Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Pause That Refreshes?

It looks like the Braddock Road Metro Small Area Plan will not be proceeding to Planning Commission on January 4 as originally announced.

And that's a good thing, because this baby isn't ready for prime time yet.

At last night's City Council work session on the plan, Mayor William D. Euille said he couldn't see the Plan being completed by mid-January. "I don't want a half-baked loaf going out the door," he said, adding that evolving developments with ARHA and WMATA as well as community concerns about the transportation segment indicated "we need to slow this down and do it right." He acknowledged that the public housing issue entered the picture late and suggested several more public hearings on the subject before the plan is finalized.

There were a few surprises last night. Several City Council members asked about granting a higher floor area ratio (FAR) of 2.5 immediately opposite Metro instead of the 2.0 currently in the Plan. Rich Josephson, acting director of Planning & Zoning, then appeared to state that a higher FAR would rule out retaining some or all of the public housing units.

The Growler admits not quite getting how a change in FAR would work against public housing, but was keenly interested that Council or staff even whispered the possibility of no public housing at Braddock Road.

At the same time, though, Council reiterated their commitment to getting the most out of developers in return for granting the density bonus. There was considerable discussion about a chart which showed that granting the highest level of FAR would result in a meaningful number of affordable housing units. (Development at lower densities would only require a developer cash contribution, not a set aside of units.)

So stay tuned for further developments on this front. It would be nice to speculate that the Council is toying with set-asides as a way to disaggregate bricks and mortar public housing at Braddock Metro while maintaining their oft-stated commitment to affordable housing. But it's too early and the signs are too murky to determine if this is the direction they are headed.

Some interesting numbers came out in the discussion about transportation, which remains the most questionable and politically loaded section of the entire plan.

Under questioning the transportation consultant coughed up some stats for neighborhood use of King Street and Braddock Road Metro stations. If the Growler heard right, ridership at King Street after 20 years still only represents about 20% of the people who live in the adjacent area while Braddock Road's ridership is around 18 to 20%. The consultant then claimed that Arlington has a rate of 50 to 60%, with so much of its new housing being built on top of Metro stations.

The Arlington number sounds way suspiciously rosy, but then all of the transportation numbers so far are zanily optimistic. In fact, the whole transportation section of the Plan is suspect and lacks transparency, not least of all the Route 1 stats which seem to change with every presentation. It's telling that Rich Baier, director of T&ES, never seems to be around for these meetings but pushes Tom Culpeper and the consultants out front to take the brunt of the criticism. (Note to activists: with Fogarty and Dahlberg gone, how can we get recruiters to spirit the "Teflon Man" away as well?)

Anway, the source for the questionable Metro data seems to be WMATA itself. And that's a real conflict of interest. Without reliable annual sources of funding, the agency is cash-strapped so it's pushing jurisdictions like the City of Alexandria hard about developing its properties. Naturally they are going to supply rosy ridership numbers that support their drive to develop. And Alexandria leaders would be thrilled to be able to bring in dense development with the assurance that the new residents won't clog the roads.

But there's a lack of specificity about how the City can actually make this happen by implementing aggressive transportation demand management (TDM). Back to the drawing board, guys.

And speaking of WMATA, Del Pepper cautioned City staff about showing the Braddock Road station lot on every map and presentation as an open space possibility. It turns out that Alexandria really can't prescribe that the lot, which is owned by WMATA, be reserved as open space. It emerged there are a few Council members like Ludwig Gaines who are a little uneasy about developing that lot to a fare thee well. He pointed out that King Street needs to add more bus bays so it's fortunate that every inch of its lot was not consumed by development, something that was proposed and dropped several years ago.

Other topics included a request to the impact of development on the City's water and sewer systems. (That Rob Krupicka, always rolling in the gutter! But then storm water is a big issue for his core constituency in Rosemont and Del Ray.)

Council also talked about cultural amenities for the area (ahhh, good!), open space and sports facilities at Braddock Fields (no no no please don't go there, we've had enough of that at Jones Point!), building design and the feasibility of concentrating retail rather than stretching it thinly around the study area. Turns out there isn't going to be that much new retail — perhaps 8 to 12 new stores total — and there is interest in leveraging it as much as possible through concentration.

The latest on Harris-Teeter: the stumbling block is indeed an access issue. The company believes the entrance ramp to the parking garage is too steep, but getting a more graduated decline means pushing the store back, which then triggers the problem of fire and rescue access. That's a Code Enforcement requirement, not zoning.

P&Z staff were supposed to meet with Harris-Teeter representatives today to thrash things out. We shall see ...