Giant revamp in North Old Town approved by council

Giant revamp in North Old Town approved by council

By Chris Teale (File photo)

The redevelopment of the former Giant in North Old Town earned city council’s approval Saturday, but tempers flared briefly over the prohibition of on-street parking permits for new residents at the property. The application passed 6-0-1, with City Councilor Paul Smedberg abstaining.

When the planning commission recommended approval of the project earlier this month, it removed the condition that new residents be denied on-street parking permits, but councilors kept the condition and bemoaned the lack of a coherent policy governing on-street parking.

After a recommendation from the Old Town Area Parking study group, developments are assessed on a case-by-case basis to decide whether residents will be allowed to apply and receive on-street parking permits where sufficient off-street parking is offered.

Last year, the redevelopment of both Robinson Terminal properties on the waterfront was approved with the condition that residents of the new properties would not receive on-street permits given the provision of off-street parking.

“We’re going to continue to have this tension every single time on every single development project in a [parking] district,” said Vice Mayor Justin Wilson.

“We’ve been talking about this issue for six-plus years,” said Smedberg. “It creates so much inequity. We do one-offs, the will is going to be here to put it back in for political reasons, then we’ve got a one-off and we’re going to come back with a policy. What is so complicated by setting up new districts that have uniformity and consistency? I just don’t understand why it is so difficult for us to tackle this issue. I just do not get it.”

Several residents urged council to maintain the ban on residents of the new development applying for on-street parking permits. Bert Ely, vice-president of the Old Town Civic Association, said it forces developments to cater to everyone’s parking needs without putting pressure on already-crowded street spaces.

“Such bans are very legitimate for this reason: it forces the developer to meet all the parking needs for its project on the site of the project and not basically shift it off elsewhere in the area,” he said.

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 include 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.

The project received plenty of support from those who testified before council, including from Scott Shaw, a board member at the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership. Shaw said the $50 million in expected tax revenue would be a great boon for the area, and as the owner of a software company in the neighborhood, he was excited that he and his employees would have more options for food and other amenities.

“This project is a catalyst for the north end of Old Town, which desperately needs it,” Shaw said. “From all measures that we look at, this is a flashing green light for us.”

That theme of the area being boosted was continued by Tom Soapes, the president of the North Old Town Independent Citizens’ Association.

“The proposed redevelopment offers the promise of socially and economically revitalizing this block by bringing neighborhood retail and restaurants and new residents to the area,” he said. “This will no longer be a dead zone on the evenings and weekends.”

But some raised concerns about the perceived lack of community engagement on the project, which has taken place in parallel with discussions about revamping the neighborhood’s small area plan.

“The city’s relentless pressure on government agencies to approve projects is severely straining the integrity of your government employees and marginalizing public input,” said local resident Bud Marston.

Attorney Cathy Puskar of law firm Walsh, Colucci, Lubeley & Walsh, which represents the applicant, rejected those claims. She noted five well-attended community meetings and information distributed among the community by people who spoke against the project, and numerous emails in support of the project.

“I don’t want it to be lost that just because people are not standing in these chambers that you have not received a lot of endorsements and support for this proposal,” she said.

The approval means the development can move forward, with deputy director of transportation and environmental services Carrie Sanders saying that proposed signal changes at traffic lights will help ease potential congestion at the intersection of North Washington and First streets, a potential chokepoint. Sanders said the project may also catalyze more Complete Streets improvements, which help improve roads for all users.