Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Braddock Road Boondoggle

Here we are, just a day away from the last public hearing on the Braddock Road Metro Small Area Plan, and with the plan spread out on the desk for review the Growler is having one of those's "Emperor's New Clothes" moments.

Though the draft plan improved over the months with respect to its protections for the old historic neighborhood of Parker-Gray, the scheme for the northern end where most new development will be located will have severe secondary impacts on the same homeowners who once thought they were being protected. And those who reside on Patrick or Henry Street are truly in trouble.

The transit section of the plan — widely regarded as the weakest and most blatantly political portion of the whole document — envisions several alternatives for high speed transit or light rail on Route 1 north and south. All this is being proposed to facilitate moving bodies to Ft. Belvoir, where many of Arlington and Alexandria's defense-related jobs will be relocated in the next few years. So it's clearly not a real "enhancement" or "improvement" to the residents, despite the verbiage in the plan.

Undoubtedly the City is feeling squeezed by Arlington and Fairfax Counties, which plan to incorporate high speed transit in their stretches of Route 1. But Alexandria is the only jurisdiction with single-family homes fronting directly along Route 1, and those residences are primarily in the Parker-Gray District. One would think these homeowners merited protection.

Nevertheless, the rapid transit solution discussed in the Braddock Road Metro envisions reserving one lane each of Patrick and Henry for light rail or buses, and to accommodate this without further constricting traffic, one side of each street may lose parking.

If this scheme is approved, there's the very real possibility that some neighbors will wake up and find people waiting for the bus or train on their door stoop, since there's only nine feet between house facades and the street. It's also going to be tough for businesses fronting on Route 1.

And what happens to the restrictions that previous Parker-Gray residents who live on Route 1 wrung from City officials years ago? These measures included forcing heavy trucks to the middle lanes and forbidding jake braking in an effort to control foundation-cracking vibrations and noise pollution. It also included closing several blocks of Fayette Street at evening rush hour to prevent cut through traffic from Route 1.

As it stands, the draft Braddock Road plan makes no assurances about maintaining these restrictions on Route 1. It even envisions N. Fayette Street handling much more traffic, functioning as a new main street for the "community" that the plan claims will be constructed. (Question to readers: survey the Carlyle development at night or on weekends and ask yourself if our leaders really know how to create a viable community.)

But it's not only N. Fayette Street that is at risk. N. Payne, Alfred and Columbus Streets are all going to end up being alternative routes for cutover drivers from Route 1. And this will be done with the City's blessing, since Patrick and Henry cannot physically be expanded any further.

So the plan serves up a double whammy for Parker-Gray residents. Loss of parking spaces — and the plan finally admits albeit grudgingly that there is a parking problem here — and degradation of quality of life, not only for residents along Patrick and Henry, but also for those who live on neighboring streets.

The driving force behind these potentially disastrous moves is simple: the politicians and property owners want to squeeze as much high density development into this area as possible.

Now we all know development is coming, particularly in the northern area known as the Gateway. This stretch of land was always a light industrial and warehousing area, so development is not unwelcome, particularly if it brings long-missing amenities to the neighborhood.

But it's the amount and type of development at issue here. By shuffling over the traffic and parking issues and the constraints of infrastructure — Patrick and Henry simply cannot be widened any further — politicians are laying the groundwork to permit taller, more massive and dense development than the community can absorb.

The other major weakness in the plan is its failure to discuss the future of public housing. If property is so valuable at Metro stops that City leaders and Planning Commissioners want to surround each station with vast amounts of development, why is precious space being taken up by economically non-producing activities like public housing that also will affect the viability of the mixed-use businesses that are the Holy Grail for these politicians and planners? And what are these vague plans for "affordable housing" that are being trumpeted recently? Don't we have a lion's share already? Are these measures that will actually depress home values in our neighborhood?

But perhaps the Growler is in error by gracing the Braddock Road Metro document with the name "plan." That gives it too much credit for integration and vision. It's not a fully fleshed out road map for our neighborhood. It's a rag, a bone and a hank of hair woven together by highly paid consultants to give the appearance of vision while actually legitimizing maximum development without regard for either infrastructure or residents' quality of life.

It's all about maximizing value for the property owners. And it's also about pumping up tax revenue in the face of stagnant or falling property tax receipts, since it's easier to open up new spigots of tax revenue than take a hard look at how the City spends its money.

So if you care about this neighborhood, run — don't walk — to the community meeting at Jefferson-Houston School on Thursday, December 14 at 7:00 PM and let the pols and planners know how you feel.