Clash over condo development in Potomac Yard heats up

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This rendering shows one of the two planned condo units from the west (Courtesy Photo)
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By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]

A 142-unit condominium development proposed for 2551 Main Line Blvd. in Potomac Yard drew ire from residents at a planning commission meeting last week.

Planning commission members were tasked with the decision of whether or not to amend the Potomac Yard/Potomac Greens small area plan at their Oct. 3 meeting. The developer, Potomac Yard Development LLC, asked for two amendments for the planned two-building development: an increase in the number of units, from 36 to 142, and an increase in height from 55 to 70 feet. The completed development would span just under 190,000 square feet, with 72-unit building one rising to 69.75 feet and 70-unit building two at 70 feet.

Residents who spoke at the planning commission meeting, many of whom bought townhouses nearby early in 2017, said they did their due diligence on what was going in across the street before buying their homes on Main Line Boulevard. When it came time to close, they say, they were reassured by the small area plan’s 36-unit cap.

Resident Jesse Wuertz, who lives on Main Line Boulevard, opposed the development based on the height increase, the increase in units and the location of the parking garage on Watson Street.

He also claimed residents’ concerns were dismissed at a open house homeowners’ association meeting in April. The concept of a larger design was introduced at a Potomac Yard Homeowners Association annual meeting in November 2016. Additional public meetings were held in August and September of this year.

A site plan of the just under 190,000-square-foot condo development, which will include two buildings.

“We were told ‘this has already been pre-approved by [the Potomac Yard Design Advisory Committee] and you’re wasting your time coming to the table so late,’” Wuertz said at the commission meeting. 

The city’s website shows PYDAC had the proposed development on its agenda for its meeting on April 12.

Brian Verwee, who moved into one of the townhouses across from the proposed development in April, also disagreed with the unit and height amendments and the garage entrance.

“I didn’t have disillusions that nothing would go here, but I believe the jump from 36 to 142 is drastic,” Verwee said. “I would have had reservations moving into my new home if I would have known there were going to be 142 units instead of 36. It’s an oversaturation of the property with density.”

Verwee also noted that Pulte, the developer that built the townhouses on Watson Street and controls the homeowners’ association, hosts meetings on Tuesday mornings in Fairfax, making it inconvenient, if not impossible, for residents to attend.

Another resident, Daniel Roth, said he and his partner purchased a home in Potomac Yard in February and that, while they were concerned about the empty lot adjacent to their new home, were put at ease by the small area plan. He also criticized the developer’s process.

“The process has fallen apart and what we’re left with is a building that could, frankly, be a lot better. We think we can have a building that does better with affordable housing, we think we can have a building that is better with open space and we think we could have a project where community members could be engaged as vital third legs of the stool,” Roth said.

Resident Susan Richards said she wouldn’t have purchased her home in Potomac
Yard if she had known about development plans.

“Residents are here because it’s where we live, this is where my daughter scooters.
This is the house we bought because we thought [the development] was going to be 55 feet],” Richard said. “I’ve looked at those documents and I have faith that
city leaders will honor that. I know the city is looking for more density and I think that can be achieved with a reasonable height.”

Attorney Cathy Puskar, who represented the client at the commission meeting, said the developer went through an appropriate process, holding two public meetings and sending out notifications about meetings to neighbors. She also said the home owners’ association provided frequent updates through weekly notices.

“You’ll see some people speak tonight who are not in favor of the proposal, but the vast majority have not either come to meetings or had a concern when they read in weekly notices,” Puskar said. “…We can argue about whether people like the design or whether they think it’s too much, but I’m sorry, I can’t agree that the process was flawed.”

Puskar said existing developments in Potomac Yard were taller and closer in proximity to the Watson Street townhouses than the proposed new development.

She cited The Frasier, a 250-unit luxury apartment development on Swan Avenue,
which rises to just under 65 feet and is about 78 feet away from the townhouses. She said, in response to residents’ concerns, Potomac Yard has pushed development away from the curb and plans to devote land across the street from the townhouses for public green space.

She said the development meets the city’s development goals of building up the area within a quarter mile of the incoming Potomac Yard metro station and that the developer has committed to improving the area, including through adding nine
on-site affordable housing units, improved sidewalks, a contribution toward sewer requirements, installation of public art and contribution toward the installation of a Capital Bikeshare station.

Most commission members agreed with the overall plan, while also saying they had concerns about the process.

“I have to admit I’m troubled by this. In and of itself, I’d find this a pretty reasonable proposal, but I am concerned about the level of concern and the fact that, justifiably or not, residents feel they were not given information by Pulte,” Commission Chair Mary Lyman said. “There seems to be something in the process that’s broken to have so many come in opposition.”

Commissioner David Brown opposed the project, saying he felt the height wasn’t appropriate in relation to the Watson Street townhouses. He proposed removing some of the units on the sixth and fifth floors to create a “stair step” look and open up sitelines for townhouse residents.

“Unless this building is scaled back a little more to which six units are lost, I can’t support this project,” Brown said.

Commissioner Maria Wasowski, who said she’s been working on creating density in Potomac Yard since the 1990s, said the master plan shouldn’t be looked at as a concrete document, but, rather, as one that evolves with the times.

“There’s been a whole community here working on this plan and working on the Yard as it evolves. What I learned through the initial experience is it’s a living, breathing process and that a small area plan is not an absolute, prescriptive recipe,” Wasowski said. “With time, sometimes vision changes, sometimes our understanding of how things work changes … It can’t have been determined 20 years ago and never change.”

Commissioner Stephen Koenig, though he supported the design, said residents’ negative reaction had to be taken seriously.

“The consternation and even distress I’ve seen, the fact that we have a roomful of citizens that are dissatisfied, that’s worrisome,” Koenig said. “I don’t know how to explain it or fix it in this particular case, despite having to try to understand it.”

“[The residents] are [giving] intelligent, thorough, dedicated, civilized perspectives and I think that’s the distressing part, to have folks who are clearly engaged, trying to understand what’s going on in their community they’re moving into and feeling, for whatever reason, for whatever technical and process failures we collectively made, didn’t feel they had enough of that to engage in the way they wanted to,” Koenig said. “… That presents us with a challenge.”

Commissioners voted 6-1, with Commissioner David Brown dissenting, to move the amendments forward. City council will consider the issue at its public hearing this Saturday.

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