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North Old Town power plant plans get a taste of Dutch design

Plans for the GenOn plant redevelopment aim to swap out the area’s current Chernobyl-chic with a Dutch design concept to prioritize pedestrians and bicyclists over cars.

In a presentation to the Parks and Recreation Commission last week, representatives from Hilco Redevelopment Partners (HRP) said the two main routes through the planned development will be split between one intended for vehicle traffic and one that prioritizes pedestrian and bicycle traffic. The latter is called a woonerf and has been implemented in the Netherlands since the 1970s.

The pedestrian street doesn’t prohibit car traffic — ala the 100 block of King Street — but aims to woo pedestrians and cyclists with open space and programming while nerfing cars to walking speeds. The street could also be closed for events or during the summer months.

“We think it’s vital that front roadway be prioritized for bicycles and pedestrians, really pedestrians,” said Melissa Schrock, senior vice president of mixed-use development for HRP. “I think it really can function as a bit of a calm street during typical traffic hours during the day and on evenings and weekends. One of the reasons we’re planning it this way is to have tactile differentiation that encourages cars to go ‘maybe this isn’t really where I want to be’ and turn around to go back to the spine street.”

But Schrock said HRP is reticent to shut down the street to vehicle traffic entirely, saying there could be uses like food trucks.

“We don’t think it’s a bad thing that vehicle traffic should ever pass down there, like food trucks,” Schrock said. “It’s certainly our intent that, if cars are there, that they know that they’re secondary or tertiary to the main activity there and there are distinct periods of time where they aren’t there at all: like summer months and activities.”

Overall the development will have nearly six acres of open space. When combined with Norfolk Southern’s rails-to-trails project and the National Park Service’s Mount Vernon Trail, the area as a whole will have over 14 acres of public open space.

Simor Beer, a principal with landscape architecture firm OJB, said there’s also potential for where the development abuts the water, like kayak launch points and a dock for a water taxi service.

“Along the waterfront to the north of the site [is a] unique peninsula of wooded landscape that touches down to the water,” Beer said. “[We] envision birdwatching and other natural activities here as a place to stop along the trail.”

But much of this land, Beer noted, belongs to the National Park Service (NPS). Some on the Parks and Recreation Commission said that the NPS can be uncooperative when it comes to sharing land with private developers. Schrock said HRP has been in discussions with the NPS and she’s hopeful that something can be worked out.

“We made a conceptual submission to them to get their feedback,” Schrock said. “While it’s true that they don’t like people messing with their stuff, I think they’re very open to the vision we’re communicating here. We want this to be an open and inviting space. We have an opportunity to take down the fence around our property, erase that line, and connect to the Mount Vernon Trail. It’s not negating what the Mount Vernon Trail accomplishes, but working with them to improve upon that.”

A work session with the city is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 22, with public hearings in June. Schrock said the plan is to start demolition at the end of 2022 with shovels in the ground for new development in early 2024.

“I commend the team,” said Commissioner Stuart Fox. “As you guys noted, this is a really complex project… one of the parties went into bankruptcy, there are the environmental issues, and it’s probably the biggest eyesore in the city, certainly in Old Town. So transforming an eyesore into a tremendous opportunity for the city is not an easy project.”

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