Waterfront hotel receives another lukewarm reception

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By Derrick Perkins (Image/City of Alexandria)

Carr Hospitality’s latest boutique hotel proposal for the 200 block of S. Union St. garnered — once again — mixed reviews from residents and members of the board of architectural review.

The Washington-based developer, which was behind the restoration of the Willard Hotel in D.C., has been working on the riverside project for the past several years, but the sailing has been anything but smooth. The newest proposal didn’t fare much better during an informal review by the architectural board Wednesday.

“This will be here for 50, 70, 100 years. I don’t want my grandchildren … to say we helped put this thing in here and it was not quite right,” said longtime board member Thomas Hulfish. “In the used car business, they talk about putting some lipstick on this pig and getting it out of here. I don’t know what the answer is other than to state the obvious … but it is still too big, as far as I’m concerned.”

Carr’s proposed hotel was destined for controversy from the start. As the first of two anticipated hotel projects along the Potomac to emerge in the wake of the waterfront plan’s contentious passage, it fell in the sights of redevelopment opponents.

Though company representatives had been in talks with city planning officials throughout the waterfront debate, Carr’s proposal did not go public until summer 2012. Critics quickly savaged the project, which would replace a warehouse with a 121-room hotel.

Then Carr went largely quiet. The proposal did not resurface until more than a year later, redesigned and smaller by one room.

Even so, the reworked blueprint failed to placate opponents. At a second appearance before the board of architectural review in September, the project again received more criticism than praise. So Carr went back to the drawing board — again.

On Wednesday, the board took it up for the third time. And residents largely panned the redesigned proposal, calling it too large and likely to leave a swathe of adjacent Duke Street in trash.

“We say over and over that the mass and scale is not right,” said resident Katy Cannady. “This is about the most historic area we have in the city; there are very old and rather large historic buildings nearby. … This thing is so massive that it will just, those buildings will just fade back into the background.”

Critics also urged officials to shelve the proposal until plans are worked up for nearby Robinson Terminal South. The Graham Holdings Co. struck a deal to offload the warehouses there and to the north, by West’s Point, to developers in the fall.

“There needs to be a coordination of design and mass and scale … given that the sale of the south terminal property is under consideration,” said Bert Ely, a fierce critic of the waterfront redevelopment plan and member of Friends of the Alexandria Waterfront. “[The] development of the [Robinson Terminal] site is imminent. That is one more reason to delay here.”

The board of architectural review was split on the issue. Of the four members in attendance, two found the project agreeable — with a few more tweaks.

Developers are not required to pitch their ideas to the architectural review board prior to seeking City Hall’s approval, but doing so lets them avoid potential snags down the road. The board has oversight of final designs in the old and historic district.

Giving developers a chance to flesh out their ideas before going to the planning commission and city council means they have a better shot at garnering the board’s support.

“I’ve been on this board for a long time. And I think this is one of the toughest things we’ve faced,” Hulfish said.