About Alexandria with Mark Eaton: Fretting about the fate of Potomac Yard

About Alexandria with Mark Eaton: Fretting about the fate of Potomac Yard
Mark Eaton (Courtesy photo)

To live in Alexandria in 2024 is to fret.

Fretting opportunities include the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, climate change and national politics. Local fretting topics include crime, the schools and the future of Potomac Yard.

Like other fret-worthy subjects, what will be built in Potomac Yard is a concern for all Alexandrians. Even so, commercial development decisions are usually made by a select group of real estate moguls and wily financiers. Here are a few observations and suggestions.

The JBG Smith organization has made optimistic statements about Potomac Yard’s attractive development potential, but there are other facts to consider. According to Alexandria real estate assessment records, the nine contiguous parcels of vacant land north of the Potomac Yard Metro station and east of Potomac Avenue are collectively assessed at nearly $50 million. These properties generate an annual real estate tax bill at current rates of more than $550,000.

Commercial real estate development is a long game, but Potomac Yard’s carrying costs and the events of the last four months or so have increased the focus on what might be con-structed there.

Whether you loved or, more likely it seems, loathed Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Monumental Sports & Entertainment’s now-defunct sports and entertainment arena proposal, it was a Big Idea: an intense urban land use that could generate significant tax revenue for the city. There are few large-scale commercial development opportunities of this kind.

Potomac Yard’s future may include uses that complement Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus or more multi-unit dwellings with ground floor retail uses like those in Crystal City. Potomac Yard is already subdivided so less attractive outcomes are possible if parcels are sold or separately developed. The Alexandria Economic Development Partnership recently reported that one of the major car rental companies was interested in building an off-airport lot at Potomac Yard.

Alexandrians should not resign themselves to accepting this, or a similar car-oriented use.

Potomac Yard could house purpose-built facilities for enduring cultural institutions that are part of Alexandria’s DNA. For example, Potomac Yard could host a new home for the Birchmere, a rehearsal and concert venue for the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra, performance spaces for MetroStage and exhibition or class and studio spaces for the Art League.

These suggestions are illustrative; please nominate your favorite indigenous Alexandria cultural institution for a potential home in Potomac Yard in an email to aboutalexandria@ gmail.com. Of course, no cultural institution would be compelled to move from its current location.

In short, Alexandria could bet on itself at Potomac Yard and not be substantially at the mercy of developers. The performance venue may be the element of MSE’s failed proposal that is worth preserving. The Chamber of Commerce has recommended for some time that a sizable performance/assembly space be built in the city and the school community would like to hold Alexandria City High School graduation ceremonies inside the city limits.

MSE’s ill-fated sports and entertainment complex involved Alexandria’s contribution of $106 million from its cash reserves to build a 6,000-seat performance venue. Why couldn’t a similar financial commitment, and funds raised from public or private partners, fund buildings at Potomac Yard designed for enduring and essential Alexandria cultural institutions?

Venues for concerts, theater and other events are not enough to create a vibrant urban environment at Potomac Yard. There must also be active uses – things for people to do other than shop and eat. Some smaller or mid-size cities, for example, Syracuse, N.Y., hope that aquariums will draw people to their downtowns.

Here is an opening nomination for an active non-casino use at Potomac Yard for which demand already exists and competing facilities are decidedly lacking in Northern Virginia: a skating facility with multiple ice surfaces for competition and skating for fun.

Visionaries of Alexandria, please start your imaginations.

The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006 and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at aboutalexandria@gmail.com and subscriptions to his newsletter are available free at https://aboutalexandria.substack.com/