Our View: Potomac Yard small area plan fiasco was avoidable

Our View: Potomac Yard small area plan fiasco was avoidable
Townhouses in Potomac Yard

We have three main takeaways on the compromise development plan for 2551 Main Line Blvd. in Potomac Yard that was approved by city council in a six-to-one vote at its public hearing on Saturday.

First, it’s a good idea to generate as much density as is reasonably possible near Metro stations. Second, homeowners’ association meetings for residential complexes in the City of Alexandria should always take place within city limits. And third, the fiasco with the Potomac Yard/Potomac Greens small area plan should never have happened.

On face value, the project that was approved is a good one.

It will lead to a 138-unit condo development with an attractive design relatively near two Metro stops. The developer, Potomac Yard Development LLC, a subsidiary of Pulte Group Inc., will contribute nine affordable housing units in the building, plus $315,000 to the city’s housing fund to help cover down payments and closing costs on the affordable units.
Further, the developer compromised with neighbors in reducing the project from a proposed 142 units back to 138, created greater setbacks and moved the parking garage to appease upset neighbors.

What’s not so good is the process that led to such outrage and anguish on the part of residents on Watson Street, who recently bought townhomes across from the site with the understanding that development was going to produce a much smaller structure with only 36 units. The flaw seems to rest with multi-faceted poor communication and a general misunderstanding of small area plans.

The City of Alexandria Master Plan dates to 1992 and is an umbrella over 18 small area plans that cover the city’s neighborhoods plus issues of citywide interest like open space and historic preservation. The city’s website says the Potomac Yard/Potomac Greens small area plan “…will serve as the basis for future City Council policy initiatives and actions affecting land use, zoning, capital improvements and programs in the Potomac Yard/Potomac Greens area.”

And serve as the basis it did. The aggrieved homeowners’ investment decisions were based, in part, on the assurance that the plan would limit development across from their homes to a complex no higher than 55 feet and with no more than 36 units. When the plan was changed to suit the developer’s wishes, residents were told by the city that small area plans aren’t legally binding, and essentially, to “just get over it.”

If council was willing to allow greater density at this site, then the Potomac Yard/Potomac Greens small area plan should have been amended before townhomes were built on Watson Street. If more realistic density projections had been included, no one would have been misled.

Since Pulte just built the townhouses and is about to erect the pending condo building, it’s reasonable to think they had a use in mind for the 2551 Main Line Blvd. site that didn’t jibe with the existing small area plan. More openness, earlier, from them would have helped – even if some Watson Street buyers had walked away instead of purchasing.

The city also needs to do a much better job of educating the public on what these plans are and aren’t. The equivalent of a warning label needs to be put near the front of these documents saying very clearly that they are only recommendations and are subject to change at any time.

Worse, because these 18 small area plans have been sporadically developed and amended, language regarding their purpose and use is not uniform from document to document. As it
stands now, these plans can be changed on a dime to say anything council wants them to say, and there’s no consistent verbiage warning readers of this.

This isn’t just another case of NIMBYism. Rather, it boils down to the basic issue of trust in our local government. When people who have both money and emotion invested in their Alexandria homes wind up feeling like their local government has pulled a fast
one on them, we all lose.