By Derrick Perkins (Image/City of Alexandria)
The first major project envisioned by the controversial waterfront redevelopment plan cleared its first hurdle Tuesday night, receiving the planning commission’s approval — but with a few caveats.
Designed by Carr City Centers — better known as Carr Hospitality, the Washington-based company behind the renovation of the Willard Hotel — the proposal would see a 120-room boutique hotel rise up five stories in the 200 block of S. Union St. Though city leaders have long targeted the block for redevelopment, planning commissioners had given Carr’s latest proposal a lukewarm reception.
“I think it’s crucial that that building have everything to do with pride [for] the waterfront,” said commissioner Mary Lyman. “It needs something more. It’s not there yet.”
Carr’s design put the planning commission, which predominately voted in favor of the waterfront plan, in a tough spot. The project was in the works long before officials approved the redevelopment roadmap, which explicitly calls for at least two 150-room hotels on the Potomac shoreline.
But questions about the hotel’s size and architecture remain. At least one member of the commission, Stewart Dunn, unsuccessfully pushed for deferring the proposal until the developer came back with a blueprint containing 10 fewer rooms.
That Carr’s architects have received differing design suggestions from city staff, residents and various boards has complicated matters, according to Ken Wire of McGuireWoods, which represents the company.
“We need someone to make a decision,” he said. “At some point, we need an answer. … We need to make some progress.”
Wire got that much. Commissioners voted 6-0-1— Dunn abstained — to send the project along to city council.
But planning commissioners directed Carr to again tweak the design, making it less prominent. They also asked Carr to share its business model with the city manager’s office, thus ensuring the company’s claims that a smaller hotel wouldn’t succeed are factual.
Residents, though, remain apprehensive. Of the nine speakers at Tuesday’s meeting, not one spoke in favor of the project. Concerns varied from the hotel’s size to flooding, potential soil contamination and parking issues.
“Since this is the first major development within the waterfront plan, it’s got to be done right. That doesn’t seem to be the case [here],” said Townsend “Van” Van Fleet. “It needs to be scaled back, way back, to reflect a real boutique hotel. … This is a historic city, and this building needs to reflect that.”
More than one resident cited the pending sale of the Robinson Terminals, the two other sites targeted for redevelopment in the plan, as a reason to defer. Critics urged officials to hold off until those deals were complete, so the projects could go forward in conjunction with one another.
While commissioners rejected that objection, the impending sale of the Robinson Terminals weighed heavily on their minds. Several worried other developers were waiting to see how much leeway they could expect based on Carr’s trip through the city-approval process.
“This has to set the stage for what will follow,” said commissioner Eric Wagner. “We got to get it right.”
Along with a 120-room hotel, the project includes an underground parking garage, a 5,000-square-foot courtyard open to the public and restaurant. The developer also would contribute about $111,500 for affordable housing efforts, $675,000 for public amenities and $20,000 for Capital Bikeshare.
The hotel is expected to generate around $750,000 in taxes by its third year of operation.