Tenant and worker groups voice opposition to power plant plans ahead of City Council review

The GenOn Power Plant redevelopment plans are headed to the City Council with the backing of staff and the Planning Commission but lingering concerns from local workers.

Hilco Redevelopment Partners’ plan is to replace the power plant on the 18.8-acre site with six blocks of new, mixed-use buildings of varying densities and heights and coordinated open space. The city is also planning to expand the boundaries of the Old Town North Arts and Cultural District to include the site.

Both city staff and the Planning Commission recommended approval. The staff report noted the plan not only remediates the defunct power plant site along the river, but extends the Old Town street grid and offers arts and affordable housing opportunities.

The development’s hit a few bumps in the road so far. Hilco said the site’s developable land is smaller than initially anticipated.

A letter sent to the City Council from various tenant and worker groups, however, said the groups take issue with the jobs and housing types provided with the development, along with environmental concerns. The letter was signed by African Communities Together, Baltimore-D.C. Metro Building Trades Council, Build Our Future, CASA, UNITE HERE Local 23 and UNITE HERE Local 25.

“We urge Council to delay voting on Hilco’s Consolidated Development District (CDD) application until the project meets higher standards on the issues of good jobs, affordable housing, and environmental sustainability,” the groups said in the letter. “While each of our organizations is concerned primarily with only one of these areas, we are joining together in recognition of their deep
interconnections, and in our collective interest in creating a just and equitable community and a livable climate for all Alexandrians. Development in Alexandria must begin meeting higher levels of performance if we are to achieve this goal.”

The groups raised concerns similar to those brought up with the Hotel Heron project in January. The letter said without additional guarantees from the developer, the project would likely bring in 180 jobs with wages so low the workers could not live in Alexandria.

“According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2021 Annual Report ‘Out of Reach,’ the hourly wage needed to afford a 2-bedroom apartment without paying more than 30% of income on housing in Alexandria is $33.94,” the letter said, “more than twice the median wage for housekeepers in the local hotel industry.”

Benjy Cannon, Director of Communications for UNITE HERE Local 25, said there’s not a specific number the groups have in mind for what the workers should be paid, but said it should be significantly higher than the median wage.

“We don’t have a specific ask in terms of the figure, we just know that it has to be significantly higher than the median wage for housekeepers cited in the letter,” Cannon said. “Unionized hotel workers in DC and National Harbor make between $24-$26 an hour, which some of the workers who’ve testified before the Council and Planning Commission on these issues have cited as a point of comparison.”

The second item in the letter is more complicated. The letter says Hilco is taking a three-pronged approach to provide affordable housing, with 60% of the on-site affordable housing provided through a public-private partnership (P3) between Hilco, the city, and development partners aided by low-income housing tax credits and other funding, but the letter says tenant organizations are concerned about a potential funding gap down the road that could lead to 1/3 of the planned affordable housing actually being built.

“If the P3 is successful, it will provide 100,000 square feet of on-site affordable units at PRGS,” the letter said. “However, if the P3 does not move forward, the community will only receive an additional 33,333 square feet of on-site affordable units. We note that Alexandria has an estimated financial gap to realize existing affordable housing pipeline projects in the coming years of over $80 million, according to the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance.”

Cannon said if the P3 doesn’t go forward, that extra square footage can be used at the developers’ discretion.

“The groups signing the letter, as well as the Alexandria Affordable Housing Commission, asked that the developer proactively commit to reserving the 100,000 square feet for affordable housing bonus density, regardless of whether they actually receive the P3,” Cannon said. “The developer has refused to make this commitment, and the Planning Commission on Thursday evening chose to ignore the AHAAC recommendation and move forward with the development as planned. So yes, the development could definitely move forward without the P3, but if it does, there could be much less affordable housing on the site.”

The question of what happens if the public-private partnership doesn’t go through also came up in the Planning Commission discussion. Melissa McMahon, vice chair of the Planning Commission asked what will happen if the partnership doesn’t go through and staff said the recommendation is that one-third of the additional density would be provided as affordable housing.

“Consistent with AHAAC’s recommendation, staff’s recommendation is that the 100k sqft be treated as additional density for affordable housing if the [public private partnership] fails to secure funding after three tax credit application cycles,” staff wrote in response. “In that case, one of third of that density would be provided as affordable housing if the applicant constructs that density.”

The letter also shared concerns voiced by the city’s affordable housing staff and housing advocates that a new arts-for-density deal for the area could weaken the city’s efforts at creating more affordable housing.

The third point highlighted in the organizations’ letter is calling on the developer to meet higher energy efficiency standards.

“As has been demonstrated over the past several years in other communities, net zero carbon development is possible, profitable, healthier for residents, and without substantially higher costs to the developer,” the letter said. “Hilco’s CDD application should commit to significantly higher energy efficiency performance targets and to the purchase of renewable energy through power purchasing agreements in order to ensure meeting the carbon neutral targets in the Old Town North Small Area Plan.”

In response to a similar question posed by McMahon, staff said the city can’t single out specific developments and require more than what’s already required by the city and the state.

“Buildings are required to comply with the international building code standard required by the state,” staff wrote. “The City’s Green Building Policy, which requires LEED Silver (or comparable) certification, including the prioritization of points towards energy, are within those code parameters. Requiring building efficiency standards associated with a specific construction type beyond current building code requirements are unsupported by any current City policies.”

The Potomac River Generating Station plans are scheduled for review at the City Council meeting on Tuesday, July 5.