The Development Test
From The Alexandria Times, October 6, 2022
Infrastructure decisions in Alexandria, particularly those related to new development, are topics of continuing and vigorous debate.
A former City Councilor defined a test of a proposed development this way: When council makes a land use decision — consequential or less so — we should always ask ourselves one simple question: 20 years from now, when we’re not around to explain/defend this decision, will someone drive by and say, “Jeez, what kind of idiot approved that?”
Here are three development decisions, or sets of decisions, with significant long-term impacts that are now increasingly clear:
• The location of the Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure building — looming over I-395 and Seminary Road — will probably be seen as a mistake for which the city and federal governments share responsibility. The BRAC building should have been built in the Eisenhower corridor to take advantage of the Metrorail station. WMATA’s ridership data shows that only five stations in the 91-station system have average daily ridership lower than Eisenhower Avenue’s 1,482 riders per day. There were competing proposals for the BRAC building, including a site in the Eisenhower corridor. City officials ultimately decided not to favor one proposal over another which foreclosed discussions when the federal government, effectively the developer in this case, located the building where it is today. The pandemic-driven reduction in physically present office work may mean that the BRAC building faces an unexpected future.
• Alexandria could have, and probably should have, promoted denser development around other Metro stations, particularly Huntington, Van Dorn and Braddock Road. City leaders were concerned, then as now, about increasing density and its effects — the sense that we are being paved over and the incontrovertible fact that local travel is increasingly arduous. The essence of the decisions at that time was to reject the Arlington model of large multi-projects around the Crystal City, Courthouse and Ballston Metro stations in favor of a lower density approach. However, developers have to develop. Reduced commercial development means reduced tax revenues. Now, the question remains whether Alexandria would have been more able to control density elsewhere in the city if more development had been permitted around the city’s Metro stations.
• A third development decision from the 1980’s came as a result of grassroots action, complete with Alexandria’s essential public policy medium, yard signs. The community decision to protest the proposed then-Redskins, now Commanders, stadium in Potomac Yard was intuitively correct. The team is now prospecting/angling for a stadium site in other Northern Virginia areas after a consistently unsatisfactory fan experience in Maryland, years of miserable football, and a toxic and indefensible work environment for franchise employees.
So, the development test results indicate a failing grade for BRAC, a potential passing grade for Potomac Yard, as all the results are not in, and a grading-on-the-curve incomplete for development around the Metro stations. Next up for the development test? The four million square foot West End Alexandria project at the former Landmark Mall site.
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/
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