Friday, May 02, 2008

What's Wrong With This Picture?

The Growler has been musing about why the James Bland public housing redevelopment project is making the Cranky One so uneasy. After all, on the surface it looks like a good project.

After some consideration, though, the Growler has concluded that the heart of the problem is in the parking arrangements — specifically the garages proposed for the multi-family buildings.

Even if they are disguised from the street, the garages are oversized, they chew up public open space — something many residents and neighbors are concerned about — and are inappropriate for this historic area.

Maybe its the early morning hour, but this scribbler can't think offhand of a single project built in Old Town, Parker-Gray, Del Ray or other existing Alexandria communities in the last 10 to 20 years that has featured suburban-style multi-level structured garage parking. Not the Meridian, no the Braddock Place condos, not the Braddock Lofts, nor the B.F. Saul building on N. Washington Street. And this appears to be the case whether the buildings are residential or commercial. None of the upcoming projects discussed in the Braddock Road Plan feature this type of parking.

In fact, we had extensive discussions about underground parking in the Braddock Road charrettes, and City staff, consultants and developers were all agreed that it was an important element of urban design for this area to put parking below surface despite its cost. So why is this project going to get a pass?

Something else is stirring in the back of the Growler's mind. Readers may recall that the early plans for the Madison included a concept similar to the proposal for Bland, with residential condo units on the outside of the building and parking inside above ground. The result would have been a massive and ugly structure, but thank our lucky stars the Madison's new developers ditched the idea.

Nevertheless, the Growler recalls from the Madison discussions that there was a provision in zoning that above ground parking doesn't count toward FAR. Is the Bland proposal another example of diddling with the ordinance to obtain higher density than what is appropriate here in Parker-Gray?

So what is driving the notion of parking garages for Bland?

The Growler believes there are two factors.

The first is EYA's insistence on a full complement of parking for the market-rate units, with a reduction only for the public housing units. On the surface this looks good for the neighborhood. But it's really a marketing ploy to move product. Apparently EYA and ARHA believe the only way full parking can be achieved economically is by building it above ground.

Yet EYA and ARHA might be able to achieve underground parking if they sought the parking reduction which has been proposed for new developments in the Braddock Road Metro area. Remember, in those interminable charrettes we were told that parking reductions were entirely appropriate for sites close to Metro. And the scarce neighborhood stock of street parking will be protected if the City agrees to deny permits to residents of these new buildings, as it did with the Braddock Lofts and will for other upcoming projects.

The second factor is that EYA and ARHA are using assumptions that will make the Bland project "work" for ARHA by providing sufficient profit on market-rate units to underwrite the redevelopment of Glebe Park as well as Bland. The crux of these assumptions is the number of public housing units that have to be replaced (all 194) and returned to the site (134).

The public doesn't have access to the financial pro forma numbers, but the Growler is willing to bet that if fewer subsidized housing units were returned to the site there would be a greater chance that EYA could afford to put parking underground.

We were told in the Braddock East meetings that it costs approximately $250,000 to build an ARHA unit, while in the Braddock Road Metro plan we were advised that a single underground parking space costs $50,000 to construct. So one ARHA unit not built could finance five underground parking spaces.

But Growler, you may protest, what about Resolution 830? Isn't ARHA required to replace every unit of public housing? Aren't ARHA's hands tied? Where's the money coming from for the replacement land acquisition?

It's time we take these arguments apart, and the Growler will do so on Monday. There are alternatives, and City officials have already discussed some of them.

Nevertheless, for the time being let the Cranky One observe that our neighborhood should not be compromised in order to set ARHA's house in order.

The garage has got to go.