Your Views: Don’t locate 150 people on a two-home site

Your Views: Don’t locate 150 people on a two-home site
The parcel of land to be redeveloped. Some residents near the proposed site for the Seminary Road affordable housing development expressed concerns around flooding and the slope that ends on the property. (Photo/Frank Putzu)

To the editor:

Residents cannot be blamed for missing a significant business item at the City Council legislative meeting on Sept. 8. Council approved an application for a $250,000 “predevelopment” forgivable loan in order to develop 2.7 acres of property on Seminary Road, next to Fire Station 206.

Yes, back to Seminary Road.

The plan is to purchase two home sites that front Seminary Road, raze those homes and build a 40-unit apartment building and 15 townhomes. Setting aside the road diet and the fact that no major transit exists near this site, it is already on record as having serious stormwater water management, environmental and terrain issues. For example, one home very close to the site has been flooded nine times since 2010 from site runoff, and had a river rushing over a waterfall into the site earlier this month.

In fact, the city’s Department of Natural Resources published a report in 2013 that discussed this specific area and the importance of its ecosystem, noting “this site is especially important as the headwaters of the southeast tributary of Lucky Run. … The mature forest canopy throughout the park is also important as a wildlife connector.”

City records show a large drainage swale exists in the back of the homes. U.S. Geological Survey records verify the stream on the site serves as the headwaters for Lucky Run.

Residents who learned about the proposal recommended that the city defer the loan until all of the infrastructure issues were fully vetted, with adequate public notice and engagement. While Council deferred the loan until a full written report and a virtual public meeting can be arranged, many neighbors remain disturbed by the glib and dismissive remarks during the discussion.

For example, the Director of Transportation & Environmental Services Yon Lambert said the city had done a “high-level review,” insisting there were no “show-stoppers.” Yet even the most cursory review of city records would have told Council and the public differently.

At a recent Seminary Hill Association meeting, the developer stated that there were no firm site plans yet, and forwarded concept drawings it gave the city showing the proposed structures built – on the same sections that the city said during the Council meeting would be unaffected.

How would our city be able to grant a forgivable loan on this sensitive site without understanding where it will go?

The new approach for justifying this absurd proposal to cram more building density into single-family zones at all costs to residents seems to be built on revisionist history. Lambert – with a straight face – claimed that stormwater management remediation had always been “part of the project,” pointing to a 2012 effort by ACPS to replace the grass field at Francis C. Hammond Middle School with turf.

Setting aside the fact that this 2012 effort became a nightmare of delays, cost overruns and contractor disputes because the site’s entire stormwater management system had to be replaced, the contractor doing grading for the new field was shocked by what they found. ACPS and T&ES documented that stormwater management on the site was “failing,” including violating the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act.

An ACPS memo said that the massive delays and cost-overruns “was due to the extensive storm water management work required [and bus lane]. Neither of these costs were anticipated when the CIP budget was proposed and approved.”

Worse, records show the residents informed the city and ACPS of serious stormwater management issues in the area – like they are here – before installing the field. T&ES seemingly dismissed those concerns.

There is no reason to think that the same failed stormwater management across the street, built in the early 1950s when Seminary Road was a sleepy two-lane road through farmland and forest, will be any better or require less work or funding.

As well, other developers and councils considered developing this site, and those proposals did not pan out for environmental, stormwater management and terrain is- sues. At one point, the city considered extending Pickett Street from Seminary to Braddock, but abandoned the project. Those should be in city records as well.

This letter does not even touch upon issues commonly associated with building dense structures for about 150 new residents in a space meant for just two homes. Negative impacts include significant losses to our mature tree canopy, school capacity increases and traffic impacts. The city has not yet considered these issues for residents or families with children attending Hammond Middle School.

Again, we appreciate that Council put the brakes on this proposal. It will not be as easy or simplistic as they think. The city must be dedicated to assembling and reporting accurately DNR, T&ES, Planning & Zoning and ACPS records to understand the high risks associated with developing this beautiful and delicate site.

-Frank Putzu, Alexandria