GenOn site plan amended: Planning Commission approves pedestrian safety change at former power plant

GenOn site plan amended: Planning Commission approves pedestrian safety change at former power plant
The Coordinated Sustainability Strategy projection (L) and the Potomac River Generating Station (R). (Photos/City of Alexandria)

By Aaron Kopp |

Commissioners at Tuesday night’s Planning Commission meeting voted to approve an amendment to the site plan for the former Potomac River Generating Station site that emphasized pedestrian needs. The commission also approved enhancements for Simpson Field Park and several zoning text amendments.

Among the items discussed at the meeting was the future of the GenOn site, which previously housed a coal burning power plant that was closed in 2012 after city activists called for it to be shuttered due to environmental concerns. The power plant was in the Old Town North neighbor- hood, bordering on the Potomac river.

The location of the more than 18-acre lot makes it an important site for potential redevelopment. Hilco Redevelopment Partners purchased the site in 2020, and filed a request for the approval of their Infrastructure Development Site Plan.

City Council recently unanimously approved a plan to begin development on the long-vacant site. This approval allows for demolition to begin, as well as utility and roadwork, including the construction of a new public roadway on the exterior of site, away from the river, and privately owned, publicly available roads on the interior of the site. The site plan includes utility lines and recovery of environmental hazards such as lead and asbestos from the site.

There was considerable back-and-forth during the meeting about the site plan.

Eileen O’Neill, a local resident, expressed concern for the fate of wildlife on the site in the face of redevelopment.

“I want to speak tonight to bring to attention the potential effects on the local wildlife. … I want to bring attention to the board [of ] all the different types of wildlife I see [on the site] … many species of birds, mammals, squirrels and a bob- cat,” O’Neill said.

Serge Duss, a resident of the nearby Marina Towers Condominium, addressed the meet- ing on behalf of the Marina Towers HRP redevelopment ad hoc committee and expressed support for the project, especially a pedestrian-focused road on the site.

“The Marina Towers community supports the redevelopment project,” Duss said.

Duss said he hopes that the city expands the shared street to “increase the safety and livability of the community.”

Another Marina Towers resident, Mary Harris, concurred, expressing her desire to see an extension to the already planned pedestrian focused roadway.

Land use attorney Mary Catherine Gibbs, representing HRP, defended the configuration of roads in the plan, saying it was a “very balanced and well thought out road network for multimodal transportation.”

“The proposed road network ensures vehicle circulation around the development

blocks,” Gibbs said. “Lack of vehicular circulation could lead to vehicular buildup … this is an unsafe situation and one we would like to avoid.”

Commissioner Stephen Koenig reminded everyone during the discussion that the current plan is far from finished.

“We’re all very excited about the potential here. … I think it’s necessary to be cognizant that the moving forward of this plan will provide a framework, but will not set in stone every detail,” Koenig said.

Commissioner Mindy Lyle defended the plans that were presented.

“We have a lot of really smart transportation minds that have spent many hours working on these plans. My opinion is that we leave the transportation design to the engineers,” Lyle said.

An amendment to the plan concerning the pedestrian-focused section of the roadway was approved 5-2. The amendment requires the developers to prioritize pedestrian needs in this section.

McMahon said pedestrian safety is paramount.

“What I want it to do is focus people on the pedestrian safety aspect. … I don’t want to prescribe what they can or can’t do,” McMahon said.

GIbbs said the modification to the plan approved in the amendment would require significant changes.

“It is not as light a touch as you seem to be suggesting,” Gibbs said.

Also under discussion at the meeting were planned changes for Simpson Stadium Park. The City Department of Project Implementation applied for a Development Special Use Permit to perform renovations on the complex, which the Planning Commission passed 7-0.

The plan includes the renovation of athletic fields at the park. Big Simpson baseball field will be turned into regulation-size field with synthetic turf. New bleachers and dug- outs will be built, and a new concession stand and new basketball court will be built. The plan also involves landscaping around the park, including the planting of more than 100 new trees. Improved safety lighting,

increased parking space, and enhanced stormwater management are also all included in the plan.

Sherry Reilly, president of Alexandria Little League, met with local baseball teams, including the Alexandria City High School varsity baseball coach, the Bishop Ireton varsity baseball coach and the American Legion team coach, all of whom she said support the plan.

“Every organization uses the big fields, and we only have two in the city,” Reilly said. “Being able to have synthetic turf will help us get every organization’s games in during a rainy spring.”

Community member Brian Collins raised player comfort concerns about the use of turf, citing how hot turf got in the summer, at times reaching above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. He also cited environmental concerns about the use of arti- ficial turf.

Planning Commission Chair Nathan Macek said discussion of the merits of synthetic turf was not the Planning Commission’s purview.

“The issue of synthetic turf is not ours to decide, we are largely voting on a zoning issue,” Macek said.

The commission also discussed text amendments to change the definition of a park and a congregate recreational facility. Such amendments would broaden the definition of a park and thus allow the Alexandria department of Recreation Parks and Cultural Activities to make small improvements to newly designated parks, such as installing lighting or replacing a playground, without first conducting a public hearing. This amendment was approved by a 7-0 vote.

A text amendment was also proposed to eliminate redundant approval processes for improvements of Public Open Space and Community Recreation. This amendment will likewise allow small improvements to public open space without conducting a public hearing first. This amendment was also approved 7-0.

Commissioner David Brown applauded the elimination of what he considered a redundant current approval process.

“We really don’t need those. Staff at Parks and Rec already consider those. We don’t need to second guess them,” Brown said.

The Planning Commission is one of the most powerful non-elected boards in Alexandria, as development issues go before the commission before heading to City Council for final consideration.