Robinson Terminal North developers search for answers

Robinson Terminal North developers search for answers

By Chris Teale (File photo)

The redevelopment of Robinson Terminal North on the Alexandria waterfront hit a snag earlier this year when the developers could not secure a hotel tenant, but the project’s attorney said they are committed to making the site work.

At a meeting of the city’s waterfront commission last week, attorney Kenneth Wire of law firm McGuireWoods LLP said despite a “public swing and a miss” in marketing the site, his clients remain confident of progress in the near future.

Wire said a work session on a new site plan could come as soon as October, with a community engagement process to follow after that. Wire said under that timeline, which he acknowledged is a best-case scenario, a new plan could be up for approval by the planning commission and city council in the second quarter of 2017.

The initial plan to revamp the waterfront property was put on hold in late July, just seven months after city council approved the proposal by developers Rooney Properties and CityInterests Inc.

Under the plan adopted by council in October 2015, the property on North Union Street was slated to house 66 multi-family residential units, a 132-room hotel, 25,000 square feet of commercial space and four restaurants with a total mix of 500 indoor and outdoor seats.

In addition, the developers had promised to contribute to nearby amenities, including a public pier, open spaces and other public benefits.

When the developers announced the hiatus, they blamed construction costs and the market’s unfavorable response, especially to the hotel portion of the project. Wire told the waterfront commission that to make the proposal financially viable, a hotel tenant would have had to charge an average of about $250 a night per room.

After an extensive marketing campaign, in which Wire said around 30 different hotel providers were contacted, operators only could commit to around $175 per night per room on average.

With that in mind, Wire said the idea of building a hotel in the westernmost of the site’s two buildings had been abandoned. He said new ideas are complicated by that part of the property’s long and skinny shape.

“Where we stand today is it won’t be a hotel,” he said. “The question is, what will it be?”

Wire said the developers’ financial projections will be provided to City Manager Mark Jinks so he and city staff can examine the numbers. City Councilor Paul Smedberg, a waterfront commissioner, said it was troubling that a developer’s projections were wrong less than a year after approval.

“We trust that they’re doing all different kinds of modeling and factoring in different scenarios and costs,” Smedberg said in an interview. “For them to come back so quickly to say they weren’t moving ahead is really disappointing. That’s going to take a lot of work, they’ll need to scrub the numbers and see what’s going on.”

Adding to the financial troubles of the site were the developer contributions and proffers, Wire said. In particular, he said the obligation written into the project’s development special use permit and approved by the city for rehabilitation of the pier proved too expensive.

At the meeting, Wire said developer contributions for the nearby waterfront redevelopment project at Robinson Terminal South totaled $600,000, but at Robinson Terminal North they are more than $6 million, not including environmental remediation.

Going forward, Wire said the developers are currently exploring their options and allowed uses under the zoning approved by council last October. Stephanie Landrum, president and CEO of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, said the approved waterfront small area plan leaves little room for changes.

“I’m not sure what else could be built there other than what was proposed, and I think that’s what Ken and his team are talking to the city planning staff right now,” she said. “I know having lived through the waterfront plan [process] that the hotel and the retail and restaurant was an extremely critical component of Robinson Terminal North, so my guess is that changing it to something that does not include commercial is probably not an easy thing to do.”

Despite the uncertainty around the site, officials said they still are hopeful the project can move forward in the near future.

“I’d really hate to see a project that is too dumbed down,” Smedberg said. “It’s too important a site for us, and we’re really looking to have something significant on that site we can all be proud of. We don’t just want a row of townhouses.”

“When we were doing the waterfront plan, I don’t think anyone thought that all four development projects would be under construction at the same time: the [Indigo] hotel, Robinson Terminal South, the new Old Dominion Boat Club club- house and Robinson Terminal North,” said Landrum. “Three of them are under construction right now. Perhaps they had the momentum and they go first, and then Robinson Terminal North will be the last piece.”