Final 2018 public hearing sets stage for new beginnings

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A rendering of the Potomac Yard Metro Station design that council approved on Saturday. (Rendering/WMATA)
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By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

City council’s public hearing on Saturday marked the end of an era for outgoing Mayor Allison Silberberg and councilors Willie Bailey, Tim Lovain and Paul Smedberg. While the meeting was this council’s final public hearing together, the items discussed set the stage for an eventful 2019.

Two significant projects, the Potomac Yard Metro Station and a new coordinated development district in the Landmark / Van Dorn area, received unanimous approvals to proceed. Silberberg presented a plea for ethics reform she hopes the incoming council will consider next year. And the controversial park at the foot of King Street was named and set to open in early 2019.

Potomac Yard Metro moves forward

The Potomac Yard Metro Station has been embroiled in controversy for the greater part of 2018, from outrage over the removal of the southern entrance to protests about its impact on wetlands.

At the hearing, council unanimously approved a development special use permit and site plan that will move the project forward. The approved plan is an amended version of what first passed in June 2016. It officially removes the south mezzanine, ramp, bridge and pavilion from the plan – although some version of a southern entrance will most likely be added back.

It was Amazon’s decision to locate one of its second headquarters in Northern Virginia that will give the city a chance for redemption after disappointing residents by eliminating the southern entrance from design plans in the spring. When residents learned of the deletion, many said they lost trust in the city officials who had known for some time of the entrance’s removal but did not inform the public of the change.

As part of the incentive package for Amazon’s HQ2, Gov. Ralph Northam agreed to provide $50 million in state funding to add a southern entrance back to the design. However, the state funding is contingent on Amazon job targets and will require approval by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, according to Yon Lambert, director of Transportation and Environmental Services. Therefore, the funds are not immediately available.

Lambert said the city, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and the state are still in the process of exploring the feasibility and cost of including a southern entrance in the design. As a result, it might not be to the same scale of what was approved in the original 2016 design, he said.

“The key takeaway for all of us today is that approval of the current DSUP is really key to the timeline of the current design/build contract,” Lambert said. “We know we have about six months of work to do on the site in terms of design and construction work before we get to the point where consideration of the south entrance, what that will look like, becomes a critical path item for us.”

He said the Potomac Yard Metrorail Implementation Work Group is expected to reconvene in January to develop a recommendation on an approach for the southern entrance so decisions can be made with the least impact to the existing project.

The eventual reinstatement of the southern entrance isn’t the only good news for the station to come out of Amazon’s announcement; with the approval, council also repealed the Tier II Special Tax District in Potomac Yard, since the increase in property values due to Amazon and the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus is expected to generate the anticipated revenue, according to the staff report.

While staff’s report focused on design and funding, the public speakers brought forward different concerns. Of the four people who spoke during the public hearing period, three were in opposition to the project because of its environmental impacts. In the past few months, a group of residents have been advocating against the location of the project because of the wetlands situated within the site.

“You can’t recreate a wetland in any reasonable manner,” Attorney Jeremy Flachs said. “These wetlands absorb floods, … they clean pollutants, they’re a nursery for aquatic life, … they’re very important to the health of the Potomac River, they’re very important to the health of the Chesapeake Bay, and I think it’s a big mistake, given there are alternatives, to build at this particular location.”

The site has already undergone an intensive environmental impact study that considered the project’s impact on the wetlands, Deputy City Manager Emily Baker said. The city still requires permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality before construction can take place in the wetlands.

“The project team is working very closely with those agencies now in making sure we obtain the permits for the project,” Baker said. “And the team is very much committed to complying with every federal and state and local regulation associated with the wetlands and every other requirement with this project. … This DSUP approval will allow the project to move forward. Some construction may occur before those permits are obtained, but not in the wetlands area.”

With council’s approval, the project will advance to final site plan review, during which staff will continue to collaborate with the National Park Service and PYMIG. PYMIG will be involved in the project through construction.

New West End coordinated development district

In another unanimous vote, council approved a coordinated development district and related land use proposals for a 15-acre site on Alexandria’s West End.

The development, proposed by applicant Greenhill Realty Companies, will be a multi-block, mixed-use flexible space with retail, residential units, potential office space and a town green.

The site is located in a rectangle of land bordered by South Van Dorn Street, Edsall Road, South Pickett Street and McConnell Avenue. It was described in the Landmark / Van Dorn Corridor Plan as one of two locations for a new urban village, the other being Landmark Mall.

The concept design plan that council approved proposes dividing the space into seven new blocks with four new public streets, one of which will serve as a “retail spine” through the development.

“We’re creating one of the big things in your Landmark / Van Dorn Plan – smaller, walkable blocks. It talks about that in almost every chapter of the plan,” Mary Catherine Gibbs, the attorney representing the applicant, said.

The project is expected to be implemented over the next 24 years in four different phases. Some of the developer’s contributions include dedicating 30,000 square feet for a public school or civic use, giving $7.68 million to the city’s affordable housing fund and providing up to 182 units of onsite affordable housing, contingent upon the approval of bonus density and height in future DSUPs.

“We are really implementing your Landmark / Van Dorn Plan,” Gibbs said. “You adopted this plan in 2009, and it’s sort of been hanging on the shelf for a really long time, and we are really excited that these owners who have been active participants in the West End since the 1980s are ready to move forward with redevelopment.”

A final plea for ethics

A review of the ethics reform that council adopted in 2016 resulted in a final appeal for council transparency from outgoing Mayor Allison Silberberg.

When the council members adopted and signed that code of ethics and conduct in early 2016, they agreed to hold a public hearing at some point over the next three years to “review the effectiveness of the city council adopted code of ethics and conduct and ethics pledge.” At the last public hearing possible, it finally made the docket.

Silberberg, who initiated the ethics reform when she became mayor, was the only person who spoke. She proposed three recommendations to the incoming council:

The first is that they expand the pledge to set standards for campaign contributions, requiring candidates to pledge not to accept contributions from people who bring business before council that could result in financial gain. The second is that they require the disclosure of people with financial interest in preliminary site plans that come before council. The third is that they establish a permanent ethics commission.

“These changes are made more important by all the developments that come before us and will be coming before future councils,” Silberberg said. “Small interests in large projects could mean huge dollars as we all know, and we all want to always avoid the appearance of conflict of interest that comes from campaign contributions of developers.”

After Silberberg’s recommendations, there was no further discussion. Silberberg said her proposal was for the incoming council to consider and potentially adopt.

“Those three items that I mentioned, three recommendations for the next council, I think would take us to a whole new level and that’s necessary now,” Silberberg said after the hearing. “It’s like creating our own standard for what is ethical, not just what’s legal.”

Waterfront Park is named

In a relatively uneventful conclusion to months of heated debate, city council officially adopted the name Waterfront Park for the new park at the foot of King Street.

Before the launch of an extensive naming process and dating back to 2012, the site had been commonly referred to as Fitzgerald Square in honor of Lt. Col. John Fitzgerald, an Irish immigrant, aide-de-camp to Gen. George Washington and former Alexandria mayor – who also owned 46 slaves at the time of his death, according to a document from the Slavery Inventory Database.

City Manager Mark Jinks instructed city staff last spring to stop calling the park that specific name because it still needed to go through an official naming process, according to a city spokesperson. He implemented the temporary placeholder name King Street Park at the Waterfront. This change took place soon after the city received complaints about Fitzgerald’s slave ownership.

The change sparked outrage, especially from members of the Ballyshaners and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, two of Alexandria’s Irish organizations. Members said they had learned of the name change on St. Patrick’s Day.

The official naming process, which included meetings, an online survey and a hearing before the Alexandria City Council Naming Committee, began in September. It drew widespread public participation both from those in support of the Fitzgerald name and those opposed, many of whom said they were against naming a park for a prominent slaveholder.

The naming committee, composed of councilors Del Pepper and Tim Lovain, suggested the name Waterfront Park to council at the Dec. 11 legislative meeting. Despite the fervent public input in the past few months, only one person, former Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald, testified against the proposal before the final vote on Saturday.

“I think Waterfront Park is a lackluster, unimaginative name, and we can do a lot better,” Macdonald said. “I think it’s better to name our parks after something that expands our view of our history, that does more to show why we are such a historic town. Waterfront Park does nothing for us. … It’s a simple, lackluster way to escape all controversy.”

Pepper and Lovain said Fitzgerald’s slaveholding was a major factor they considered during the naming process.

“It was a difficult decision with a lot of controversy associated with it, but I too was just appalled by the record of the slave ownership,” Lovain said. “Yes, times were different, but this is not one or two slaves. His successful businesses were accomplished on the backs of enslaved human beings.”

In response to Macdonald’s comments about the blandness of Waterfront Park, Pepper defended their choice.

“Maybe Waterfront Park doesn’t excite everybody, but at least it doesn’t offend everybody,” she said.

Waterfront Park will open as an interim park in early 2019. At some point in the next few years, it will close so that flood mitigation infrastructure can be added before it opens permanently.

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