Planning commission approves Old Colony Inn redevelopment

Planning commission approves Old Colony Inn redevelopment

By Chris Teale (File photo)

The planning commission unanimously approved the redevelopment of the Old Colony Inn hotel at 1101 N. Washington St. at its May 3 meeting. City council will consider and vote on the proposal at its public hearing Saturday.

At times, there was distinct tension in the air as opponents of the project turned out in droves to state their disapproval. Commission chairwoman Mary Lyman noted at the start of the hearing that several written communications making personal attacks on city staff had been received, and similar behavior would not be tolerated at City Hall during public testimony.

Local resident Morrill “Bud” Marston was especially strident in his criticism of city staff and the planning process, suggesting that staff admitted to being under pressure to approve proposed developments. That charge was denied as a “mischaracterization” by planning director Karl Moritz, and brought a rebuke from Lyman, who said she was “offended.”

Marston also alleged he had paid two independent architects $1,500 to analyze the proposal, yet refused to name them, even after questioning from Lyman and attorney Cathy Puskar, who represented the applicant.

Commissioner David Brown said that opponents of the proposal had been undermined by the use of personal attacks.

“I’ve heard three types of arguments tonight,” Brown said. “One was an attack on the good faith of the planning staff as beholden to the developers. I reject those types of arguments. The other arguments are not helped by that type of argument.”

Under the proposal by managing partners Rebecca Pelino and Stephen Bannister of CIA Colony Inn LLC, two stories would be added to the two-story building, as well as a 60-seat restaurant. Within that restaurant is a proposed 20-seat meeting area that can be incorporated into the general eating space.

The expansion would increase the number of rooms available from 49 to 104, and would include 62 on-site parking spaces with a further 13 located off-site on Slaters Lane and connected to the hotel by shuttle buses.

Michael Swidrak, an urban planner in the city department of planning and zoning, said the Board of Architectural Review and its staff found that the proposal conformed to the Washington Street standards and the North Old Town urban design guidelines. Those standards are outlined in a 1929 memorandum of agreement between Alexandria and the federal government.

One aspect of the project to draw residents’ ire was a request by the applicant to modify the requirement in the zoning ordinance for a zone transition setback and have some of the floors on the east side encroach onto that zone. City staff determined the encroachment was minimal, but residents said it would be detrimental to their quality of life.

Commissioners agreed with staff’s findings that the encroachment was minor, and said the refinements made over the course of a long community engagement process showed the developer’s good faith.

“I’m not going to let in my view a rather modest violation of the zone transition requirements stand in the way of a project that seems to work,” said Brown.

Several opponents suggested that making the proposed building smaller by one or more stories would solve a number of problems, including shadows not being cast into their windows and views staying uninterrupted.

“What’s driving the height of the building is not good architecture but the financial needs of the developer,” said Andrea Haslinger.

A number of nearby residents also spoke of their desire to not see hotel visitors park on nearby streets when all the onsite spaces are taken, especially with the off-site spaces set to be located across the parkway on Slaters Lane. Puskar said that was just one of many options
being explored, but opponents said extra cars parked nearby would impact their ability as residents to park.

“We view this plan impractical,” said Elizabeth Sproul. “Overflow parkers are more likely to try to park on the neighboring streets than at this remote site.”

Commissioners said the project is in keeping with the nature of that section of North Washington Street. Commissioner Stephen Koenig said the level of engagement and the work the developer has done with city staff and boards showed their dedication.

“With all due respect to the lack of satisfaction that’s apparent from most of the folks who are in the room right now, my judgement is that this project has refined itself and been refined and been thoughtfully addressed,” he said.

Opponents of the plan said they will continue to fight the redevelopment, which heads to city council for a public hearing and final decision Saturday. Some criticized what they felt was a done deal.

“I think the process was flawed, and I don’t think the citizens ever played on what I would call an equal playing field,” said resident Elizabeth Chimento in an interview. “Commissioners should not come in with their minds made up. This is a time when they should be open-minded and listen to us and not come in with their minds made up.”