You Make Planning Fun

forwebpyimage2This weekend, I participated in the first public forum held by the Potomac Yards Planning Advisory Group (PYPAG) and the City’s Planning & Zoning Department, on Saturday from 9 – 1:30pm at George Washington Middle School.  I was really excited to see probably 80-100 residents from all over the City in attendance on a cold but sunny winter morning, ready and excited to contribute to the development plan.  In case you’re not already familiar with it, you can get a nice virtual tour of the site and its opportunities and constraints here.   Although I had initially been under the impression that we were going to spend the meeting talking about the principles the PYPAG should use in going forward, I was pleasantly surprised to find that what the sponsors had set up was far from a dry exercise in pondering the philosophy of development (although, as a philosophy major, I enjoy such discussions, too).   As you will see below, we not only got to theorize, but also got to color, debate, and dream.  Kudos to all the people involved in putting together a first class and exciting event!

The schedule for the day was ambitious and the morning did kick off with a review and commentary of a set of draft principles to guide the development plan.  You can see the whole thing here, but the main overarching principles under review were:
– Maximize the use of sustainable and green practices
– Create an economically sustainable development
– Create a strong sense of place
– Create a vibrant and mixed-use community
– Use water as an integral element of overall design
– Focus on transit and reducing automobile use
– Create and connect green spaces and parks throughout Potomac Yards
– Connect and integrate with adjacent neighborhoods

Eight tables of 8-10 people discussed these principles for an hour and reported their comments.  I was personally pleased that almost every group said that the sustainable/green practices principle needed to be strengthened and prioritized.  The table I was at even offered up the idea that the Potomac Yards development should be a “premiere” example of sustainability…and given that I was sharing a table with developers, too, I was really heartened that the message of sustainable development has really sunk in with nearly everyone.  I think these principles are great – what are your thoughts?

The second half of the meeting was where it got really FUN.  The City Staff must have spent hours printing out giant maps of the two main parcels of Potomac Yards that the PYPAG is focusing on (Landbays F and L) and colored overlay sheets for each group to draw out their ideas onto. Landbay F is the retail center portion (Shoppers to Target), and Landbay L is the portion that is essentially the currently empty wedge of land between the train tracks and Leslie Avenue, starting at Monroe Avenue and tapering to a point at Glendale Avenue.  I don’t know about you, but I dream of a day when that strip mall is turned from an urban asphalt traffic jungle into a beautiful, pedestrian-friendly development that actually celebrates its potential as a gateway to Alexandria from Arlington, and takes advantage of the views and open space of Four Mile Run and the GW Parkway Trail/Potomac which border the property.

Each of the tables took marker to paper and sketched out ideas for how the streets/transit corridors, open spaces, and type of development (i.e., residential, civic, retail, office, etc.) should look.  Both landbays are essentially starting at a clean slate, and the groups came up with really interesting and innovative ideas.  Again, except for a couple of voices, it was really exciting to hear most people clamoring for development that prioritizes mass transit over cars.   Everyone wanted more open space and green streetscapes throughout to help make the site a joy for the people who live and work there, and a destination for the surrounding neighborhoods, as well as the region.

Landbay F: The first thing you should know is that the site is about 70 acres (appx 25 blocks – which is A LOT), a point which is usually lost on folks because we all drive around the site instead of walk it.  I should’ve taken a picture of my table’s work with my cellphone to paste here (note to self for future events), but if you can picture it, our table came up with a vision of a big anchor park at Four Mile Run (where Shoppers is), with a sort of thin “Central Park” running through the whole site parallel to Rt. 1 and terminating at another decent sized open space (maybe a plaza? another park? back into Landbay K?) at the far end of the parcel (where Target is now).  As a complement, we had a sort of “mini Rockefeller Center” type of pedestrian-oriented mixed use development with lots of restaurants, outdoor seating and public art running perpendicular through the middle of the site, and which we proposed having terminate in a signature civic building on the waterfront (a Sundance/AFI type of theater, perhaps?) – perhaps complete with iconic skating rink.  We also proposed that the street bordering the train tracks (the new Potomac Avenue) essentially be a green boulevard that takes advantage of the line park (Landbay K) that runs the length of almost the entire Potomac Yards development.  ALL streets were proposed to be very green, with big trees – evoking the feeling we all love about Old Town, but with more appropriate architecture/density.  Want to see some of the places we were talking about?  See: Central Park NYC, Rockefeller CenterParis Boulevards, Omaha’s Leahy Mall a/k/a Central Park (ok, in full disclosure I brought this one up, but the link between a central park and an anchor park seem very close to what we were talking about), Country Club Plaza, Kansas City (this had been brought up in earlier PYPAG meetings and has the same kind of central park running through a pedestrian-oriented shopping district idea)

Ours were just one set of ideas, although many tables really wanted to put an anchor park at Four Mile Run and a couple other tables also brought up a central park; others wanted scattered neighborhood parks.  Everyone wanted more pedestrian-oriented streetscapes.  As an important note, all this development is putting huge pressure on an already enormous TC Williams and we may need not only the potential elementary school currently reserved in the plan, but we may well need another high school in the future.  Our group talked about including a charter school somewhere in the development. It sure would be nice if high school kids at that end of Alexandria could walk to school.

Landbay L – Interestingly here, every group but one proposed swapping the entirety of Landbay L for the Braddock Road fields, currently owned by the City.  The collective thought was that it would be far smarter to put higher density residential development closer to the metro and next to already existing higher density housing (Colecroft, Braddock Road).  It also makes more sense to have a whole bunch of interconnected fields stretching from the existing soccer fields behind GW over to the Simpson Fields by the YMCA, not only because they provide a big swath of open space, but because there is also the Commonwealth Academy School (possibly looking to expand) and a reservation for a new elementary school by the Simpson Fields, so this could be a sort of “educational district” with all the schools wrapped in open space and all the kids could walk to all the fields.  Plus, it would be an anchor for the line park (Landbay K, that will start at the top of Landbay L and extend along the tracks essentially all the way up to Crystal City – see page 9 of this document).  From a personal perspective, I would also feel safer walking home from the metro past open coffee shops, restaurants, businesses than I currently do (walking across a big dark unlit field and empty parking lot).  It would also be a nice way to provide a little more business on the Rosemont end of Mt. Vernon avenue, which currently has only a 7-11 and a Subway shop.  Another coffee shop, restaurant, and some small scale retail on the ground floor of a higher building would really add some much-needed life for that area and provide a more attractive link to the rest of the Del Ray shops.

Questions for the You, the Audience

The main question, of course, is what do you want Potomac Yards to look like?  What do you think of the ideas above?  Do you have ideas of your own that you would like to toss in the ring?  A sub-question I’d like to hear from the readers (are you still reading?) on especially is what you think about the future of the big box stores?  (More posting on this sub-debate to come!) And for fun, answer our poll on which you would prefer to see in terms of open space for Landbay F

-danielle (EPC member)

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One Response to You Make Planning Fun

  1. Let’s hope the City doesn’t mess things up like they did in Carlyle. Mixed use development doesn’t work. I believe the City refers to it as ‘smart growth’.

    Smart Growth typically uses urban-growth boundaries and other tools to restrict development beyond the urban fringe and instead promote high-density development in the cities.

    Such restrictions drive up land prices and particularly increase the cost of the type of housing that most people prefer: single-family homes with a yard. When new home prices rise, the cost of existing homes follow as homesellers see that other homes are getting more expensive.

    This means that any policy that makes new homes more expensive–whether it is growth boundaries, impact fees, or a lengthy permitting process–will make all housing less affordable.

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