North Old Town plan revamp keeps up the momentum

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North Old Town plan revamp keeps up the momentum
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By Chris Teale (Image/City of Alexandria)

The updating of the North Old Town small area plan continued its progress last week, as both the planning commission and city council weighed in on what has been done so far.

And while it appears to be smooth sailing before the plan’s first staff-prepared chapters are released before the end of the year, questions remain over issues like its impact on the arts community and its implementation.

Among the major proposals in a draft plan presented to both bodies last week are a so-called “Eco-District” to help expand the city’s emphasis on environmental sustainability, an innovation district at the former NRG coal-fired power plant and a new open space trail to connect the waterfront and Mount Vernon trails.

City council began updating the small area plan in June 2015, when it approved the city’s fiscal 2016 long-range interdepartmental work program. The plan has 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 issues like traffic and parking. Council is expected to formally adopt the plan in February 2016.

But councilors raised concerns at a work session October 5 about the possible impact of redevelopment on artist education organization The Art League’s Madison Annex and performing arts venue MetroStage.

Both groups rent their buildings in North Old Town, and those properties could be up for redevelopment in the future. And while deputy director of planning and zoning Jeff Farner and North Old Town project manager Nancy Williams insisted the organizations were not under threat, councilors wanted to be sure of their survival.

“Intentions are good, and I take you at your word here, but having these arts institutions are an important part of economic development,” said Mayor Allison Silberberg. “There’s no doubt in my mind, they’re an important part of not just our city but this particular part of the community.”

Williams and Farner both said a variety of incentives would be offered to developers who preserve the arts facilities or give them a new space, including on parking and floor area ratio.

“There are different strategies that we’re looking at for these types of uses,” Farner said. “We think through all of those kit of tools, there is a way to enable those types of uses to come back to the plan area.”

Vice Mayor Justin Wilson suggested an assemblage for developers — providing them extra density, for example, in another area in return for providing an arts space. Wilson said the city must do more than simply appeal to developers’ better nature.

Councilors also questioned the future of the rail tracks owned by Norfolk Southern, a spur that connects to Robinson Terminal North on Oronoco Street and runs through Oronoco Bay Park parallel to the Mount Vernon Trail.

Principal transportation planner Steve Sindiong of the city department of transportation and environmental services said staff had studied the feasibility of running a trolley line to connect the area with the Braddock Road Metro station. But after performing a cost-benefit analysis, Sindiong said the cost would be too high and the ridership too low for it to be financially viable.

And while Norfolk Southern intends to keep using the rail line to transport waste from the site of the NRG plant as it is redeveloped, Sindiong said it may be difficult to use for mass transit in the long-term.

City Councilor Paul Smedberg, a member of the Virginia Railway Express board of directors, said he had been approached by a VRE staff member, who suggested making use of the tracks as a railroad. He said everyone should keep an open mind about the tracks’ future.

“It’s in such an early stage at this point, I don’t think any- thing should be taken off the table,” Smedberg said.

The implementation of the new plan could prove a complex endeavor. Farner said questions remain over the future of the NRG site as well as the former bus garage on North Royal Street owned by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and the Alexandria Redevelopment Housing Authority’s Hopkins-Tancil property.

Those sites are set to be revamped in concurrence with this new small area plan, and the NRG site is slated for a potential extension of the city’s street grid.

Planning commissioners said an implementation plan must be proactive and not be predicated on waiting for developers to come in with projects that may or may not take the goals of the new small area plan into account.

Silberberg said at the council work session that the urban design advisory committee could still play a key role as the plan evolves, especially since it is a grassroots organization and has done good work.

The small area plan advisory group will continue to meet monthly, with the first chapters of the new small area plan expected to be released before the end of the year. Williams said staff will return to the planning commission and city council for another work session in January, with a public hearing and final adoption expected to follow in February.

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