By Chris Teale (File photo)
The proposed new clubhouse at the Hunting Point on the Potomac apartment complex — recently rebranded as Bridgeyard Old Town — was approved unanimously by the planning commission, but not before testy discussion about some aspects of the project that drew commissioners’ ire.
Parent company Laramar, which bought the property from the Virginia Department of Transportation in 2013, which bought it in 2001 to make room for the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, proposed a one-story clubhouse to contain exercise facilities, community meeting rooms, the leasing office and other amenities.
But it was not an easy ride for the Chicago-based company, as commissioners picked holes in the plan, particularly over a joint effort with the city to examine the feasibility of a public access easement for a bike and pedestrian trail nearby. In the proposal, Laramar agreed to examine its feasibility in good faith with the city, but commissioners were unconvinced, feeling it gave the company too much leeway to rule against any easement.
“As I read this condition, it indicates the applicant shall make a good-faith effort to determine the feasibility, and the location and design may be discussed under review,” said commissioner Stephen Koenig. “I’m wondering if there’s any way to make that a little less conditional and potential and a little more specifically committed.”
“I don’t want the applicant to have a veto,” added commissioner Stewart Dunn. “I didn’t want a situation in which the ultimate decision really rests with the applicant. Even though it’s feasible and the city wants to proceed, you don’t have to. The city does think it’s wise to go ahead. You don’t.”
In response, Mary Catherine Gibbs, attorney for the applicant, said that her client was only comfortable committing to a feasibility study, arguing that any commitment to a construction project would be unwise given that the area needs to be assessed by both Laramar and the city before a decision can be made.
“I have to tell you that this is frustrating, and I can see it’s frustrating on the commission’s part, because we just don’t know,” she said. “To figure out, again, whether or not it’s feasible and definitely grant it, because it’s not 10 feet just for the walkway, it’s 25 feet for the easement for the construction of the walkway and the maintenance of the walkway.
“We just don’t know yet, and we don’t know where it will be located. My client is more than willing to work with the city. Whether they’ll say they’ll definitely grant the easement, I don’t think that’s what the staff asked us for. This is a very important first step in determining whether or not this pathway is feasible to put through this property.”
City staff said the language in the proposal allowed both parties sufficient wiggle room, and the lack of a firm commitment on construction meant that a decision could be postponed until a proper study is carried out.
“There are a number of judgement calls to be made in terms of what feasible will mean and what will be acceptable,” said city planner Rob Kerns. “I think that’s why we tried to take a middle of the road sort of language here. I think it rests on ‘the applicant shall make a good-faith effort.’ From both parties here, we’re committed to exploring the feasibility of it. There are quite a few obstacles, things that have to be considered as to whether we want to direct traffic through there or not.”
Commissioners also had cause for concern when city staff raised the issue of a reduction of open space. Under the city’s zoning ordinance, the apartment buildings are required to have 40 percent open space available. But since the requirement was established after the complex first opened, it received an exception, and currently has just 34.3 percent open space. Under this proposal, open space would be further reduced to about 32.8 percent, with the green roof on the clubhouse not designated as open space and instead being used for environmental purposes, a late change to the proposal.
Assistant city attorney Joanna Anderson noted that the buildings are legally non-complying structures due to their history compared to the zoning ordinances, and that an exception will continue to be made.
Outside of the hearing, the so-called Resource Protection Area near the water’s edge has come under fire, especially as Laramar look to expand a parking lot in the northeast corner of the property and build two more in the south east corner. In a letter to City Manager Mark Jinks dated July 6 obtained by the Times, Hunting Point resident Maurice
A. Barboza questioned the legality of those plans, as VDOT was not permitted to build the parking lots by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when it owned the property.
“During our meeting [on June 12 with city staff], I was told that VDOT did not comply with state law,” Barboza wrote. “Staff advised that VDOT might have had the authority to pre-empt the environmental statute using a general permit obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). USACE confirmed weeks ago that it has no jurisdiction over any land at Hunting Point.
“If VDOT was not permitted by USACE, it had no authority to build the parking lots. The parking lots were not a necessity of the bridge; they are a by-product of VDOT’s ownership of Hunting Point. Under any circumstances, the city would still have been obligated to require a permit, just as it had for the demolition of 1200 S. Washington St. and many other alterations, including asbestos abatement.”
Asbestos was one of a number of issues that have dogged Laramar since it took over the property from VDOT and has tried to renovate it apartment by apartment. The Environmental Protection Agency issued a stop work order in 2014 for asbestos violations. The company also came under fire for what some deemed to be improper installation of sample windows and advertising banners; allegedly misleading long-term residents about the pace of rent increases, and an enormous amount of construction work.
Gibbs said the clubhouse project would not require a new parking lot — a stipulation triggered when Laramar’s improvements to the property reach a total of $26 million. But she said the company is committed to improving the situation for their residents.
“They’re proposing to construct this clubhouse between the existing buildings so that they can enhance the amenities for their existing residents,” she said. “These residents lived in buildings that VDOT didn’t improve for the entire time that VDOT owned them, so they’ve been working really hard to upgrade these buildings since they’ve had them.
“They’ve done significant improvements in both buildings, and they’re continuing to do other significant improvements in the buildings in order to improve and enhance the liveability of those spaces.”