A Landmark achievement for beleaguered mall redevelopment?

A Landmark achievement for beleaguered mall redevelopment?

By Chris Teale (File photo)

The delayed and much-maligned redevelopment project at Landmark Mall took a tentative step forward earlier this month, as city council unanimously approved amendments to the site plan that would increase the square footage for both commercial and residential uses.

Also approved by the planning commission earlier this month, the proposal increases the density of both uses by a total of approximately 54,000 square feet, with the extra space planned for additional retail space and residential amenity areas, including an ice skating rink and an outdoor video screen.

But the frustration with the project’s many delays over the last decade was apparent in city council’s brief discussion on the matter at their public hearing earlier this month, especially as the latest plan to transform the mall owned by the Howard Hughes Corporation was slated to begin in late 2014.

“We need to get this project moving,” said Mayor Bill Euille at the hearing. “As a matter of fact, it should have been built and up and ready for use 10 years ago.”

The tweaks to the redevelopment do not substantially alter what is planned at Landmark, with the Sears and Macy’s stores kept in place and operational while the rest of the former mall would be demolished. In its place, the developer hopes to build a mixed-use development including shops, restaurants and upwards of 400 residential units. The application itself merely looks to increase the floor area and modify the number of loading spaces, while reducing slightly the amount of open space.

City Councilor Tim Lovain said the Hughes Corporation still is seeking tax increment financing to subsidize the redevelopment effort, but any proposal on the issue likely will not be presented to councilors until after they return from the summer recess.

City staff’s report on the redevelopment says that the public will derive a number of benefits, including the construction of a transit center for $500,000, the construction of bicycle paths at the same cost both on- and offsite, an aesthetic improvement of the existing flyover ramp at
$150,000 and a $200,000 voluntary contribution to public art.

And the report says that the developer will contribute $2.34 million to the city’s affordable housing fund, and a further $1 million will be donated for improvements to transitway and off-site pedestrian access.

One area of concern for city staff is the location of the outdoor monitor, which would be used to screen movies, sporting events and the like. In their recommendations to council, the planning commission added a condition that any outdoor screen must meet the noise limit of 60 decibels at the face of residential buildings. But in their report, staffers expressed their concern at the location of the screen itself, as it would face outwards onto Duke Street and could cause a distraction for motorists.

“While there are a number of outdoor cinematic venues throughout the region, they generally do not face on a major arterial street such as Duke Street,” the report said. “Staff does have concerns about the proposed location as it may be a distraction to motorists, creating an unsafe situation on this heavily traveled route.

“Staff did look at alternate locations, but decided that the proposed location was indeed the best suited for the monitor as the other locations would conflict with outdoor dining and/or did not provide enough distance to be viewed by patrons.”

At the hearing, city councilors discussed the merits of the screen and the proposed ice-skating rink, the prospect of which excited City Councilor Del Pepper, herself a West End resident. But conversation quickly turned back to frustrations surrounding the project and its delays, especially from local resident Matthew Warner, who said he has been following its progress for years.

“I think really what the people in the West End of Alexandria would like to know is: If the plan is approved today and the modifications to the plan, people really want to know when groundbreaking is going to happen,” he said. “If we don’t get the sense that there is a groundbreaking date, nobody’s really going to believe that it’s happening.

“That is really what we want to see today. That is really what a lot of people in the West End of Alexandria are looking for: when is it going to happen, what’s the groundbreaking date, what’s the plan for action, what’s the plan for action if it’s not going to happen?”

Euille noted after Warner’s questions that they were the same ones that the city has been asking the Howard Hughes Corporation for some time now. In response, Jonathan Rak, the applicant’s attorney, said that approval of the changes to the plan would be another step on the road of progress, but did not commit to a groundbreaking date.

“This is really one more step towards the redevelopment of Landmark Mall,” he said. “The Landmark development team has been working very hard trying to deal with the complexity of issues to go forward on this. We appreciate the city’s encouragement and support moving forward.

“I don’t know that we have a precise ground-breaking date at this point, I think our goal, if you could call it that, is the first quarter of 2016.”

The motion quickly passed unanimously, but in spite of the optimism city councilors felt about the latest redevelopment plan and their questions about certain specifications of the outdoor screen, Euille was quick to remind his colleagues just how long it has been going on and that amenities could be dealt with at a later date.

“We’ve had pie in the sky thrown in our faces for the past 10 years,” he said. “I’d rather see us get the project moving, and then we can deal with the amenities. We’ve been down this road before with this project and the ownership. I just think we need to get the project going.”