Major update expected on North Old Town planning

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Major update expected on North Old Town planning
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By Chris Teale (Image/City of Alexandria)

A milestone in the planned revamp of the North Old Town small area plan is expected this fall, but the future of the site of the closed NRG coal-fired power plant and a Dominion power line in that area remain unresolved.

City council began the process of updating the small area plan in June 2015, when it approved the city’s fiscal 2016 long-range interdepartmental work program. The plan had not been updated since 1992.

This fall, an advisory group appointed by council to examine the neighborhood is slated to receive a draft of the plan as well as information from city staff on studies regarding issues like traffic and parking. Council is expected to formally adopt the plan in January 2016.

But a question mark remains over the future of the former coal-fired power plant at 1300 N. Royal St., although the subdivision of the 25.4-acre site in June began to bring some clarity. At its June 7 meeting, the planning commission unanimously approved the division of the Pepco-owned property into two parcels.

One parcel is 5.8 acres and contains the Pepco switching yard, which will remain. The other 19.6 acres contain the power plant itself, leased by NRG from Pepco. At the planning commission meeting, land-use attorney Duncan Blair said NRG and Pepco are negotiating a contract where NRG will own that 19.6-acre parcel.

Pepco spokesman Marcus Beal declined to comment, citing the utility company’s “ongoing negotiations” for the site. NRG spokesman David Gaier did not respond to requests for information on the status of those negotiations.

Meanwhile, the work to clean up the site and the possible contamination of the nearby Potomac River continues. A post to the plant’s website in March said the treatment of the soil and groundwater is ongoing, having been approved by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. The cleanup was required after two underground oil storage tanks were found to have leaked.

City officials have earmarked the former plant, and neighbors hope to see further clarity on the property’s future in the coming months
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“It is a question mark, and there’s a lot of thought and a lot of creative ideas have kept coming forward,” said Tom Soapes, president of the North Old Town Independent Citizens Civic Association. “I would hope that what we come up with in the end when we finish this project later this year is that we give some sense of definition and direction to where we would like to see it go. Then we’ll have to wait and see, when the developers come in, how close they come to that.”

At city council’s June 28 legislative meeting, City Manager Mark Jinks said NRG appointed its senior director of real estate development Mark Rohrlick to be responsible for the site’s future. Jinks said local architect John Rust also has been hired to help with the process. Gaier did not respond to questions about Rohrlick’s role. City staff noted the site’s importance for the future of North Old Town.

“It’s a very significant site in that it is certainly a large site, and it is also enabling us to redevelop a former power plant site into uses that are much more compatible with what surrounds it and the long-term expectations of the city and the community,” said Jeff Farner, deputy director for urban design in the city’s department of planning and zoning. “It’s also going to enable us to have more waterfront access adjacent to the site, more open space and other uses.”

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if utility Dominion Virginia Power will run a 230-kilovolt transmission line through the neighborhood. The city’s work group tasked with evaluating Dominion’s proposal and options recommended that any overhead line and underground lines through Mount Jefferson Park Trail, Main Line Boulevard, U.S. Route 1 and Slaters Lane, and Commonwealth Avenue and East Glebe Road all be strongly opposed as “most objectionable.”

Meanwhile, routes considered “least objectionable” include a route along CSX’s rail tracks, an underwater route through Four Mile Run and the Potomac River, a route along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, and a route down Potomac Avenue.

Council’s approval of a plan for the former Giant grocery store site in North Old Town came earlier this year and was a major milestone for the neighborhood. In its place will be 232 multi-family residential units, 51,000 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor and 481 underground parking spaces. Nine of the residential units would be designated as affordable.

Soapes said in light of that project, those involved in planning have emphasized a need for local retail, mostly on North St. Asaph and Montgomery streets, with other areas to be more residential in character. He added that enhancing arts programs in the area has been another point of emphasis, building on what already exists along North Fairfax Street.

Those involved said the former NRG plant, meanwhile, presents opportunities as a so-called “innovation district,” which leverages its location by the Potomac in some way.

“We’re talking about potential innovation uses for this site,” said Farner. “We see it as a key to stitching the fabric of the city back together, where you have development north and south of it and it’s getting rid of this industrial use.”

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