Elements of Urbanism: Alexandria, Virginia

April 3, 2014 9 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Alexandra, VA is the epitome of a vibrant multimodal friendly urban community. Like many communities in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, its neighborhoods are compact and walkable. However, unlike what many Jaxsons envision urban living to be, the city's buildings are generally low-rise, despite having a population density of nearly 10,000 residents per square mile.

Transit Oriented Development

According to TransitOrientedDevelopment.org, TRANSIT ORIENTED DEVELOPMENT  is the exciting fast growing trend in creating vibrant, livable communities. Also known as Transit Oriented Design, or TOD, it is the creation of compact, walkable communities centered around high quality train systems. This makes it possible to live a higher quality life without complete dependence on a car for mobility and survival.

Surrounded by rail, the Capital Beltway (I-95) and the Potomac River, Alexandria is served by two Metro rail stations at King Street and Eisenhower Avenue. Both stations are home to several TODs. The largest is Carlyle, the redevelopment of a former 76-acre rail yard.

In 1990, the Alexandria City Council approved a master plan for redevelopment of the 76-acre former rail yard owned by Carlyle Development Corporation (CDC), a wholly owned subsidiary of Norfolk Southern Corporation.  The  project was structured as a joint venture between CDC and a local developer to own, develop, lease and manage the majority of the mixed uses and related parking under single large-scale block development.

By 1996, CDC had invested over $100 million in site infrastructure, but had developed less than 10 percent of the project during the extended economic recession. CDC retained JM Zell to reevaluate the project and formulate a plan to turn Carlyle around.

JM Zell determined that the master plan could not be successfully implemented without adjusting to changing market conditions and real estate requirements as well as the associated construction costs and investment return expectations.

With limited market demand for office, a strong focus was applied to the residential component, which the City required to develop before additional office was permitted. JM Zell also identified a significant, but just-emerging end-user market that reinforced the need to reposition the project and capture this market ahead of the competition.

JM Zell orchestrated a block-by-block reconfiguration and reallocation of uses and density within the park in a manner to maximize end-user development opportunities, while maintaining the transit-oriented development principles of the plan.  

JM Zell guided CDC through the complex entitlement process — assembling and directing a team of consultants in redrafting the plan; creating a public outreach plan to overcome opposition to changing the plan; overseeing the application submissions to the City; negotiating with City staff and elected officials; and testifying at public hearings. The City approved the master plan in early 2000. JM Zell provided design review and construction monitoring to assure that all of the projects were completed to both CDC and the City of Alexandria standards.

JM Zell created a strategy for timing development in a way that raised not only the profile of Carlyle, but also enhanced its desirability and property values. This reengineering of the master plan and end-user market strategy enabled CDC to unlock the financial potential of the project and position itself to compete for and win the 2.4 million square foot U.S. Patent and Trademark Office consolidation requirement. The USPTO development rights were sold to LCOR under a purchase and development agreement structured by JM Zell.

Home to the National Inventors Museum & Hall of Fame, which USA Today hails as one of "10 Great Places to be Inspired by Innovation," the southern sliver of Alexandria holds a budding community with its fair share of culture and activities. Creative energy flows through the Hoffman Town Center, which includes a 22-screen movie theatre and restaurants, while family fun abounds at Cameron Run Regional Park, which includes a water park with a wave pool, water slides, miniature golf and batting cages. Visitors reserve the evening for an unforgettable dining experience at The Carlyle Club, a throwback to the supper clubs of the 1930s with dancing and big band, jazz and swing music.

Alexandria: An Eco-City

In 2008, the Alexandria City Council approved an "Eco-City" charter with the goal of guiding the city and its residents toward "sustainability". The term "Eco-City" was first coined by Richard Register in his 1987 book Ecocity Berkeley: building cities for a healthy future. An "Eco-City" is typically defined as one in which inhabitants are dedicated to the minimal consumption of energy, water and food as well as minimal production of air and water pollution. Alexandria, however, defined sustainability instead as meeting the city's present needs while preserving its historic character and ensuring the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Article and photographs by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at edavis@moderncities.com

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