By Chris Teale (Photo/Hannah Brockway)
The Royal Street bus garage has sat empty since it was declared obsolete last August and approved for sale by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, but the transit agency recently announced it would solicit bids from potential buyers for the two-acre site.
Located on the block bordered by Pendleton, North Pitt, Wythe and North Royal streets, the garage was once a bus maintenance and storage facility that covers a full city block. With its location just two blocks from the Potomac River, both city councilors and neighbors in North Old Town have been keen to see it redeveloped for some time.
“Today’s good news is another important step in creating a vibrant community in North Old Town,” said Mayor Bill Euille, who serves on the WMATA board of directors, in a statement. “We look forward to redevelopment of the site that is appropriate for the neighborhood, improves our quality of life, and benefits our residents.”
The release of the RFP had been expected late last year by some, given WMATA had approved the sale in August. However, WMATA spokesman Dan Stessel said in an email the timeline was lengthened due to the transit agency’s preliminary environmental investigations as they looked to establish any remediation efforts that would be required on the site.
In anticipation of the request for proposals, the city formed the Royal Street Bus Garage Ad Hoc Advisory Committee, made up of 15 appointed officials, local residents, major property owners and representatives of resident and business groups who had an interest in the future of the site. The committee’s recommendations were taken on board by WMATA, who used them to form the terms of the RFP and what they are looking for from interested developers.
“One of the things that’s unique about this one, which I think is exciting, is we had a community group that we pulled together that put together design standards that have now informed the WMATA RFP,” said City Councilor Justin Wilson. “We brought in a great group of people from the community, the neighbors and the business community and the city, and they came up with a set of standards for what they wanted to see on this site and what they wanted to see that development look like.
“Now WMATA is using those, it’s informing their process for how they’re going out into the development community. When WMATA selects a development partner, they’re already going to be in tune with the direction we want to go from the city’s perspective.”
“In my mind, it was important to have all the stakeholders at the table talking about shared expectations and what everyone wanted to see regarding the redevelopment of this site,” said Jeff Farner, the city’s deputy director of planning. “This is an entire city block, and it’s a real opportunity for the city to do something that fits into the neighborhood.
“The development parameters [came] out of the work group so that created more surety for the community, more surety for the city and creates a higher level of expectation for prospective developers.”
One of the committee’s recommendations was for the site to be rezoned to commercial-residential mixed use from its original zoning of residential townhouses. That recommendation means greater flexibility in determining how the development would look and feel, and how it would fit in with other North Old Town redevelopment projects.
“Mixed use is the key,” said Tom Soapes, president of the North Old Town Independent Citizens’ Association. “The assumption is that the best balance for use, compatibility with the existing surrounding uses as well as tax revenues would be best suited by some mixed use. The commercial part of it in the guidelines is pretty strictly limited to a ground floor type of use of commercial and then residential.
“Exactly how they structure that and how they do it is up to the developer and their designers. It’s still a question of design. The key thing we’re concerned about is design, and how the design meshes with what’s already there in terms of the townhouse communities, the big high-rise Alexandria House, how those structures mesh together when you finally build the thing.”
“The rezoning itself was driven by a desire to get something that was fitting in with the character of the neighborhood,” said Farner. “When that property was originally zoned, it permitted townhouses, and I think there was some discussion about having more flexibility of multi-family and townhouse and potentially having more open space.
“One of the ways to do that is the CRMU zone, which is a more flexible zone. That would require approval of rezoning by city council, with a recommendation from the planning commission and that is certainly a process that any developer would need to go through if they are rezoning the property.”
Prospective developers have until July 12 to submit their initial bids for the site to WMATA, with a final offer expected from the three highest acceptable bidders due on July 31. The bidders have been shown at least some of what is desired for North Old Town by the advisory
committee, and the onus will now be on them to take into account the desires of those who live in the neighborhood.
“The idea is to try and make North Old Town have some continuity, some sense of vision and sense of place in North Old Town, that it isn’t just site by site design,” Soapes said. “The design needs to be compatible with what’s already there, as well as the connection to the river.
“We made a point in the committee of talking about green space and focusing on some connection between the bus barn site and the river. Even though it’s not right on the shoreline, it’s still fairly close and in sight of the river, so they should make some use of that.”
With the North Old Town Small Area Plan still under discussion at City Hall, this site is also seen as a key opportunity for the city to make real headway in redeveloping that part of Alexandria, especially as it also will be on the city’s tax rolls and generating revenue.
“This is an important property in the [small area plan], for sure,” said Wilson. “We’re going to be setting the tone here that I think will be something that we replicate when we adopt the overall small area plan for the entire neighborhood.
“One of the things that’s good is the groundwork that we did with the neighborhood and the community to come up with the standards for development. We’re going to be able to replicate that when we bring forward the small area plan so we’ve done a lot of that early groundwork that you do when you start a small area plan like this. We’re getting a sense of what the community wants to see, which is exciting.”