In August 1906, Potomac Yard, a train switching station in Alexandria that served Washington for over 75 years, began its operations. In its heyday in the 30s and 40s, workers processed upwards of 100 trains a day, making it one of the busiest freight transfer points in the nation. Owned and operated by the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad Company, as well as four others, and nicknamed “The Gateway Between North and South,” the station also handled as many as 14 to 18 passenger trains each day.
These days, a few long trains still rumble past each day, but the only cars transporting merchandise are automobiles owned by shoppers who flock to stores like Target and Pet Smart. And now, about 15 years after those stores opened at “Potomac Yard Center,” another transformation has begun for this two-miles long swath of land sandwiched in between Route One and the rails.
Over the next 25 years, Potomac Yard’s 295 acres will be re-developed into a transit-oriented mini-city. Generations younger and those ready to ditch the sprawl of suburbia are salivating due to its walkable, mixed-use plans and proximity to the District, National Airport, the Potomac River and the charming neighborhoods of Del Ray and Old Town.
Of course the critical mass, transit way system and new metro stop (projected for 2016) are a ways off, but the portion north of Four Mile Run that cozies up to Crystal City already sports a popular Harris Teeter, new residents who marvel at their views of the monuments, and a bevy of new eating establishments along Crystal Drive. Coming on board in March is Marriot’s impressive new Renaissance Hotel, and National Gateway is already bragging it’s “the centerpiece of Potomac Yard.” (Future residents will have fun arguing that one)
Crystal City itself is at the dawn of an urban re-working while the new Long Bridge Park being built just south of I-395 will mark the northern most point of all this re-development that will extend to the Braddock Road Metro, and will include public spaces, parks, playing fields, and possibly street cars.
The core of Potomac Yard, which runs from the big box retailers down to the new Monroe Bridge, is seeing one of the first signs of change. Pulte Homes has installed “Luxury Condos Early 2011” signs that herald the start there, while bulldozers and workers are hard at work to bring along Main Line Boulevard, which will cut halfway through and extend down to a point just short of the Braddock Road Metro.
Potomac Avenue is taking shape with a new bridge across Four Mile Run and stoplights being installed. Serving as the lone-standing newcomer, the red-bricked “Station at Potomac Yard” holds affordable apartments, a new Fire Station, and a few spots for future small retail.
The new residents will have to wait for all the planned items, but will benefit from proximity to Del Ray (St Elmo’s Café, Dairy Godmother), Old Town (Buzz and Rustico), the aforementioned spots on Crystal Drive (Jaleos, Chick Fil-A, Legal Seafood) and the existing retail and movie theaters. The Braddock Road Metro is about .8 of a mile away from Landbay J.
The plans for PY will work off a series of land bays. As you come off the Monroe Bridge headed north, one of Pulte’s signs can be seen. The drawings show this as Landbay J, which will become the Howell neighborhood, named after the street in Del Ray that is across Route One. Pulte Homes plans to start building there soon for 226 townhomes.
Landbay L, a more-hidden patch south of Monroe Avenue and closer to the Braddock Road Metro, could also see new housing start this year, including multi-family units. This is where Main Line Boulevard will be extended down to GW Middle School. From there, it’s a few minutes walk to the Braddock Road Metro.
Work is forecasted to start this spring on Potomac Yard Park. Nearby, two soccer fields next to Eugene Simpson Baseball Park (Home to the T.C. Williams Titans) appear close to kickoff. I talked with a city official who said lacrosse will also take place there. The fields, he said, will look ready this summer but they have to make sure the grass is fully grown.
Potomac Yard will build out in three phases with upwards of 4B earmarked for the re-development. Plans call for the popular Target and other retailers to be re-incorporated into the new urban configuration. It’s uncertain which stores will stay, or when this will happen. At a recent town hall meeting, an Urban Planner for the city tossed out a ballpark figure of five years.
Like any change and construction, there will be some headaches with this massive project and some will not like their suburban style parking lots going away. This, however, is the re-making of strip-mall America into something more attractive and sustainable. Mass transit will be the main way to go, something Potomac Yard knows a lot about.
Note: This overlay map I put together not 100% accurate. I had to cut my Potomac Green section and lengthen it to show where it ends. Some of my placements are not exact and I also couldn’t get in all the landbays, but this should give an idea of some of the past, present and future.
A big thanks to Jim Foley who helped me with Potomac Yard’s history and provided a list of the buildings and such seen in the middle of the yard.
"the Main Office building, the Southbound and Northbound Humps, the Coaling Tower and Ash Pits, Machine Shop, Roundhouse, Turntable, Store House, Oil House, Power House, Auditors and Accountants Building, the Bunk House and the Water Tanks, and in modern years the Trainmaster's Tower and the NB and SB Retarder Towers."
Also, the photo of the rail yard is the front cover of a book published by The Richmond Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad Historical Society. You can order the book at their website.
A big thanks to Pamela Cressey, Alexandria’s Archaeologist for her assistance in locating resources. Fans of commemorative plaques and interpretive markers (wonder who that could be??) will be pleased to know the City has plans to erect markers to document the history of Potomac Yard, and one commemorating the start has already been placed at the northern end of the Monroe Bridge.
A tip of the hat to Colleen Willger of the Dept of Planning and Zoning and to others who answered my probing questions.
Alexandria dot gov has all the links for the re-development plans.
Greater Greater Washington’s February post on Potomac Yard has a discussion on the Metro station and other links, including a new EIS process website which has maps for the proposed location.
Del Ray Citizen blog has a link to their interpretive markers which touch on the town’s role as home to the railroad workers and one of the first suburban streetcars.