King Street Gateway development in west Old Town moves forward

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The base option for King Street Gateway, as presented to BAR on July 5 (Photo courtesy Michael Winstanley Architects & Planners)

By Alexa Epitropoulos | aepitropoulos@alextimes.com 

It’s not the first time – or even the second – that redevelopment plans for the townhouses between 1604 and 1616 King St. have been brought before the Board of Architectural Review for the Old and Historic District.

Yet, despite approving the basics of the King Street Gateway plan at their July 5 hearing, several BAR members still weren’t sold on the redesign options presented by Dechantal Associates LLC architect Michael Winstanley.

The revamp included more traditional designs than the original all-glass version brought forward in December 2016 that board member Christine Roberts called “jarring” at the time.

The redevelopment effort, first proposed in 2014, aims to convert a 17,000-square-foot lot with six historic townhouses that date back to the 1910’s into a cohesive residential development with a 53-unit condominium building set 65 feet behind existing structures.

One of the alternative plans proposed by Winstanley Architects at a BAR meeting on July 5 (Photo courtesy Michael Winstanley Architects & Planners)

Many of the townhouses currently sit empty, with the exception of 1606 King St., which houses the Alexandria Gazette-Packet and the Mount Vernon Gazette.

The most recent design is more traditional than the first proposal, with red brick and neatly stacked balconies. Three different versions show various options for the top of the building – one with detailed tracery, another that’s solid and a hybrid alternative with a tracery top, frameworks simulating columns, segmental arches and a cornice.

The new proposal emerged from meetings between city staff, building owner Peter Labovitz and Winstanley.

Both Peter Matyas, speaking on behalf of the Old Town Civic Association, and resident Scott Brown expressed support for the revised proposal.

Support for the concept was not unanimous, however, as BAR members John Goebel, Margaret Miller and Slade Elkins all criticized elements of the new design.

Despite the revisions, Miller said she still doesn’t see the design for the existing townhouses and the new condo development as a unified concept.

“I don’t think the hacienda kind of feeling and the tracery kind of feeling is working together. I don’t think it’s coming together for me,” Miller said during the hearing. “It’s disjointed.”

Still, Miller agreed that the west end of Old Town,and the corresponding piece of King Street, needed a refresh – though she wasn’t sure if the newest King Street Gateway proposal was the way to accomplish that.

“I’m in agreement that this neighborhood could use some life, excitement. It’s a little bit dark and dull at this point,” Miller said. “I’m excited about that piece. I don’t know if this is the answer for life and excitement, but I agree with you on that.” Goebel said that, though he didn’t have an issue with the overall architectural design, he started seeing problems when it came to the details, including the proposed tracery on the top of the new building, which Winstanley said was his preferred option.

“I’m not sure the tracery is quite as successful as it could be,” Goebel said. “If there was a way to simplify it, it might start to take on amore pleasing character.”

Elkins, who said he was undecided about the newest proposal, said that it wasn’t as exciting as he had anticipated.

“I don’t think it’s quite as dynamic as you want it to be,” he said.

Elkins suggested that Winstanley make the tracery more Venetian in style, and said that traditional didn’t have to be synonymous with lackluster.

“The glass that you started with was more dynamic,” Elkins said. “No doubt you’re talented and you can make it work. You get the approval and you’ll go forth and conquer, but that’s not what you said.”

In his presentation to the BAR last week, Winstanley said the most recent plan established a clear relationship between the planned six-story condo development and the townhouses. He argued that the proposal adequately addressed concerns expressed by neighbors, and urged members of the board to advocate for the base plan, with the tracery on top.

“Why should we settle for appropriate? Let’s settle for excellence, let’s strive for something that is exciting,” Winstanley said. “I would just hate to do a derivative of a derivative when we could do unique.”

Winstanley said the potential benefits of the development are tremendous if the developer and architect are afforded the right opportunities.

“I’m a neighbor. I have my office two blocks from [the planned development]. I’m a

The other proposed alternative to the King Street Gateway project, which would have a solid color top (Photo courtesy Michael Winstanley Architects & Planners)

building owner. This is my neighborhood. I eat at Brabo and the Tasting Room all the time. I want this neighborhood to be exciting and pretty and interesting,” he said. “Right now, it’s not. Right now, we have a lot of big, heavy, unattractive office buildings. This neighborhood needs some life.”

At the meeting, Peter Labovitz, owner of Dechantal, commended the collaborative process of the redesign but disagreed with Winstanley’s assessment that the

BAR had to choose between the development being solid or open or made with metal or stone.

“I don’t think we have to make a choice. I’d like to see [the BAR] endorse the staff report, direct us how you wish to and let us come back and work with you for the detail stage,” Labovitz said.

The board voted 5-2 to endorse the scale, mass, height and general architectural character set forth in the city staff memo. The decision did not, however, endorse a particular plan. Miller and Elkins cast the dissenting votes.

City staff will continue to work with Winstanley and Labovitz on the details of the development. It will then go before the planning commission and ultimately city council for final approval.