Citizens Divided over Development’s Impact

Citizens Divided over Development’s Impact

“We need to come up with creative solutions for the needs of parking in this community.”

— Charlotte Hall, vice president of the Potomac Riverboat Company

While earlier meetings on the Robinson Terminal South Development tended to primarily pit local citizens against city staff and representatives from EYA, the developer, the proposal of four special use permits for the development drew a mix of reactions at the April 9 Planning Commission Special Public Hearing. After a presentation explaining the changes made to the site, the public responded with some in favor of the proposed buildings, some opposed, and many expressing opinions somewhere in between. Following the public discussion, the Planning Commission ultimately voted unanimously to approve the special use permits for the site.

EYA is proposing to tear down the Robinson Terminal South warehouse to construct a mixed use development, which includes 26 townhouse units, 66 multi-family residential units, and 11,473 square feet of commercial uses including a 251-seat restaurant. Special use permits and modifications for the site include increasing the density of the housing and allowing a height increase from 30 feet to 50 feet.

One of the more controversial modifications to the property was the proposal to reduce parking at the location from 262 spaces to 242 spaces.

EYA was granted a reduction of 29 spaces for the commercial parking, leaving a total of 48 spaces in the parking garage section servicing the 251 seat restaurant at the site. The current parking requirement is 63 spaces, 34 spaces for the restaurant's 135 indoor seating and 29 spaces for the restaurant's 116 outdoor seating, but a city staff report notes that having both indoor and outdoor seating capacity filled was unlikely and cited the Mount Vernon Overlay District’s 20 outdoor seating exception as precedent. Valet parking was offered by EYA as an additional parking efficiency, which would allow commercial parking to take advantage of tandem spaces. According to the staff recommendation, the valets would be prohibited from parking vehicles on the public streets. The valet parking was set to be reviewed after six months by the Departments of Planning and Zoning and the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services to determine compliance, followed by annual reviews.

The recommendation included an analysis of parking deck occupancy within a five-minute walking distance from the site and included lot space lost from removing parking on The Strand due to the construction of the new Old Dominion Boat Club. The Parking Demand Analysis, prepared by Wells and Associates Inc, found that nearby parking garages reached nearly 70 percent of their occupancy during the week, 79 percent occupancy on Fridays, and 81 percent occupancy on Saturdays.

Some noted that the high levels of occupancy in nearby garages contradicted the city staff’s support for reducing parking options at a new development.

The development would maintain the required two spaces to each multi-family unit. The Wells and Associates’ parking study found that 52 percent of owner occupied households owned only one or no vehicle, with an average of 1.5 vehicles per household. The staff recommendation indicated that the excess residential spaces could be used to accommodate visitor parking. Parking changes would also include 17 tandem parking spaces for residents, meaning extra-long parking spaces that can are built to facilitate two cars.

EYA President Robert Youngentob said that the buildings had been reduced in scale and mass since the initial proposal to the city and added that the new developments at Robinson Terminal South are more in keeping with the Old Town visual aesthetic than the current abandoned warehouses. The scale, mass, and general architectural character was endorsed by the Old and Historic Alexandria District Board of Architectural Review.

“These buildings do a good job of interpreting [Alexandria’s] history,” said Youngentob. “They reflect the character and scale of streets surrounding the property.”

Greg Hutchins, a 12-year resident of old town, said he’s walked over every square foot of Old Town and believes he knows the area pretty well.

“What EYA’s team has proposed is thoughtful and appropriate,” said Hutchins. “It’s a contemporary design inspired by historical context … We should have a waterfront of the future, for the future.”

John Woods, an engineer who noted that he had no connections to this project or any of the involved parties, said that too many times he’d seen well meaning citizens and politicians destroy good architecture proposals.

“I support this project from an architectural standpoint,” said Woods. “It’s the best thing given the [project’s] cost of construction.”

Robert Atkinson, an urban designer, said that the warehouses have kept the waterfront from reaching their development potential.

“The fact that Alexandria doesn’t have a waterfront that reflects the community … is a shame,” said Atkinson. “We don’t need repetitive architecture. We need to leave our mark.”

John Long, president of Alexandria’s Chamber of Commerce, said that EYA’s proposal fit the rich history of commercial activity on the waterfront and was in general conformance with the small area plan’s commitment to public access.

Arthur Tamayo, president and CEO of Guest House Events, presented the rare voice of the millennials in the waterfront discussion.

“The plans are a much needed amenity,” said Tamayo. “The current warehouse is a blight [on the waterfront], in my millennial opinion … I imagine this will attract more of my generation here. There’s potential here for a host of possibilities.”

But many Old Town residents insisted that they weren’t fighting to keep the Robinson Terminal South Warehouses around, they just don’t believe EYA’s design proposal is the right fit for the neighborhood.

“This development has no connection to Old Town,” said Townsend Van “Van” Fleet, president of the Old Town Civic Association. “Alexandria’s old and historic district is under siege. The mass and scale of these structures visibly dwarf the surrounding buildings. Alexandria is in the long, slow business of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. EYA needs to regroup and give us something we can be proud of.”

Susan Askew, a resident of the nearby Wolf Street, said she was in favor of revitalization in the area but had objections to aspects of EYA’s project. In particular, Askew and others said they believed the parking reduction in the development exacerbated the parking problems in Old Town.

Nearby businesses also expressed concerns about the proposed parking reduction. Trey Lamont from Chadwicks neighborhood bar said the parking reduction would ultimately hurt businesses in the area. Chadwicks sits on the Strand, directly across from a public parking lot being replaced by parking for the Old Dominion Boat Club.

“We depend on business from all over Alexandria,” said Lamont. “Parks don’t bring people to Old Town, but parking spaces will.”

Charlotte Hall, vice president of the Potomac Riverboat Company, said she wasn’t planning on speaking that evening, but that she held deep concerns about the capacity of the garages.

“We need to come up with creative solutions for the needs of parking in this community,” said Hall, who described a recent scenario where her business was impeded because there was insufficient parking in the garages for their clients. Hall proposed using boats capable of parking 300-400 cars. It’s not an ideal solution, but Hall says something needs to be done. “We have hit rock bottom.”

In the Planning Commission’s discussion, Chair Mary Lyman said that despite voting in favor of the special use permits, parking in Old Town needed to be addressed.

“We need to be sure we’ve thought this through carefully,” said Lyman. “I’m seeing some disconnects in what we’re being told.”

Karl Moritz, director of Planning and Zoning, said that the city is currently developing long-term strategies to manage parking space in Old Town. EYA’s proposal for Robinson Terminal South will be voted on at City Council’s April 18 meeting.