhood-inclusive values to induce such thinking.

Wadlers Del Ray Greens project is self-induced, having presented it to the city government herself about three years ago to begin the process.

She is definitely pushing the envelope of whats possible in the city, said Councilman Rob Krupicka, a Del Ray resident and one of Eco-City Alexandrias biggest proponents. She is absolutely pushing the envelope in a really good way.

Once built, the Del Ray Greens building will become a highly visible landmark at a major intersection in the increasingly vibrant neighborhood at the corner of Mt. Vernon and Hume avenues. Its rooftop farm, solar panels and contraptions to catch reusable rainwater may be evident to visitors and residents when completed; its plug-in to the wind energy grid and recycled building materials less so. 

But what wont be immediately evident at all are the voices and ideas that went into creating the ultra-sustainable retail space. Wadler enlisted the surrounding civic associations, like-minded architects, everyday passers by and the (necessary) help of city planners to progress her vision. 
She also created a contest among Alexandria City Public School students (and is still looking for entrants before the January deadline) to come up with mosaic artwork that will act as oversize welcome mats at the buildings entrance. The winning student will receive a $1,000 cash prize and a matching award to his or her art department plus the cost of creating the mosaics. The contest also helps fill the citys requirement for new buildings in the neighborhood to have artwork.

Del Ray Greens three-year planning took a lot more than just neighborhood voices, though. It took countless steps for required permits and the cooperation of just as many people to become approved. Its unique parcel created complex parking issues and some of its new-fangled environmental features, though exciting to the Department of Planning and Zoning, ran into bureaucratic lag.

Maya Contreras, an urban planner with the city, said the process was a lesson in a project that will become more and more common as the citys initiatives work toward reality. 

Its a good example of partnerships, she said. Some of the things have been done elsewhere but hadnt been done in the city before, so it was just coordinating everything between the departments to make sure that everyone had everything worked out together.

We duplicated a lot of efforts with the city that probably were unnecessary to duplicate, Wadler said, adding that as the process progressed, so did the citys efficiency. Trying to work within the different agencies in the city and getting everybody on the same page took a really long, unnecessary amount of time. Having said that, I think theyve learned that, too. I think this building, to a large extent, was a case study in the city.

The City of Alexandria recently won a platinum rating from the Virginia Municipal League for the conception and development of its Eco-City charter, which is aimed at comprehensive long-term reductions in energy consumption. The citys accompanying Green Building guidelines, passed earlier this year, require any new commercial structure to be LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), which Del Ray Greens will accomplish the first privately owned new structure in Del Ray to do so, according to Contreras, and at least one realization of what the city hopes to accomplish Alexandria-wide. 

The Eco-City plan is not about one program or one thing, Krupicka said. Its really about creating a mindset amongst city staff, amongst residents, to be really looking for opportunities to conserve in everything that they do. And staff loves seeing this stuff and they love working with it.

And in other places It would be really easy for staff to be difficult to someone like her and thats not the approach theyve taken and I think that says a lot because it would be easier than any of us would like for the bureaucracy to kind of stop innovation like that from happening. Its looking at each of these opportunities to get smarter about how we do things and apply that to the next exercise.

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