A Giant leap for North Old Town

A Giant leap for North Old Town

By Chris Teale (Image/City of Alexandria)

The city planning commission recommended approving redevelopment of the site of the former Giant grocery store in North Old Town last week, but there was significant debate over the project’s impact on traffic and the amount of public input, among other matters. City council will decide whether to give the proposal the green light Saturday.

Property owner Edens requested the redevelopment of two parcels of land comprising an entire city block. The site is bounded by First Street to the north, North Pitt Street to the east, Montgomery Street to the south and North Saint Asaph Street to the west.

In place of the former grocery store, which closed last year, and a still-open Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control store and offices, the project would build 232 multi-family residential units, 51,000 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor and 481 underground parking spaces. Nine of the residential units would be designated as affordable.

Under the plan, the maximum building height at the property would increase from 50 to 77 feet, with the heights of buildings set to vary between 27 and 77 feet. The property also would be rezoned from its current commercial general zone to a coordinated development district zone.

A report by city staff noted that the site has been under discussion for redevelopment since 1992, when the North Old Town small area plan was last updated. The plan is in the midst of another revamp, which began in September 2015, with its new iteration slated for adoption in January 2017.

The ongoing planning process, which has seen a number of community charrette-format meetings to encourage citizen feedback, gave some commissioners and residents unease as it relates to the current project. Several felt there had been too little community engagement on the Giant property, and that a desire to push it through quickly was too strong.

“This project has come to us, almost like every other project, as a fait accompli,” said Daniel Straub, co-chairman of the area’s urban design advisory committee. “The reason there is so much concern is that all the building height, the building mass, etc. was established before it even came to us.”

Straub said the urban design advisory committee had not formally endorsed the project at its meetings, something that troubled commissioner Stewart Dunn.

“We have a situation where the tail is wagging the dog,” he said. “What we do here tonight, if we rush into this, is we are setting a whole pattern for the small area plan.”

Nathan Randall, an urban planner in the city’s department of planning and zoning, said redeveloping the site with the current plan is an important opportunity, and one that does not need to wait for the adoption of the small area plan update. Other commissioners said there had been plenty of opportunities for community engagement on the project.

“This project has gone through all the steps that projects do,” said chairwoman Mary Lyman. “There’s been ample opportunity for people to participate and be heard. People were well heard tonight. We can promise we will listen, we can’t promise that we will see, in the end, things the way you see them.”

Also coming under scrutiny were city staff’s pronouncements that the impact on traffic in the area would be negligible. Carrie Sanders, acting deputy director of the city’s department of transportation and environmental services, said at the 15 intersections analyzed with or without the development, traffic volume would stay at virtually the same levels. She added that signal improvements at North Washington and First streets would help alleviate congestion.

“Certainly with new development we’re always going to see increases in trips,” Sanders said. “I wouldn’t tell you there wouldn’t be more trips. What I would tell you is that the trips are going to happen regardless of this particular development.”

But a letter sent by Darrell Drury, president of the organization Volunteers in Service to the Improvement of Old Town North, dated March 1 and provided to the Times, said the development would “seriously aggravate” unsafe driving conditions in that area.

Drury’s letter went on to say the methodology and software used by traffic consultants Wells and Associates is outdated. The firm used the “Highway Capacity Manual: 2000,” published in the year 2000, but Drury’s letter says that the 2010 version should be used, since it takes into account the use of alternative transportation options and updates the methods used to determine the queue rates at intersections like North Washington and First streets.

At the hearing, Sanders said the methodology used is consistent with the city’s standards for a traffic study, and that neither the city nor the Virginia Department of Transportation permits the methodology referenced by Drury, something Drury disputes.

The proposal was recommended for approval with six “yes” votes — Dunn abstained — and supporters of the project expressed excitement at what could come at the site.

“This will no longer be a dead zone on the evenings and the weekends,” said Tom Soapes, president of the North Old Town Independent Citizens’ Civic Association. Council will hold its own public hearing on the measure Saturday.