Waterfront hotel project heads back to City Hall

By Derrick Perkins (File Photo)

City councilors overwhelmingly backed Alexandria’s first boutique waterfront hotel earlier this year. But they’ll be asked to do it again next month.

Critics of Carr City Centers’ planned five-story, 120-room lodging house successfully appealed the proposal back to Alexandria’s top elected officials earlier this month. The petition came quickly after the board of architectural review, normally the last step for a developer working in the old and historic district, narrowly signed off on the project.

This latest procedural challenge means representatives of the Washington-based Carr, best known for revamping The Willard InterContinental in D.C., will return to City Hall on May 17 to defend their blueprints once more. The company’s plans for the 200 block of S. Union St. — commonly known as the Cummings and Turner block — have undergone several alterations since the project first surfaced in 2012.

But those changes have not won over all Old Town residents, particularly members of Friends of the Alexandria Waterfront, a group that grew out of opposition to the city’s controversial shoreline redevelopment plan. Bert Ely, co-chair of the organization, which spearheaded efforts to appeal Carr’s project, said the move makes Alexandria’s top elected officials completely accountable for the hotel project and its aftermath.

Development projects located in the two neighborhoods governed by boards of architectural review face more hurdles than proposals elsewhere in the city. Typically, a developer would go before the board for an informal review of a project before seeking permission from the planning commission and city council.
Once those two top bodies give a project the green light, it returns to the board for a final stamp of approval. In Carr’s case, changes were being made to the hotel’s design when city councilors unanimously sent it ahead.

“In effect, they left the final … signoff with the [board of architectural review], subject to the various conditions that they put in place with regard to appearance issues, but kind of passed the buck on the design to the [board],” Ely said. “What this does is pass the buck back to council.”

At least one city councilor, Paul Smedberg, has said that there’s little, if anything, regarding the project left to discuss. When city council took it up earlier this year, they examined a range of issues, including architecture, Smedberg noted.

Ely, though, sees possible political repercussions.

“Do they want to be the ones who have the final say on this and, in effect, approve a design that many people feel is just unattractive, in addition to a hotel that is widely thought to be too large?” he asked. “It puts them in a somewhat different position.”

If city councilors stand by their earlier decision, Ely’s group and other residents still opposed to the hotel — criticized as being too large for the neighborhood — have the option of turning to the courts. Though the group’s statement on the appeal notes the possibility, Ely said that decision would be made after city council takes up the appeal.

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