Plans crawl forward for Robinson Terminal North

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By Susan Hale Thomas (Image/City of Alexandria)

Members of the city board of architectural review praised the latest tweaks to plans for redevelopment of Robinson Terminal North at a work session last week, but some residents remain opposed to the project.

One of three major sites marked for redevelopment in the city’s controversial waterfront plan, the complex — owned by developers City Interests — along the 500 block of N. Union St. is slated to house a mix of residential housing, ground-floor retail and a hotel.

Project architect Mike Hickok walked board members through a series of changes from previous concept drawings shown to city staff. One of three major sites marked for redevelopment in the city’s controversial waterfront plan, the complex will consist of two new mixed-use buildings.

The east building will overlook the Potomac River and feature residential units on the upper floors, with retail space on three sides of the ground floor. The building will also have an attached glass pavilion.

Hickok said that based on feedback from previous designs, they adjusted the massing of the east building by adding vertical movement along the roofline.

The west building will feature large bay windows and the load-bearing masonry will have the same straight-line vertical character that is predominant in the historic district. The riverside facade of the building will be feature much more glass to maximize views, but will transition to masonry on west and south sides to be more complimentary of surrounding architecture.

While board members spoke positively of the new designs, residents in attendance said the mock-ups still have a long way to go to fit adequately into Old Town’s aesthetic.

Townsend Van Fleet, president of the Old Town Civic Association, took the opportunity to share his view of the plans during public comments.

“This whole development reminds me of urban renewal, when your predecessors ripped down all those historic houses on King Street and replaced them with a bunch of crappy buildings that are up there now,” he said.

Elaine Johnston of the Historic Alexandria Foundation said the proposed buildings are still too big and would discourage visitors from taking a stroll along the Potomac River.

“[The designs] retain the appearance of a block-long hulk that is a physical, visual and psychic barrier to the waterfront,” she said. “Along Union Street, it will discourage pedestrian passage between Waterfront Park and Oronoco Bay Park … We believe the current proposal misses the mark.”

Plans for an attached glass pavilion were still a work in progress, Hickok said. He showed off four concepts for the structure, the one most favored by board members being a sculpted curve scheme that some said was reminiscent of boat sails.

Board chairman Chip Carlin praised the work done thus far on the pavilion, recounting his own time as a youngster in Old Town.

“I grew up here and was a river rat,” Carlin said. “[The pavilion] shows a sensitivity to the animated characteristic of the Potomac River. I think that’s very good, in that core value, to represent this in a glass version.”

The west building will also include retail space, but will have two towers of residential units surrounding a new hotel contained within the center of the building.

Hickok acknowledged there had been earlier concerns over variety and mass of the complex. The new concept drawings include varying colors of brick and metal detailing moving from the penthouse to the ground floor to separate the masses of brick.

While the board members were in agreement that the east building was coming along nicely, Wayne Neale levied the only criticism of the west side complex from the dais.

“I don’t like the building,” he said. “It’s an infinitely successful building from the inside looking out but it fails on the outside in terms of fitting into the urban context.”

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