City Mulls Over New Visitors Center

City Mulls Over New Visitors Center

Question is, where to put it and at what cost?

Opinions about a new visitors center for Alexandria are almost as prolific as the brochures now available to city tourists.

On April 22 they all seemed to coalesce around a City Council work session designed to take a first look at the where, when, why and how much, pertaining to a new center. It was a first look at the report prepared by Parter International Inc., the consulting firm hired to analyze the perceived need for something more than the present Ramsay House on King Street.

Consultants gave the pros and cons of three potential scenarios:

1. Expand the existing Ramsay House to create a much more spacious and sophisticated center;

2. Create a whole new center complex on Market Square;

3. Create a new center in the area of the King Street Metro station.

"Basically, the conclusion of the report was a new visitors center is needed that is larger than the existing Ramsay House. But Council is a long way from making any decision. There is no money in the 2004 budget to do anything right now," said Mark Jinks, assistant city manager for fiscal and financial affairs.

"Council will act on the consultant's study by the end of May or June," Jinks said. "But acting means getting input from a lot of groups throughout the city."

BASED ON THE analysis, it appears that either expanding the existing Ramsay House or creating a new complex on Market Square is preferable to locating a new center in the vicinity of the King Street Metro station.

"The general rule of thumb, no matter what the destination, is to put the center were the visitors are. It is usually not advisable to have the center outside the primary area," said Alan Parter, president of the consulting firm. That is what they accomplished with their project in Philadelphia.

"We did a considerable amount of research for this project. It involved walking the entire area, talking to a wide range of groups, business owners and residents. We concluded that there is not one perfect area for this. That is why we presented several alternatives," Parter explained.

"One of the great concerns of many people is traffic, particularly buses. We came to the conclusion that although Upper King Street is close to Metro, it is more difficult for both buses and cars. That is particularly true of bus day-trip tourists. They would lose valuable time," he said.

According to the study, the visitors center should provide a welcoming, pleasing and fun experience designed to encourage tourists to participate in all aspects of Alexandria - its historic attractions as well as its commercial offerings — and to visit attractions outside the primary historic district.

THE RAMSAY HOUSE proposal calls for expanding the existing structure into what is now the front yard along King Street. This would greatly increase the available space to accommodate visitors and provide extended information in a variety of formats, according to the consultants.

The Market Square proposal calls for building a one-story building on the Fairfax Street side to act as the primary center. This would be complemented by a covered, open structure on the Royal Street side, which could be used for a variety of purposes. The present stage would be replaced by this structure.

According to Jinks, Market Square Plaza will have to undergo extensive renovation within the next two years, regardless of a new visitors center or not, to correct water leakage into the underground garage.

An upper King Street center could be located at one of three sites: Metro station lot, King Street triangle, Metro concourse.

Bill Logan of Parter International verified, "We looked at dozens of potential sites. These are the ones that rose to the top of the list. Then we did an order-of-magnitude cost estimate to establish a range of what the various alternatives might cost."

THAT RANGE COMES in between $1.5 and $2.6 million depending on the proposal selected. "Upper King Street came in about $2.5 million. Market Square was a little over $2.6 million. And, Ramsay House is estimated at approximately $1.5 million," Logan said.

The Market Square option's projected cost did not include putting a new top on the underground garage. That must be done regardless, according to Jinks.

"We tried to talk to and find consensus among a broad cross section of the public," Logan said.

Bryan Thompson, president, Alexandria Hotel Association, directed an e-mail letter to Councilwoman Redella S. Pepper, complaining about what he perceived as her lack of interest in supporting Alexandria's tourism industry.

Although he admitted that he was not at the work session due to business out of town, he stated, "Del's dismissive attitude toward the visitors center is like a bullet to the head of the hospitality industry. She has to learn Alexandria is not a retirement community. She had already made up her mind before the work session."

Thompson — who is vice chairman, Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association (ACVA), and general manager, Hawthorne Suites — stated in his e-mail, "Those of us who are really concerned about the well-being and economic stability of the city ... see the importance of providing not only adequate but ‘good’ services to our visitors."

He concluded by challenging Pepper: "I would frankly like for you to clarify your position on tourism - are you supportive? If so, why are you willing to simply make a decision that could adversely affect our industry without so much as a thoughtful reading of the study?"

Pepper, in a return e-mail to Thompson, stated, "You will be pleased to know that as I left City Hall that night, I walked out onto the Market Square where the proposed structures would go. I liked the ideas presented," she insisted.

"I also think the Ramsay House expansion is a very viable option. I do think the area around the Metro station is already way too congested," she added.

Jo Anne Mitchell, ACVA executive director, who did attend the Council work session, said, "I think it was a very thorough study. It's a very good starting point. But, the ACVA board will have to take a real hard look at it." Another presentation by the consultants will be made to that body.

A GROUP DIRECTLY impacted by the study and Alexandria tourism is the Old Town Civic Association. Carolyn L. Merck, president, in a letter dated March 10 to Eileen Fogarty, director, Alexandria Department of Planning and Zoning, stated, "In our judgment, expansion of the Ramsay House would make sense, provided that the renovated structure is fully compatible with its historic architecture and that of the surrounding buildings."

That historic architecture, as applied to the Ramsay House, is apparently more of a testament to reconstructive detailing than to longevity. It's history was thoroughly recounted in a treatise by Peter H. Smith, Ph.D., principal staff, Board of Architectural Review, prepared for the Alexandria Historical Society.

He states, "Ramsay House ... is a cultural icon in Alexandria, generally referred to as the oldest house in the city. ... The route to becoming a cultural icon ... was a torturous path. ... By the time the building was reconstructed in 1956, it was more a product of the early years of reconstruction of Colonial Williamsburg than a typical Alexandria Colonial building."

Smith explains, "The building was essentially rebuilt on what was perceived to be the historic footprint. ... Additionally, the garden is a fanciful creation that does not attempt to claim historical precedents. While the intention may have been ... laudable, ... by the time the project reached fruition ... it was an all-new building that tried to give the impression of a late 18th-century house."

Smith concludes, "That few question its authenticity is a testament to how much Alexandria citizens and visitors want to have a tangible link to the 18th-century past of the city."