Friday, November 02, 2007

Points to Ponder

Tomorrow is the big charrette on the Braddock Road Metro Small Area plan, when the City's consultants have promised all questions will be answered.

Frankly, the neighborhood remains skeptical, especially those like the Growler who went through the exercise of the original two-day charrette in 2005.

Who can forget those optimistic, sunny days? We broke into small groups, were given maps and colored pens and told to sketch out our dream community. They told us to draw in the open space, parks, shops — all the lovely features we hoped development would bring.

At the time it was fun. But now, two years later, it's clear that none of that pie-in-the-sky brainstorming had any foundation in reality. Most of it has dissolved into thin air.

1. The dream of a grocery store died a lingering death with the disappearance of Harris-Teeter. There's a small flame of hope for a drugstore at the Madison but that may also flicker out soon. The vista of unlimited new retail has shrunk dramatically in two years, but this might be a good thing in the end. Name retailers were being held out by developers as carrots to gain community support for high density, but it became apparent that they could not always deliver. We're wise to the game now. It's also clear from the retail analysis that there are significant barriers to retail like poor quality sites as well as heightened competition at the fringes of our district. Stuffing more people into this neighborhood isn't enough to change the outlook for retail.

2. The neighborhood's quest for more open space also slowly died, and the most notable casualty was 1261 Madison Street. City Council approved the official open space plan earlier this year, but wrote the Braddock Place parcel off since its owners were unwilling to sell. Turns out they want far more than the City is prepared to invest here.

Almost unnoticed, another open space possibility that has been killed off is the Braddock Road Metro itself. The Growler well remembers Planning Commission members like John Komoroske speaking with enthusiasm about dedicating a substantial piece of the Metro parking lot as a landscaped park that could function as a neighborhood center and public gathering place.

But just months ago we were shown plans for a hideous new office building with small scallops of open space at the edges, which would now be plumped down on the lot. The City is ready to kiss and ride with cash-strapped Metro, and the idea of creating a true town center is dead.

3. The City encouraged daydreaming about streetscaping: trees, lighting, nice sidewalks. But the draft report of the plan finally conceded there is no money for such improvements beyond the development sites themselves. And now we have come to realize that the City has never made any significant capital investments of our own taxpayer revenue in this neighborhood's infrastructure.

4. There was much discussion in 2005 about protecting the Parker-Gray Historic District and respecting its architecture. But with the arrival of the Monarch we saw design that resulted in a grotesque structure dwarfing the surrounding community. There's no prospect of solid design guidelines on the horizon, just construction of the even larger Payne Street condos, which is scheduled to start in a few months and will ultimately overpower the Monarch in size. Meanwhile, the long overdue nomination of the Parker-Gray District to the state and national historic registers is still in limbo.

5. It's impossible not to be cynical about the concept of a Plan itself, with projects like the Payne Street Condos being slipped through before the Plan could be finalized. (Don't blame us for the delays: City staff let momentum on the Plan falter, doing nothing throughout much of 2006.)

It looks like the Madison will also wiggle by in the next few months, followed by the Jaguar project and redevelopment of Tony's Auto. The horses are out of the barn door and the idea of conducting design sessions now while rewriting the Plan is meaningless.

6. In order to push the Plan through after resistance earlier this year, City staff have avoided grappling with the hard issues and reaching consensus with residents and landowners. Instead, they have surgically removed the most troublesome sections covered by the draft report, such as public and affordable housing and transportation, and put them on independent tracks and on different schedules.

The idea of an organic, seamless plan is therefore moot. All that is left is a shell, and after the gobbledygook about vibrancy and walkable streets is stripped out, the plan is really about creating high-density CDD development districts on three sites: the Metro parking lot, the Jaguar properties at the apex of the Gateway area, and Andrew Adkins public housing project (which is off the table now and for the immediate future).

7. And finally, we as a community are being asked to negotiate. But as others have asked, who are we negotiating with? Are they empowered to negotiate and who stands behind the promises made once concessions have been extracted from the community?

The answer is this: we are negotiating with short-term paid consultants. Not City staff, and certainly not with the politicians who are ultimately behind this.

Can this process truly have legitimacy?

Vanishing Retail and Development Dollars

Note: this is the third in a series of articles leading up to the community charrette for the Braddock Road Metro small area plan scheduled for Saturday, November 3. The purpose is to focus on the City's inconsistencies, misstatements and omissions relating to the the issues that will be discussed.

In many respects the October 20 Braddock Road meeting ended up being an apologia for past City planning goofs mishaps, particularly the presentation on retail.

Consultant Heather Arnold of Retail Compass LLC was a part of the team brought in to draft the retail chapter of the original Braddock Road Metro plan. As such, she participated in the charrettes of June 2005 and some of the subsequent meetings. The Growler enjoyed her presentations then and now, feeling that her approach to the community's retail expectations was reasonably conservative.

Nevertheless, some of what we heard on October 20 raised the Growler's shaggy eyebrows.

Ms. Arnold confessed she thought Harris-Teeter would never work but told us she went along with the idea. As she pointed out, some retailers defy the marketing models and thrive.

Yet as a member of the audience pointed out, before the Harris-Teeter deal completely collapsed earlier this year Planning & Zoning staff stated repeatedly in public that this neighborhood was underserved in terms of a grocery. Those statements were made at ICCA meetings and in the Braddock Road Metro plan meetings.

So which is it and who is right? Was Ms. Arnold muzzled and why? Was Planning & Zoning pumping the community with their statements that we were underserved or were they simply reacting under pressure from a community that got wind of a possible grocery store and went wild?

We have still not been given the full story on Harris-Teeter and the Madison. Did Harris-Teeter really intend to open here, or were they only coquetting with the Madison because of the property's original developer Capital Associates, which like Harris-Teeter is based in North Carolina? Were they scared off by the City's endless bureaucracy? If so, how did the City make the new store at Foxchase happen? We may never know but it's one more disappointment.

The walking tour stop at Braddock Place became another platform for disclaimers about the failure to secure thriving retail in this neighborhood. We're now hearing that the retail space there was poorly sited, with insufficient foot traffic to support viable businesses. Members of the audience, though, pointed out that the corner business at West and Madison Streets had good visibility since it faced Metro, and that the shops across the way at Colecroft Station had somehow thrived. No real explanation for that either although retail does thrive in clusters.

At the Madison, we heard the property's new developer and zoning attorney Duncan Blair talk about the project, including the possibility that CVS might tire of the long drawn out regulatory negotiations and pull out. The Growler hopes this isn't true, since the loss of a future CVS would be a blow to the community after the Harris-Teeter fiasco. But this might also be special pleading so that we will once again rally and give the developers everything they want. For now, a studied attitude of skepticism is probably the best course.

The most interesting comments at Braddock Place came from Mary Means, formerly of the Main Streets USA program, and here she shone. She noted that cities in the past went through a phase when mixed-use development was all the rage and also pointed out another now-discredited fad in which small towns inadvertently killed their main streets by prohibiting car traffic and creating pedestrian malls.

These observations create unease in the mind of the Growler. If municipal planners made these sorts of mistakes 10 or 20 years ago, is planning really the science that its practictioners would like to believe it is? Or is planning just a stab in the dark? What mistakes are about to be made in our neighborhood now? Will "transit-oriented development" or "the New Urbanism" just as likely end up on the ash heap of history?

The single most meaty presentation on October 20 and the one with the greatest potential for the neighborhood was that of Sarah Woodworth of W-ZHA Associates.

Ms. Woodworth dissected developer's numbers including margins and building costs to demonstrate how much profit is attainable under different scenarios (i.e., projects including more expensive underground parking versus surface parking).

This is an interesting and potentially valuable effort to pierce the veil of secrecy surrounding developers' profit projections so we can better determine just how much developers can be expected to contribute to public improvements. This approach is not unique, however; as the Growler has written before, the City commissioned a study of possible redevelopment of Landmark Mall which also evaluated developer profit margins under different scenarios.

Ms. Woodworth's analysis was limited to condominium construction, but the Growler is hoping she will return to the charrette on November 3 with numbers on single family townhomes, offices and hotels.

Even with such information in hand, however, there will be unanswered questions about how this data can be harnessed to improve our neighborhood.

For example, will the City continue to cream developers' profit off the top in the form of the affordable housing "donation," leaving little or no money for community amenities?

And why should developers alone bear the burden? As we have discussed on this blog in the past, the City has put precious little into this community in terms of capital investment. (Sorry, but the Growler feels Charles Houston Center or Durant Center renovations are just regular obligatory maintenance for City facilities, not projects that truly enhance our properties like streetscaping would.)

What will be the impact of allowing developers to build surface or structured above-ground parking instead of more expensive underground parking?

Letting developers off the hook for underground parking may save them money — money which could be plowed back into the community. But at what cost? We already have buildings flanking our neighborhood with ground floor parking lots that provide an ugly and barren view for pedestrians and nearby homeowners (the Growler is thinking about the stretch of Cameron Street between Henry and the back of the Hilton).

How can surface or structured parking be reconciled with good design concepts? And will these types of parking chew up valuable open space that could be landscaped, providing visual interest and breathing space as well as permeability for water runoff?

And don't forget that parking does not count toward FAR. In our hunger for funds to improve the neighborhood, could we end up with greater density than we imagined by backing such parking arrangements? This very issue was what plagued the first iterations of the Madison project, which proposed a Harris-Teeter store underground with one or two floors of parking sandwiched between the store and the condominiums above. The density and height of the structure was appalling, because those floors of parking didn't contribute toward FAR.

So all in all, the October 20 education sessions were a mixed bag, offering hope as well as excuses. Let's see what the charrette brings.

Landbay L: Say What?

Well, well, well. In yesterday's Alexandria Gazette former City Councilman Lonnie Rich (who is also immediate past president of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce) finally fessed up at a Council retreat he made a mistake in 1991 when he campaigned to drastically reduce density at Potomac Yard, density which would have secured the City a strategically placed Metro station between Braddock Road and National Airport paid for by the developer.

But while we're reveling in Mr. Rich's mea culpa, a more astonishing quote from a City officials needs to be dissected.

A commenter yesterday provided us with a story from the Alexandria Times citing Planning & Zoning Director Faroll Hamer:
"There are warehouses around the Braddock Road Metro station that are perhaps not the best plan for uses around a Metro station,” Hamer said. “We need to maximize the advantages that come with our Metro stations and are certainly looking at more density where that is appropriate."

Land Bay L, for example, in Potomac Yard, was approved with that in mind. "If you take away the roads, it is one of the densest areas in the City," Hamer said. "People don’t realize that because the FAR was calculated with the roads included."

Whoa, is there a problem with the quote or with Ms. Hamer's math?

Click here to view the City's own PowerPoint presentation on Potomac Yard and go to page 21 to see the map breaking down the proposed development of Potomac Yard landbay by landbay. Alternatively, you can click here to view the map the Growler published some months ago comparing the development in southern Potomac Yard with that proposed for Braddock Road.

Measured in terms of dwelling unit per acre or d.u., the projected residential density of Landbay L is about 21 units per acre (358 residential units on 17 acres of land).

By contrast, in our neighborhood alone the Prescott is 63.9 d.u. (64 units on roughly an acre), Colecroft Station is 71.71 d.u. (156 units on approximately 2.17 acres), the Monarch is 83.95 d.u. (169 units on about two acres), and the Potomac Club II high rise rental apartments is a whopping 191.10 d.u. (297 units on 1.5 acres).

And these are Planning & Zonings own numbers from its March 2006 Housing Inventory (click on a number to see the details for each project around the City).

So Growler, you ask, what about the office space and retail that are planned for Landbay L? Won't they bulk the site up?

OK, let's do the math. For comparison purposes, Braddock Place with four buildings and 386,927 sf of office space occupies 3.5 acres. So let's assume the office and retail space proposed for Landbay L will occupy some 4 acres. And let's not forget that Landbay L also has half an acre set aside as open space.

Subtract 4.5 acres from 17 acres — the size of the Landbay L parcel — and you are left with 12.5 acres that will be purely residential. Even in this more conservative scenario, the recalculation of dwelling units per acre is 28.8. That's nothing compared to what we already have on the eastern side of the railroad tracks and certainly much less than what we will be getting.

Why is this density so low? The Growler understands that these dwellings will be townhouses. By contrast, we are getting stacked condos.

Landbay L is flanked by Landbays K and M, which are to be preserved as parks. That's a nice mitigation of density.

Bad quote or bad math? It's your call, readers.