By Derrick Perkins (Image/City of Alexandria)
Having successfully navigated the waterfront commission, planning commission, city council and the board of architectural review, Carr City Centers’ proposed shoreline hotel faces one last challenge: Friends of the Alexandria Waterfront.
Leaders of the local, grassroots organization announced Tuesday that they would appeal the board of architectural review’s 3-2-1 decision to approve the project. If they gather enough signatures by April 2, the group could send the proposal for the 200 block of S. Union St. back before Alexandria’s top elected officials for a second look.
Given neighborhood opposition and recently unveiled plans for nearby Robinson Terminal South — developer EYA is pitching a mixed-use residential and retail development on the property — city council must reexamine Carr’s project, said Bert Ely and Mark Mueller, co-chairs of the group.
“It may be that the Carr project needs to go back to the drawing board to take into account what’s going on across the street,” Ely said. “We’ve got a game changer going on across the street.”
Carr’s proposal for a 120-room hotel, one of two permissible along the Potomac under the waterfront plan, has served as a lightning rod since word of the project broke in June 2012. Coming just months after the controversial redevelopment roadmap’s approval, the company’s designs immediately came under fire from Old Town residents.
A retooled version surfaced late last summer and Carr’s representatives began the laborious task of moving it through City Hall. After several informal hearings before the board of architectural review, the project earned city council’s blessing in January.
At the same time, though, waterfront plan opponents remained apprehensive. Describing the five-story building as too massive and likening it to a prison, critics pushed to have the project scaled back or nixed altogether.
Despite the heated rhetoric, members of the board of architectural review gave Carr’s blueprints a final — if narrow — vote of support last week. Securing the board’s approval is normally the final regulatory hurdle a project in the old and historic district must overcome.
By then Carr’s designs had undergone significant changes. Al Cox, the city’s chief preservationist, remembered how the initial blueprints gave the impression of a collection of buildings. That proved unpopular with many people, he recalled.
The company’s tweaked version featured a heavy mansard roof and boasted dark colors. That design did not fit either, Cox said.
The latest iteration is further simplified, boasting large-paned first-floor windows and a pitched roof facing Duke Street. The new version also includes two lantern-like structures overlooking the river, meant to pay homage to Alexandria’s maritime past.
“It just is a lot more open and the building has details that are characteristic of the old and historic district,” Cox said. “This was an effort to balance the modern elements with historic proportions and details. These lanterns on the gable end will face the river and give the building an identity and a little sparkle.”
Despite the stamp of approval from Cox’s office, the project proved a tough sell to the last. Board of architectural review member Peter Smeallie was among those who voted against the project, primarily citing its size.
“The hotel is fine, the design is very nice … but the size, bulk and mass of the project are too large for the site and too large for the surrounding buildings,” he said. “I do think it alters the character of what we want Old Town to be.”
Ely is confident his group can get enough signatures from nearby homeowners to appeal the board’s decision back to city council. If and when that comes to pass, he hopes they will take the opportunity seriously.
“I’d love to see them nix the hotel,” Ely said. “But I think at a minimum … there really needs to be reconsideration of what’s going to go down there.”
But after years of meetings and lengthy talks, City Councilor Paul Smedberg does not know what else can be said about the project. A second vote likely will result in the same outcome, he said.
“The council has already approved the project, with a lot of discussion focusing on the look of the building, … the architecture and, more importantly, how we’re going to mitigate neighborhood impacts throughout the construction phase,” Smedberg said. “I just don’t know what else we can talk about. I just don’t know what else can be debated.”