By Erich Wagner (Image/City of Alexandria)
Developer EYA unveiled the latest plans for Robinson Terminal South earlier this month, but the revamped design garnered mixed reviews from officials tasked with preserving the integrity of Alexandria’s most historic neighborhood.
Representatives of the local developer showed off the updated proposal during an informal meeting with the board of architectural review, standard practice for companies planning work in Old Town. The latest design attempts to incorporate more of Old Town’s history by adding architectural flourishes and converting the historic building at 2 Duke St. into a marketplace.
The 280,000-square-foot project represents one of several closely scrutinized redevelopment proposals on the waterfront. In the spring, Carr City Centers received final approval to begin work on a 120-bedroom boutique hotel along the 200 block of S. Union St.
Although board of architectural review members embraced the marketplace concept for the historic warehouse at 2 Duke St., they differed on other aspects of the plan, which would see a mix of residential and commercial buildings replace much of the existing complex.
Among the changes to an apartment building that would face the Potomac River are a series of masts atop the structure, an attempt to recall Alexandria’s past as a major port. While a few board members liked the tweaks, others felt the continued emphasis on using pane glass and so-called “modules” would detract from the waterfront.
“You speak of modular units,” said board member Christine Roberts. “We have those at my house. They’re called LEGOs, and when I opened this, I saw a LEGO city. I didn’t see Alexandria.
“The images [of Alexandria’s past] are delightful and romantic, but this turns its back on it. It … pushes people away, rather than inviting people to come take part in your project.”
But Chairman Oscar Fitzgerald took a different view. While the architecture needs to better reflect the neighborhood on other sides of the complex, he said EYA should be allowed more leeway when facing the river.
“It’s a new building, so it should be new,” Fitzgerald said. “It should look modern, and I think you’ve done an excellent job of relating it to Alexandria in the materials.”
On the side of the property facing Union Street, a few felt the proposed townhouses were too uniform in architecture, as opposed to the diversity of building styles on display across the street.
“I wonder why this is so very dense, very massive,” said board member Margaret Miller. “There’s no articulation or variation within the historical line of these buildings.”
“I am very concerned about the plain articulation for these townhomes,” said board member Kathryn Finnigan. “I think they lack character and they come across as harsh to me.”
But John Van Senden said it is impossible to replicate the organic evolution of architectural styles in Old Town in one fell swoop.
“While there have been a number of comments about trying to individualize each townhouse, we have to remember this is being built as a complex,” he said. “There ought to be some underlying structure to reflect that.”
Residents were similarly torn about the proposal. Bert Ely, co-chair of the Friends of Alexandria’s Waterfront, known for his opposition to the city’s waterfront redevelopment plan, which laid the foundation for EYA’s project, said the overhauled design “falls far short” of what should be expected for Old Town.
“How does this design of these blocks really relate to the existing neighborhood to the west and how does it fit in with the overall community?” Ely said. “I would suggest it doesn’t fit very well. It needs much greater articulation and gabling.”
But Kevin Posey said Alexandria must guard itself from becoming too self-referential. Old Town is great because of its diversity in historic architecture, he argued.
“I think it’s tasteful, without being phony or being too derivative of what’s already in the area,” Posey said. “We already have far too much of that, in my opinion: ‘Faux-Colonial.’”