Shattered promises in Potomac Yard

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Renderings of the Potomac Yard metro from 2016.
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By Alexa Epitropoulos | aepitropoulos@alextimes.com

Potomac Yard residents are frustrated after what they see as a pattern of bait-and-switch from the city and a lack of accountability from city officials.

That frustration has reached a fever pitch in the weeks since City Manager Mark Jinks announced in a May 4 memo that Potomac Yard Metro’s southern entrance at East Glebe Road would be eliminated.

Jinks said he and city staff knew the southern entrance could be eliminated since the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority received contractor bids for the project in July 2017. Jinks said the change hadn’t been made public until May because of a non-disclosure agreement with WMATA dated Oct. 5, 2016.

The NDA contains seven items, including an item that pledges the signee “will not hold discussions nor divulge/accept information on any aspect of the evaluation for proposal(s) outside the authorized participants in the proposal evaluation process.” Residents, however, aren’t sure if the NDA precluded the city from informing the public of the change.

“The city is hiding behind that NDA and I’m not convinced that they couldn’t have gotten WMATA to talk about it if they wanted to or if the NDA requires them to not share this,” Elena Hutchinson, a resident of the neighborhood since 2013, said.

Residents say the city made decisions to increase density based on the false premise that there would be a southern entrance. They point to a new residential development at 2551 Main Line Blvd. with more units than called for in the Potomac Yard/Potomac Greens small area plan.

“Realizing not only did they lie to us, but they’ve perpetuated the lie and made decisions based on the lie – it’s very disheartening and troubling,” said Susan Richards, resident and treasurer of the Potomac Yard Civic Association.

Mixed messages

Residents said, even after council knew the removal of the southern entrance was part of the plan, at least one city council member informed them it wasn’t the
case.

Several residents reached out to members of council after the Washington Business Journal published a new rendering of the Metro station on April 11 that depicted only one entrance.

Councilor Paul Smedberg’s aide responded in two separate emails that the rendering wasn’t accurate and implied that the southern entrance was still included in the plan.

“Final drawings are not available at this time, but there will be access for southern neighbors. The drawings to which you allude are not correct, nor are they final. Access will be afforded to residents of all sides of the station,” read an email to one resident sent on April 13.

“The access to which you refer has not been removed,” read another email from April 12.

Smedberg, a member of the WMATA board of directors since 2016, said on
Tuesday he wasn’t aware the southern entrance would be eliminated until shortly before Jinks sent the memo.

He said he didn’t remember specifically when the city received confirmation from WMATA.

“At the time, that’s what I knew,” Smedberg said. “We had no details about what they would finally bring forward.”

Jinks said on Tuesday that city council was made aware the entrance could be eliminated last year.

“We’ve been discussing with city council and what the options were for the last year,” Jinks said. “We called council members. … What they remembered or didn’t remember or claimed, I can’t speak to that.”

Mayor Allison Silberberg said council has known about the southern entrance elimination since an executive session in late March.

“We knew there were some strong concerns about the rising cost estimates in 2017, but I did not learn that the southern entrance was removed from the plans until March of this year,” Silberberg said.

It’s still, however, not clear who knew about the elimination of the southern entrance and when. Jinks said, because of the NDA, he still can’t divulge which or how many city staff members knew.

Vice Mayor Justin Wilson said council had an ongoing dialogue since last year about the procurement process and knew that the bids received by WMATA were far over
budget. He said, while council knew about the options on the table, they weren’t sure until directly before the memo was released.

“There was a list of things that, essentially, WMATA was working with these bidders to see if the items would move the cost to get us down to a certain level,” Wilson said. “We knew there was a menu of things that could bring down the cost – we didn’t know what would ultimately be decided.”

He said the removal of the southern entrance and mezzanine from the plan still isn’t set in stone. The new design would have to be approved by the board of architectural review, planning commission and, ultimately, by city council.

“The actual removal of the southern mezzanine from the design is happening now, essentially,” Wilson said.

Jinks said removing the southern entrance, however, is the city’s only viable option for bringing the Potomac Yard Metro to fruition at this time.

Overtime and over-budget

Jinks said, since learning about the cost of the bids last summer, the city has struggled to find a solution to deliver the project by 2022.

“The station is an important element in growing the tax base of the city in a transit-oriented manner, so, therefore, the station is of vital importance,” Jinks said. “We’ve talked about it for 40 years. We’re closer than we’ve ever been before to making it a reality. The problem was really an insurmountable cost and what we needed to do was figure out how the project could be descaled, i.e. reduced in cost, so that it could be affordable.”

He said no one in the city was in favor of removing the entrance initially, but that they were left with little choice.

“Nobody’s first choice was to eliminate the southern entrance,” Jinks said. “Basically,

An image generated by WMATA that shows what the Potomac Yard Metro might look like with one entrance (Image courtesy WMATA)

when you’re building a Metro station, there aren’t a lot of options. It has to be a certain length, it has to meet disability requirements. It needs a lot of escalators and the track needs to meet Metro standards. There’s not a lot of choice – that was the only major way to de-escalate the project.”

Jinks indicated the decision to increase the budget was made with the understanding the southern entrance would not be part of the plan. Council voted unanimously to approve the project’s budget from $268.1 million to $320 million in April.

“We had to increase the budget substantially, even without the southern entrance,” Jinks said. “It was a reluctant choice, but it kept the station alive versus having it end up not getting constructed, which is where the city has been on and off for four decades.”

Jinks said he hopes to add a southern entrance after the station is constructed, saying construction of that sort isn’t unprecedented.

“Arlington has done improvements in the Rosslyn Metro Station and they’re looking to add a second entrance onto the Ballston Metro Station. It’s not uncommon to look to enhance a metro station after a station is built,” Jinks said.

Jinks said the only other option, other than eliminating the southern entrance,
would be to stop the process altogether.

“Our only choice would be to stop the process then go back to the community and have a public discussion and debate and decision and then probably have to restart the whole process, which, depending on how much we’d have to restart, could have added a year or two more and that creates risk that we have grant and loan money that are at risk if the project already is not on schedule,” Jinks said. “… By stopping and restarting, it would cost more money than we are saving.”

Shattered promises

Residents said it’s not just about the decision to eliminate the station – it’s about the lack of transparency in the process.

Adrien Lopez has lived in Potomac Yard since 2014 and has been involved since then in Potomac Yard Metro steering groups and the effort to eliminate the Tier II special tax district, which council voted to this month to sunset following the design change announcement.

She said that she, her husband and her neighbors have had concerns about the ambitious Potomac Yard Metro plan from the beginning.

“People from our community kept saying ‘Keep it simple, what’s in the budget, let’s keep it in the budget,’ and we kept hearing ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry, it’s in the budget,’” Lopez said. “We warned them and now they come back and say it’s over-budget and that we have to eliminate the south entrance. All of our efforts are in vain because they not only didn’t take into consideration or listen to us, but this project has been mismanaged from the very beginning.”

Hutchinson, who moved into the area when the new Metro station was slated to come online in 2017, said the process started out as transparent, but has changed dramatically as of late.

“Having been here and watched this process for five years, everything up until now has been excessively transparent,” Hutchinson said. “We’ve spent a ton of time debating the exact right place to maximize the benefits, all this back-and-forth about alternatives, all about this study to find out exactly the right spot [for the Metro station] and then we go into years of procurement and then all of the sudden half of the station is gone.”

Richards, who bought a home in the neighborhood with her husband a year ago, said the removal of the entrance will significantly impact homeowners and has implications for commercial development prospects.

“People paid a premium for their houses. Then when you move the Metro farther away, that housing stock is not going to have the same premium attached to it,” Richards said. “It’s going to diminish some of the benefits. We wanted to create this walkable hub.”

Lopez, Hutchinson and Richards said they all learned about the changes in a memo released on the afternoon of May 4, a Friday. All were shocked, as they had felt reassured by communications with city councilors, particularly Smedberg, in April.

“I was really happy about that and then the memo came out and we were all stunned,” Richards said. “We were so disappointed – I cannot quantify my disappointment with city officials.”

Hutchinson said she and her husband, who were traveling when they received the
memo, worked to put the pieces together about what the memo meant.

“The memo, out of context, doesn’t have maps, any of the background information that you need to understand it. The city, still to this day, hasn’t released any map of calculation of the impact of the change, nor have they released any information about the impact economically,” Hutchinson said. “… It takes citizens putting that together from a bunch of different places.”

“[The city] is operating from this place of not having specific data. They’re winging it. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars on one of the most extensive projects the city has taken on,” Richards said.

Lopez said, in combination with projects like the residential development at 2551 Main Line Blvd. approved by council last fall and the Dominion transmission line reroute along Potomac Avenue approved by council this month, many residents have lost their trust in city officials altogether.

“I just feel like they keep hitting us over the head,” Lopez said. “It’s tough to deal with that – we had high hopes and they lost our trust. Our next battle is figuring out what candidates we, as a community, can get behind, who will commit to putting a south entrance back in.”

Lopez said, as part of the residents’ search for transparency, a homeowners’ association group decided to file a FOIA request to the city for emails between council, staff and developers, as well as memos and other written reports, regarding the change in scope of the Metro project and the elimination of the southern entrance.

When the group found out the City of Alexandria was going to charge them $810 for the FOIAed information, they attempted to apply for a waiver as a nonprofit.
When that was denied, Lopez launched a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe
to raise the money. After starting the campaign on Sunday, the group reached its $810 goal by Tuesday with gifts from 33 donors and, as of press time, had raised $1,000. Residents submitted the payment to the city on Tuesday, according to Lopez.

“We’re hoping we’ll reveal something new. We want to show how committed we are to transparency in the process,” Lopez said. “If we had more time, we would fight on the legal side. At this point, we know time is of the essence and we just want the information.”

Tracking forward

After a windfall of criticism from residents and extensive media attention in
the three weeks since the memo’s release, city officials say they’re committing to get the project done by 2022 and hope to add a southern entrance at a later time.
In regard to the process and transparency, though, Wilson and Jinks said the city pushed WMATA to release the information before May 4.

“Once we were notified that was [what] we were going to do, we pushed WMATA
to help us bring it to the public,” Wilson said.

Jinks said, in hindsight, the city may have been able to put more pressure on WMATA.

“It may have been that Metro would have been amenable to release of the information earlier than this month,” Jinks said. “We are basically at periodic tension with them over what we can say and, on these details of the procurement, what we can tell city council. Given that they are being very, very strict in regards to need to know [information] and not disclosing, it may have been potentially possible to appeal it and gotten them to agree earlier, but that’s 20/20 and that’s hindsight.”

An inquiry to the WMATA media relations department about why the information about the southern entrance elimination wasn’t released to the public sooner wasn’t returned by press time.

Silberberg said she would like to see a change to the process going forward.

“To say the NDA was frustrating is an understatement,” Silberberg said. “What we need to do now and what we must do is focus on getting this Potomac Yard Metro station built and working toward a solution regarding the southern entrance. I certainly support adding the southern entrance. But we must also focus on changing the process so future projects are far more transparent.”

Wilson said he’s also committed to getting the project done on time and to add a southern entrance in the future.

“I thought the original design was a good one and I did not want to see the design change. That being said, we want to keep this project viable and on track – no more delays,” Wilson said. “… Everyone wants to see this project happen. Some would be OK with further delay if we fix this issue, but most just want to see it happen and want to see it happen on time.”

‘A Place of Deficiency’

As for Potomac Yard residents, they plan to keep fighting for the southern entrance to be put back into the plan and are continuing to probe into the process that led the city to this point.

Lopez said on Wednesday that residents filed a second FOIA request in response to a city news release issued on Monday detailing the Potomac Yard Metro process.

Specifically, the FOIA request is asking for a communication, memo or email from WMATA officials that details the requirement for the city to maintain strict confidentiality of the design changes.

Richards said the community remains committed to working with the city to secure the Metro station for the neighborhood. That doesn’t, however, temper their disappointment.

“We’re all for partnering with the city in coming up with a pragmatic, realistic approach to open the Metro on time,” Richards said. “… We are a community full of dedicated, passionate people who choose to work in government. We want to help achieve the vision that the city itself set forth. The vision doesn’t work without us – it doesn’t work without riders. The city wants to increase density and then decides to just move the entire Metro station away from the density. It seems very incoherent, it seems disjointed – the city is operating from a place of deficiency.”

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1 COMMENT

  1. If the City is going to change critical design elements that were used to make the decision among Alternatives, the City needs to go back and consider the other alternatives.

    If the City suddenly has a problem with the cost of the station, they should have chosen a less expensive alternative. The difference between Alt A and Alt B was about $60m dollars, and didn’t have a substantial impact on future tax revenues. Alternative A was less expensive, with slightly less density, and wouldn’t require realigning tracks. The CITY chose a more expensive option, and then altered the option in a material way invalidating the down select to Alternative B.