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Alexandrians debate Potomac Yard arena: catalyst or cataclysm?

Alexandria’s City Council at a Potomac Yard arena town hall (image via City of Alexandria)

The ongoing public opinion war over the Potomac Yard arena continued this weekend with a public town hall at the Charles Houston Recreation Center (901 Wythe Street) on Saturday and a protest against it outside.

The two-hour town hall included a discussion of the economic impact of the new arena and public safety, but transportation continued to be the central piece of the Potomac Yard arena discourse.

As the fight continues in Alexandria over the Potomac Yard arena, City Council members said it’s part of a broader fight over securing more state funding for WMATA. State Sen. Adam Ebbin previously called Metro funding a ‘prerequisite‘ for the arena. Both Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson and Metro General Manager Randy Clarke acknowledged that the current Potomac Yard arena cannot handle arena traffic without significant upgrades.

“It’s embarrassing that we have to sit here in front of you and talk about the lack of funding for the WMATA system,” said Council member Canek Aguirre. “How are we even going to put a proposal forward when there’s the potential for closing the station that supports this arena. If the WMATA funding doesn’t happen, this doesn’t work.”

“We cannot abandon Metro,” said Council member Sarah Bagley. “We must continue to do what my colleague and I and others are doing: impress on the General Assembly and the Governor that this is a vital piece of our network.”

City Council members also argued that the arena will be a vital piece for economic development around Potomac Yard and the city at large.

City Council member John Chapman said that the city has been focusing on ‘catalysts’ to spark economic development in neighborhoods.

“That’s been the focus of the city: looking at catalyst projects in neighborhoods that can spark economic development so we do have other businesses, restaurants, other impacts that come to that area to take the pressure off our residential base,” said Chapman.

Aguirre said the projected revenues from the arena can help pay for things like more recreation centers and library expansion, but also acknowledged frustrations that the city and the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership (AEDP) have refused to release the fully economic impact report — instead only releasing a summary of the report that includes very little hard figures and analysis.

“With this proposal, it is additional tax money to pay for the expansion of the library and another rec center and dollars for our schools,” Aguirre said. “This is one of the things I asked of staff too: we need to have tangible numbers, which we don’t have right now. I’m sorry, I apologize to the public for this.”

The project has also faced scrutiny for abandoning D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood, but Vice Mayor Amy Jackson said that’s not the city’s problem.

“We have the opportunity to have something really great here,” Jackson said. “It’s unfortunate that there’s a whole other level of deal-making that fell through on the D.C. side. Is that our problem? I would say no.”

Outside, Washingtonians and Alexandrians held a rally opposing the arena.

“A lot of us met the day of the announcement out there protesting,” said Adrien Lopez, part of the Coalition to Stop the Arena. “We heard about it and were shocked. We formed a coalition that has only grown stronger every day.”

Protestors criticized the project for its negative impact on D.C., the transportation woes, and as a financially unsound investment in Alexandria’s future. Former City Council candidate Boyd Walker said city leaders should put the arena on a referendum, as is being considered in Fairfax County for a casino in Tysons.

“City Council could very easily have a referendum and put it on the ballot, just like they did for the casino in Tysons,” Walker said. “This whole entertainment district could suck business from Old Town and Del Ray. There’s no economic model and they need to release the full study that citizen tax dollars paid for.”

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