Council approves Potomac Yard project

Council approves Potomac Yard project
Townhouses on Watson Street face the empty lot that will soon become a condo development project at 2551 Main Line Blvd. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

By Missy Schrott |

City council voted to move forward with a condo development project at 2551 Main Line Blvd. in Potomac Yard at its public hearing on Saturday. The vote was six to one in favor of the project, with Mayor Allison Silberberg casting the lone dissenting vote.

With the vote, council approved amendments to the Potomac Yard/Potomac Greens small area plan that will allow the number of units to increase from 36 to 138 and the height to go from 55 to 70 feet.

The project has drawn opposition from residents who live on neighboring streets since the developer, Potomac Yard Development LLC, a subsidiary of the PulteGroup Inc. proposed the amendments.

Twelve residents spoke at the public hearing to outline their concerns. Several of the residents live on Watson Street across from the property and had purchased their townhouses within the past year. Their repeated concerns were the height and density increases, traffic congestion, disruptive noise from trash pick up and a parking garage opening on Watson Street.

Resident Alexandra Smith moved into her townhouse on Watson Street in June 2017. She said she felt confident in her investment at the time because the 2010 development plan for the property across the street only called for 36 units. The change to 138 units increases the original by 383 percent.

“I don’t know how you can argue that a 383 percent increase at this point in the game when we’ve already purchased our home … is fair and reasonable,” she said.

Another resident, Emily Verwee, became emotional when talking about the traffic concerns associated with a garage on Watson Street.

“The increase in density is going to mean an increase in traffic. There’s already one child who lives on our street. There’s another who was born yesterday; they are undoubtedly not the last children who will live on this street,” she said.

“When you tell me your reasons for putting the garage on Watson, this is what I hear,” she said. “I hear that you value a spot or two on Main Line, I hear that you value a median, over the safety of your residents.”

One of the biggest compromises between developer, residents and city that came out of the hearing was the garage’s relocation. Cathy Puskar, the attorney for Pulte, said they were willing to move the garage from Watson Street to Swann Avenue, a location that is acceptable to residents and least disruptive to the construction design plans.

In addition to construction and logistical concerns, almost every resident speaker expressed disappointment with the civic engagement process.

“When you have numerous residents who attend a public meeting, sign petitions, send opposition letters and give up their nights and weekends to unite against a proposal, there has been a significant failure in the civic engagement process,” Resident Susan Richards said.

Another resident, Dan Roth, said he didn’t know about proposed amendments to the Potomac Yard/Potomac Greens small area plan until a sign went up at the property on Main Line Boulevard. He also said that the PYDAC website had not been updated in a year and a half, and he had to directly contact them for information.

“The city has a due diligence to make sure the process is followed and that has been flawed since day one,” Resident Mila Yochum said.

Brian Verwee said homeowners’ association meetings were held on Tuesday mornings in Fairfax County, an inconvenient 45-minute drive from the development property during the workweek.

Puskar said the quarterly meetings were held in Fairfax County because that was where Pulte’s business offices were located. She also said that the meetings had been accessible enough that some residents did attend, both in person and conference call. In addition, the HOA’s annual meetings and the open house for the property had both taken place in Alexandria.

Because of the frustration among residents, however, she said the future quarterly HOA meetings would be held in Potomac Yard.

In response to other accusations, Puskar said she could not agree that the process had been flawed. She cited several compromises the developer had made for the benefit of the residents:

They removed a total of four units from the building, creating a 55-foot terrace on each side. Because of this change, residents’ sightlines would align with the 55-foot portion of the building, not the 70-foot portion in the middle. Second, the developer included in the site plan an open green space directly across from Watson Street that would leave residents 127 feet away from the building.

“What they should have expected was a 55-foot building that ran the entire length of Watson Street with no relief. We believe that what we have proposed … is a reasonable compromise,” Puskar said.

One aspect of the development process that residents did applaud was affordable housing. Nine of the units in the complex, five one-bedroom and four two-bedroom, will be devoted to affordable housing. The developer will also contribute $35,000 per unit to the city housing trust fund, so that a total of $315,000 will go towards down payments and closing fees.

“The only benefit we see is the affordable housing, and we actually support that,” Yochum said.

At one point in the hearing, however, Puskar asked to eliminate the $315,000 affordable housing contribution, as an exchange for having to take an additional two units off the building’s total which brought it to 138.

This request was met with disappointment from the council.

“It is a voluntary contribution, but it’s also being part of a community, so I think that’s highly unfortunate,” Mayor Allison Silberberg said.

“I’m always disappointed and frankly disgusted when these opportunities are taken away,” Councilor John Chapman said.

In response to the evident disappointment, Puskar said her client would reinstate the affordable housing contribution as another compromise.

When time came for a motion, Silberberg suggested deferring the decision to allow for more community engagement.

“My preference would be to give you all a couple more weeks to have a conversation,” Silberberg said. “A lot of this project is agreeable in a way. I really do like your architectural detail … and I do like the open space, but I’m concerned about the lack of outreach, I’ll call it ineffectual outreach, on the part of Pulte.”

“With all due respect, we’re not willing to do that,” Puskar said. “We have made all the compromises we are willing to make.”

“Well, for me, this is very tough because a lot of compromise has been made, but I also think the system, the process was flawed,” Silberberg said. “I do think that Mrs. Puskar’s proposal is a fine step forward, I just don’t feel it was far enough, given the [383] percent increase, and I just wish, personally, that there could be a little bit more of a compromise.”