Virginia Tech Innovation Campus design advances

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A sign along Potomac Avenue welcomes Virginia Tech to the city. (Photo/Luke Anderson)
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By Luke Anderson | [email protected]

With construction slated to begin by the end of 2020, the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus is giving Potomac Yard a major makeover.

City council and the planning commission considered improvements to previously approved redevelopment plans for North Potomac Yard during a joint work session on Nov. 12. The improvements are the first to be released since Virginia Tech announced in June that it would partner with Lionstone and JBG Smith to build the Innovation Campus.

Most of the updates to the North Potomac Yard small area plan, which was approved in 2017, impact the 25-acre lot to the east of Potomac Avenue that is currently home to Regal Cinemas.

This region has been dubbed Phase 1 in plans. Due to Virginia Tech’s campus being placed at the northern end of the lot, the area to the east of Potomac Avenue is now being called the Innovation District.

“Our goal in preparing this plan was to retain all of the hard work that we did in 2017, and really, the partnership with Virginia Tech has only enhanced the vision that we already created in 2017 and built upon that picture,” land use attorney Cathy Puskar said.

Revamped plans for the VT Innovation Campus shown adjacent to the existing Potomac Yard shopping center. (Rending/City of Alexandria)

The Innovation Campus will consist of three academic buildings that will add 600,000 square feet of academic space to the plan. To accommodate the additional space, the height of several buildings has been increased; the tallest will now stand between 120 and 180 feet. Developers are already coordinating with the National Park Service, but will need Federal Aviation Administration approval as well.

(Read more: Virginia Tech Innovation Campus relocates to 65-acre site near Potomac Yard Metro)

Potomac Yard’s proximity to Ronald Reagan National Airport presents challenges when building up. One runway in particular is angled in a way that has planes arriving and departing close to the southern end of the Phase 1 site.

The airport authority does not use the runway very often, but they do not want to give up the rights, City Manager Mark Jinks said. Several years ago, the city met with the airport authority and FAA and convinced them to reposition a landing point further up the runway in order to increase building height limits. Jinks said he feels they have already “pushed the envelope” and gaining additional concessions on this issue is unlikely.

The addition of the academic campus required a future ACPS building to be moved from block 4 to a larger site on block 23 at the intersection of Glebe Road and Route 1. Most agreed that the new location is a better fit, as it is closer to residential neighborhoods already in place and well-equipped as a potential co-location of ACPS and affordable housing.

“We have now reworked the plan to move office [buildings] closer to the academic campus because we think there’s going to be a real synergy” between Virginia Tech and office users, Puskar said. There is now an additional 300,000 square feet of office space than originally intended.

The geography and geometry of roads on the northern end of Phase 1 have been reconfigured from those previously approved. One road was eliminated entirely and replaced by a pedestrian plaza that will connect the academic buildings, which supports the plan’s long-held objective of creating an easily walkable neighborhood that prioritizes pedestrians over vehicles. A transportation analysis determined this would not negatively affect traffic patterns, Puskar said.

Retail space has been reduced slightly in order to make room for the academic buildings. Because of the reduction, the plans eliminate an above-grade parking garage, though an underground garage is still in the works.

A comparison of the 2017 and 2019 small area plans for North Potomac Yard. (Rendering/City of Alexandria)

Planning commission member Melinda Lyle cautioned against providing too much parking, since many of the parking garages in the city have an abundance of parking spots that are underused. This costs more money and takes up space that could be used for something else, Lyle said.

With the exception of a portion of the Innovation Campus, all of the Phase 1 area will be within a quarter mile of the future Potomac Yard Metro Station.

The success of the redevelopment plan largely hinges on the Metro station. Retail stores will be strategically placed along the main street leading to the station, which in turn should boost ridership.

(Read more: Amazon selects Crystal City for HQ2)

The response to the proposed changes was primarily positive.

“Literally everything about this makes this plan better and makes the potential greater,” Jeffrey Farner, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, said.

The only area of concern seemed to revolve around Potomac Avenue.

On the proposed layout, Potomac Avenue is noticeably larger than the other streets and lacks street-facing retail. Mayor Justin Wilson and Councilor John Chapman expressed concern that this might discourage pedestrians from using the street and present a barrier between Phase 1 and Phase 2 neighborhoods.

Planning Commission Chair Nathan Macek said that the first question that needs to be answered is, “What do we want Potomac Avenue to look like?”

He said this question should be repeated throughout the development process because “different streetscapes all function very differently and have very different benefits and weaknesses.”

Once this question is answered, developers can better resolve the issue, Macek said. Narrowing the road, installing traffic signals, creating street parking with peak-hour restrictions and dedicating certain lanes to Metroway buses are among the ideas currently circulating. However, any major changes to Potomac Avenue will likely not take place until Phase 2 work begins several years from now.

Community meetings are already underway to gather residents’ input, which should inform final adjustments to the plan. Construction is slated to begin by the end of 2020, and Virginia Tech students could be on the new campus by the 2024 fall semester.

(Read more: Virginia Tech submits first concept plan to city)

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