Earlier this week, Alexandria’s City Council approved two major steps forward for plans to redevelop an abandoned power plant at the north end of Old Town’s waterfront.
The project faced some pushback from tenants and worker unions and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), but ultimately the city voted to approve a master plan amendment for the site and a coordinated development district (CDD) to encompass the project. The master plan amendment was unanimously approved, but the CDD was approved in a 6-1 vote with Council Member Alyia Gaskins voting against it.
The plan is to convert the site into a new mixed-use neighborhood with commercial and artistic spaces on the ground floors and residential units above. The project plans also include plans to prioritize pedestrian and cyclist traffic through the site.
Local workers said they were concerned the project would create more low-paying jobs that wouldn’t pay enough for the workers to live in Alexandria, while MWAA expressed concerns that the heights allowed in the redevelopment plans could interfere with traffic to and from National Airport. The MWAA later clarified that while those concerns still exist, they didn’t believe the project needed to be deferred.
Gaskins said at the meeting that her main concerns were around the public-private partnership that much of the site’s affordable housing hinges on. If the partnership falls through later in development, the city could be left with less housing than currently planned.
For others on the City Council, the potential benefits from the development outweighed that risk. Mayor Justin Wilson said the main benefit of the redevelopment is the extensive environmental rehabilitation required for the former industrial site.
Even after pushback by groups ranging from tenants and worker unions to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), Alexandria’s City Council approved a major step for the GenOn Power Plant redevelopment’s Coordinated Development District (CDD) in a 6-1 vote at a meeting last night (Tuesday).
As with earlier contentious developments, City Council members said they acknowledged concerns about the project, but Mayor Justin Wilson said the prospect of finally cleaning up the power plant site eclipsed those issues.
“This is a really big deal today and this is a long time coming,” Wilson said. “If you walked down our waterfront in the 90s and started in the south and walked north, you’d walk through a series of industrial sites and this is the last one that we are talking about redevelopment of.”
Wilson said of all of the industrial redevelopment along the waterfront, redevelopment of the power plant is likely the most challenging and the environmental rehabilitation of the site goes a long way to overriding other concerns.
“The most significant public amenity we are talking about in this is the clean-up of this site,” Wilson said. “And if you don’t believe me go right now to the real estate assessment page. This site is 18 acres and is assessed at $10 million. Eighteen acres in the city of Alexandria would cost you hundreds of millions of dollars, but the reason it doesn’t is because of the dramatic environmental cleanup required on this site.”
While the project had its supporters in the public comment section, several representatives from local unions also showed up to voice concerns that the new development would only generate low-paying jobs. Another concern is that the planned public-private partnership to create affordable housing at the site was built on a shaky foundation, with the possibility of the partnership falling through for one reason or another and the city not getting the full amount of affordable housing units as currently planned. City Council member John Chapman agreed that “it doesn’t excite me that we have the possibility of losing this and only being stuck with a certain amount of housing.”
“I’m excited to see us get to this point,” Wilson said. “I think this is a transformational project. Is this what everyone wants for the site? Of course not. But I think we have a tendency in this city to love these projects to death and I don’t want to see that happen to this one because I think this is so important. 15% of nothing is still nothing. We’ve learned that on projects around the city before.”
The vote on the project was broken up into a motion to approve a master plan amendment for the site and the CDD concept plan. The master plan amendment was approved unanimously, but Council Member Alyia Gaskins was the lone vote against the CDD concept plan.
“I think this is a big deal,” Gaskins said. “I think this will be transformational… [but] right now we are not using this to its highest and best potential. I also think we have said over and over that this is a place where we are reserving the opportunity to do really creative and innovative things. For me, one of the things I think is the most innovative is the PPP and the opportunities for affordable housing. At the same time, that’s the most shaky part.”
Gaskins said there are too many unknown factors, particularly at a state level, behind the public-private partnership plans to fully trust for a development of this scale.
“There are things we can’t predict,” Gaskins said. “While I love this project, I love our people more. It’s a good project and we need to keep this moving forward, but I don’t feel that we are fully living up to the promise and the vision outlined in the small area plan around housing.”
Updated 4:30 p.m. — A spokesperson representing Hilco Redevelopment Partners shared an email with WMWAA indicating that the Airports Authority “is comfortable that the City of Alexandria does not need to ‘defer’ decisions slated for this Application today; instead, the Authority welcomes the City’s expressed commitment in its decision to require increased coordination between MWAA and the City as this Application moves forward.”
The spokesperson also said that because no specific building heights are proposed, the building heights cannot be considered a threat to DCA safety
The CDD process is strictly to discuss zoning and master planning- there are no specific buildings proposed at this time. Given there are no buildings being discussed, and thus no proposed building heights, we do not believe it is possible for there to be a threat to DCA safety. We would like to request the article be retitled accordingly, as we find the current title to be misleading. Please note: when applications are submitted for DSUP discussions, building heights will be included. At that point, MWAA would weigh in on building height and its potential effects.
Earlier: In a letter to Alexandria’s City Council, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) has shared concerns that the proposed redevelopment of the GenOn Power Plant could pose a hazard to air traffic at the nearby National Airport.
Alexandria City Council will consider a proposal tonight (July 5) by Hilco Redevelopment Partners to transform the shuttered GenOn Power Plant in Old Town North into a six block, 2.5 million square-foot mixed use development. The property is 1.2 miles (6,336 feet) from DCA, and the proposal would allow the construction of buildings up to 197 feet above ground level.
The MWAA letter says the structure heights proposed for Blocks C through F of the development “would likely introduce penetrations to Critical Air Navigation Surfaces and would likely impact existing and future air navigation at Reagan National.”
MWAA’s analysis said the approaches to and from the main runway are already constrained by limitations caused by tall structures in Rosslyn, Crystal City and Alexandria, as well as the prohibited airspace east of the Potomac river over large sections of D.C., according to MWAA Planner Gregg M. Wollard.
The letter says a preliminary analysis determined the structure heights should be lowered by approximately 19 feet to ensure no impacts on air travel with the tallest of those blocks coming in at 186 feet and the tallest in the total development as 197 feet. MWAA is also requesting that approval be deferred until the applicant, Hilco Redevelopment Partners, files a permit with the Federal Aviation Administration.
“It is recommended that the City of Alexandria defer its full final approval until a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) 7460 is filed by the applicant, in accordance with FAA requirements well in advance of construction, and a formal determination is made by FAA for all proposed structures,” Wollard wrote. “In addition, the proposed site will be exposed to loud and frequent noise from low-flying arriving and departing aircraft because of its proximity to DCA’ s existing Runway 1/19.”
The MWAA letter said that the buildings penetrating the airspace would have a negative impact on airport operations.
“If buildings penetrate these surfaces, they can have an adverse impact on airport operations,” the letter said, “such as restricting the type of aircraft that can operate, destinations that can be served, and impose aircraft weight limitations (i.e., reduced passengers, cargo, and fuel).”
The letter comes after tenants and worker groups in the area also shared concerns about the sweeping redevelopment plans for the site.
James Cullum contributed to this story
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.” Read More
(Updated 5/4) In case you missed your chance for a tour of Alexandria’s abandoned power plant the first time around, the Urban Design Advisory Committee (UDAC) is hosting a tour around the perimeter of the site next week.
The UDAC is scheduled to meet on Wednesday, May 11 to tour the perimeter of the Potomac River Generating Station (PRGS) at 1300 N. Royal Street around 8:30 a.m. The tour will be followed by a UDAC meeting at City Hall at 10 a.m. Both the tour and the meeting are open to the public.
The UDAC meeting following the tour is also scheduled to include a review of the standards and guidelines for the PRGS redevelopment and a bigger-picture look at what the city wants to get out of the development.
The site is largely overgrown and faces numerous ecological issues — in addition to a suspicious oversight — prior to redevelopment taking place. The current plan is to replace the power plant with a mixed-use development neighborhood with a heavy emphasis on pedestrian and bicycle transit. Demolition is expected to start by the end of 2022 with shovels in the ground for new development in early 2024.
An agency representing Hilco Redevelopment Partners clarified that there aren’t public tours of the power plant itself, the UDAC tour is of the perimeter of the site, but Hilco will be hosting public tours of the power plant on June 10 and 11.
As it turns out, the GenOn Power Plant site’s size may have been a little exaggerated on city records, and it’s creating a problem for potential redevelopment.
The former GenOn Power Plant site seemed like a gold mine for potential redevelopment as a large parcel of currently unused land, but a look into some of the constraints on the site there might not be as much usable land as initially thought.
In a request for a Coordinated Development District (CDD) headed to the Planning Commission on June 23, an application from developer HRP Potomac, LLC requests new heights across the site due to unforeseen restrains on the site’s developable land.
“The [Old Town North Small Area Plan] envisioned 2.15 million square feet of development… on the site,” the application said. “The 2.15 million square feet of [gross floor area] was considered the appropriate amount of development necessary to transform [the Potomac River Generating Site] into a vibrant, mixed-use waterfront district delivering substantial public benefit…”
But the application says that ground level restrictions, specifically with utility lines, easements, and more, were not known when those plans were first drawn up.
“The actual size of the Potomac River Generating Site parcel is much smaller than anticipated,” the application said.
The application said that while the tax assessment records list the site as being 852,898 square feet in size, the actual size is 818,944 square feet — a difference of 33,954 square feet.
Furthermore, utility easements on the site prevent development on large portions of the property and there’s a 40-50 foot wide building restriction line along the eastern boundary as a result of previous litigation.
“The cumulative result of these site constraints is that only 11.9 acres of the 18.8 acre [parcel] can be physically developed, including buildings and interior roadways and sidewalks,” the application said. “Factoring in that internal infrastructure plus the open space means that only about 7-8 acres of the 18.8-acre site is actually available for building development.”
The application said additional height is requested alongside bonuses granted by site contributions to affordable housing and arts spaces.
A map of the new proposed heights showed heights up to 140 feet where previous maps had limited height to 50 feet.
The application said the 2.15 million square feet of development on the site originally called for in the Old Town North small area plan won’t fit on the site without some changes.
“Given the realities of the actual site constraints, the 2.15 million square feet of [gross floor area] will not fit on the 11.9 acres of developable site area within the height limits contemplated in the [Old Town North Small Area Plan],” the application said. “This is especially true once square footage is further reduced due to building articulation and setting appropriate building widths efficient for marketable multifamily, office and retail space.”
Alexandria residents and workers are planning to rally at a City Council meeting tonight (Tuesday) to try and push the city to demand developers of the former GenOn power plant to go beyond current affordability plans.
In a release, local union and tenant organizations said the city should require commitments to higher-wage jobs and more housing.
“Dozens of hotel workers with UNITE HERE and Southern Towers immigrant tenants with African Communities Together will rally in front of Alexandria City Hall,” the release said. “As the Council is scheduled for an update on the Potomac River Generating Station redevelopment, Alexandria residents are saying whatever development replaces the coal plant needs to create good, sustainable jobs.”
Hilco, the developer overseeing the transformation of the derelict power plant into a mixed-use community, has included plans affordable housing to be incorporated on-site. Along with public art uses, these are requirements for any development going above the allowed density requirements.
UNITE HERE Local 25 said in the release that local workers are struggling with rising rents in Alexandria that leave the city unaffordable. The release said the union hopes the city can push for more units than what are currently required under city law.
“Affordable housing has been a priority for this site for years,” the release said. “Hilco, however, appears to only be proposing on-site affordable housing in exchange for the City’s bonus height and density variances, not in excess of that. Additionally, Hilco is asking for special variances to build higher than what is currently allowed in the Master Plan. Alexandria residents are asking Council to determine what is the maximum amount of on-site affordable housing the City can require in exchange for a master plan amendment.”
In particular, UNITE HERE cited a proposed 225,000 square foot hotel as a potential concern for local wages, and recalled some of the recent debate around wages at a hotel financed by the city.
“Hilco Redevelopment Partners’ first CDD Conceptual Plan submission in August 2021 outlined a 300-room, 225,000 square foot hotel,” the release said. “A 300 room hotel could create 180 low-wage jobs, which would increase pressure on Alexandria’s existing affordable housing crisis.”
New plans are scheduled to be presented at tonight’s City Council meeting, with an approval process scheduled to run over the next few months and demolition potentially starting in 2023.
The former GenOn power plant is a closed-off stretch of urban decay, but new plans headed to the City Council paint a picture of the area as a new mixed-use community.
The plans have been a long time in the making and still have a ways to go, with deconstruction not scheduled to start until next year. A coordinated development district
conceptual design (CDD) being presented to the City Council at a meeting (docket item 12) on Tuesday, Feb. 22, outlines what the new development could look like when all the pieces come together.
The plans show around 2.1 million square feet of new development at the site with a mix of residential, retails, arts spaces and more. The new development is also positioned as the crown jewel of an Arts and Cultural District in Old Town North approved in 2018.
The new space is designed to be flexible, but with more of an emphasis on residential development, though that breakdown is still murky this early in the development process. A chart in the presentation to City Council indicates the development will be 4o-80% residential and 20-60% retail.
The development plans also included information about the scale of the new development. The buildings will taper in height slightly towards the edges of the development, but most of the blocks in the new development will be 15 or 16 stories high. That scale requires approval for bonus density, which is where the arts and affordable housing contributions factor in. The presentation says the development will have public art anchors and on-site affordable housing.
Plans also call for greater connectivity to the waterfront, though developers face the unenviable task of working with the National Park Service to try to secure an agreement to cooperate on development along the Mount Vernon Trail.
It was election week in Alexandria, so congratulations and/or condolences.
Alexandria Democrats managed to hold onto all of the City Council seats. Mayor Justin Wilson won reelection and Elizabeth Bennett-Parker was elected to the 45th District House of Delegates seat. But any local Democrat euphoria was dampened by statewide losses that Wilson warned could reverse recent local wins on some issues.
Here were the most-read stories around ALXnow this week:
- Developer reopens abandoned Alexandria power plant for tours later this month
- Cut-through traffic protections along Duke Street could go into effect early next year
- Man arrested for DWI, smashing cars and leaving scene while parking in Old Town
- BREAKING: Alexandria School Board election results
- Georgetown tearoom relocating to Alexandria waterfront
- Retail, residential, and music venue could replace North Old Town office park
- City Council to step up fight against Comcast internet monopoly next week
- BREAKING: Bennett-Parker declares victory in 45th District seat in Virginia House of Delegates
- Alexandria man arrested for stealing packages outside homes in Old Town
- Silver Parrot Jewelry permanently closing at end of year in Old Town
While the building isn’t safe to go inside, earlier tours guided visitors around the grounds while outlining plans for future mixed-use development. The one part of the site still in active use is a Pepco substation, which will remain in operation throughout redevelopment.
HRP said tours will be hosted on Saturday, Nov 13, and guests can register for the tour online.
“On November 13th, Hilco Redevelopment Partners (HRP) will host guided tours of the Potomac River Generating Station (PRGS) site in Old Town North,” HRP said. “The tours will offer members of the public an opportunity to visit the site, which has been closed off from Old Town North and the waterfront for decades and hear about HRP’s plans for redevelopment.”