Planning commission OKs Robinson Terminal South project

Planning commission OKs Robinson Terminal South project

By Susan Hale Thomas (Image/City of Alexandria)

Members of the city planning commission voted unanimously to approve plans to redevelop Robinson Terminal South into a mix of residential units, a hotel and commercial retail space last week, although some residents remain unsure on the project.

The nearly 281,000 square-foot project sits on 3.2 acres of land, sitting at the foot of Duke Street along the bank of the Potomac River. The proposal is the third major reconstruction effort ushered through City Hall since the passage of the controversial waterfront plan, following the planned 120-room Carr hotel and the transformation of the Beachcomber property into the new headquarters for the Old Dominion Boat Club.

Last week’s public hearing on the redevelopment proposal for Robinson Terminal South lasted nearly six hours, with residents eagerly awaiting their three-minute windows to voice their support or opposition to the project.

For opponents, parking was the was the most worrisome issue, along with concerns over the development not fitting into historic Old Town’s aesthetic as well as the potential damage to homes from increased construction activity in the area.

But proponents welcomed the revitalization of the waterfront noting similar successful projects in Charleston, S.C. and Hoboken, N.J. Many welcomed the opening of previously inaccessible warehouses to the public.

City planner Rod Kearns presented the latest architectural model to the commissioners — a hotel, 26 townhomes and 66 condos, along with 11,473 square feet of retail space and a 251-seat restaurant with outdoor dining. Developer EYA will improve the existing pier and open it to the public.

A concession to the developers for agreeing to use barges rather than trucks for the movement of fill and excavation materials resulted in an additional four residential units for the developer.

Bob Youngentob, president of EYA, said his firm has developed 11 different projects in Alexandria over the past 23 years. He tried to assuage the concerns of those living nearby.

“We are a responsible developer — otherwise we wouldn’t be here for 23 years,” Youngentob said. “We do live up to the obligations and we will be responsible for damage that is caused by the construction activity.”

Holly Hull, who lives directly across the street from the project, said she was both relieved and surprised when she saw the development plan and discovered the developer didn’t maximize its density.

“I am excited to look out our front window and see a new community, rather than what we see today, which is a warehouse that is not that attractive,” she said.

But some neighbors were concerned with setbacks and felt the designs, as proposed, did not fall within the design guidelines set for the Old Town historic district.

Susan Askew lives on Wolfe Street and is part of a group in favor of revitalizing the waterfront. She said their efforts to convince EYA to reduce the mass of buildings were successful and they secured increased setbacks along Wolfe Street. But she wants to see smaller units to allow for similar setbacks on Union Street.

“The [board of architectural review] staff agreed with our concerns and recommended the same relief for the Union Street side of the building as is provided on Wolfe Street,” Askew said. “EYA argued that reducing the size of the units to accommodate this request would make the building less appealing from a sales standpoint and the BAR commissioners were persuaded by that argument.”

Lee Street resident Beal Lowen said he is an expert at parking in the neighborhood but already is finding it more and more difficult to find a space as the city grows. He asked commissioners not to allow a reduction in the project’s parking requirement.

“One of the reasons given was that there is a commercial area adjacent to the [existing] commercial area, which doesn’t have a parking ratio requirement.” Lowen said. “I’m flummoxed by that reasoning. That’s a problem, not an excuse to continue on the path we’re going on.

“Please protect the citizens of this community. It’s time that someone lived up to the assurances that we’ve been hearing meeting after meeting, press release after press release.”

And resident Bob Wood felt the development architecturally out of scale and unattractive.

“What may be beautiful in Clarendon is ugly on this waterfront,” he said. “It is very sad to see the rush toward a clashing modernist vision with obvious limited life span and the sacrifice of this opportunity to build and enduring presence in our midst.

“This is another condo-restaurant complex so at home in some suburban faux-town center trying so hard to be like Alexandria, and it comes off as very pedestrian and out of place at the foot of this most historic street.”

But urban designer and longtime Old Town resident Robert Atkinson said the improvements in retail and restaurant offerings throughout the city have been positive but, until recently, the attention given to the waterfront was tragic.

“The fact that Alexandria doesn’t have a riverfront that reflects the quality of the community that exists here, I think it’s just a shame,” Atkinson said. “As an urban designer looking at this project, I agree totally with the BAR and staff’s analysis. I don’t think we need architecture from another time.

“What’s it going to be — 1760, 1860, 1960? … I think it’s incumbent on every generation to leave its mark or legacy for the people that follow on and I think this project does that in a very handsome way. My mom always told me that if you want something to say please. So, please, approve this waterfront.”

The last hurdle for the project lies with city councilors, who are slated to hear the proposal at their public hearing 10 a.m. Saturday at City Hall.