Planning commission approves Robinson Terminal North redevelopment

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Planning commission approves Robinson Terminal North redevelopment
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By Chris Teale (Image/City of Alexandria)

The plan to redevelop the Robinson Terminal North warehouse into a mixed-use community with housing, commercial space and a 132-room hotel received unanimous backing from the planning commission October 8, although commissioners wrestled with how to handle the parking conundrum that still faces the development.

With commissioner Nathan Macek absent, the body voted 6-0 in favor of sending the project to city council for approval. Council’s public hearing on the proposal is slated for Saturday at City Hall, with a vote expected to follow.

But commissioners contended with several issues surrounding the project, with the question of parking availability the most prominent.

The 66 multi-family units proposed alongside the commercial use and hotel would be served by off-street parking, while staff recommended officials not restrict residents from receiving on-street parking permits. But the expected influx of cars parking along city streets was a big concern for some who testified.

“I see nothing equitable about giving somebody off-street parking that I cannot use while they seem to be entitled to use the only space that I might have,” said Yvonne Weight Callahan, who suggested residents of a particular block should apply for on-street parking and approval should be determined on a case-by-case basis.

“There really is no plan for managing the ongoing congestion and parking that we develop when the waterfront is finally developed,” said Howard Bergman of the Founders Park Community Association. Bergman said the Old Town Area Parking Study work group’s lack of involvement in waterfront parking issues was a “great missed opportunity.”

That question of on-street parking dominated commissioners’ deliberations, with commissioner Mindy Lyle arguing that not including on-street parking for new residents would be inequitable.

“I don’t think it’s the right thing to do to deny a residential parking permit any more than if someone moved into one of the existing townhomes and had six cars; would you deny them the right to have a parking permit because they had a two-car garage and had additional cars?” she asked. “You wouldn’t. There are people in Old Town now who have multiple cars on the street.”

Commissioners were split evenly on the issue, with several acknowledging that parking continues to be an issue in Old Town and must be resolved in a way that satisfies everybody. But commissioner Maria Wasowski said those discussions should be held outside of the Robinson Terminal North deliberations and on a wider basis.

“I think parking needs to be addressed in a major way in Old Town, but I don’t think this application is the place to address overall parking issues,” she said.

In the end, commissioners chose to accept staff’s recommendation not to restrict on-street permits and see how parking works at both the north and south Robinson terminals as they are redeveloped and occupied by new residents.

The planning commission also voted unanimously to approve setting aside $175,000 for maintenance of the proposed pier, which initially would be owned by the applicant, CityInterests, for its first five years but host city events. The pier then would pass into city ownership.

Several residents argued the proposed development does not fit in with the character of Old Town. That went against the applicant’s attorney Kenneth Wire, who promised his client would continue to keep the area’s history in mind.

“If you vote to approve this tonight, you will be nailing yet another nail in the coffin of the fabric and charisma of the historically deepest municipality in the United States,” Hal Hardaway told commissioners. “My conclusion is City Hall is bent on disrespecting and defiling this history.”

“Like many Alexandrians, I’m appalled with the design of the building and its lack of context within the neighborhood and its disrespect of Old Town’s historic character,” said Bert Ely, representing Friends of the Alexandria Waterfront. Ely also accused the city and the developer of being in “direct conflict” with the 1983 settlement agreement made with the federal government that said a hotel was not permitted on the west side of Union Street.

In response, Joanna Anderson from the city attorney’s office said the 1983 settlement is an agreement between the National Park Service and Robinson. She added that NPS confirmed in writing that a hotel would be permitted.

In spite of these issues, commissioners spoke highly of the proposal and the impact it could have in Alexandria.

“I think the best cities, the ones that people really gravitate to, are the ones that are exemplars of all their different eras, from their Revolutionary or pre-Revolutionary past to the modern day,” said commission chairwoman Mary Lyman. “I think this project gives Alexandria
the chance to be that kind of city.”

“I think it’s going to be a wonderful signature project in the north part of Old Town,” said Wasowski, who added that hotels are “win-win” projects. With the planning commission’s unanimous approval, city council will discuss the project at its public hearing on Saturday and put it to a vote.

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