By Alexa Epitropoulos | [email protected]
When Charlotte, North Carolina-based Asana Partners closed on its first set of properties in December of last year, it became one of Old Town’s most dominant proprietors overnight.
The development company bought the entirety of PMA Properties’ portfolio on Dec. 14, 2016, closing on 14 sites in all, including a selection of marquee upper King Street properties: the former European Country Living store at 1006 King St. and a 5,900-square-foot corner property at 1100 King St. If Asana was trying to gain a foothold on King Street in 2016, it was vying to rule it in 2017.
It closed on its second purchase, Monarch Row, in August, buying five King Street properties and one on South Union Street, bringing its portfolio in Old Town to 20 locations worth more than $100 million.
Unlike some of its properties on upper King Street, though, Monarch Row, just two blocks
west of the waterfront, has little vacancy, counting pop-up boutique 116 King, Paper Source, Pizzeria Paradiso, Lou Lou and Ben & Jerry’s among its retail occupants.
As Asana nears the one year mark of ownership in Old Town, little is known about tenants the company may recruit for its vacant storefronts. So far, only Conte’s Bike Shop at the 1100 King St. location is confirmed. The build out has already begun on the space for the regional retailer, which has eight locations throughout Virginia and one in D.C.
Those who are active in developing Alexandria’s retail footprint are optimistic about Asana’s plans, saying that the company’s far reach and sheer number of storefronts in Old Town could be a game changer for the area.
With so many properties at their disposal, Asana has the ability to carefully select and curate its tenants – something an individual owner in Old Town might not be able to do.
“I think the opportunity is that Asana can look now at their holdings that span from the
bottom of King Street to the middle of King Street. As they talk to potential retailers, they can find the best solution,” Alexandria Economic Development Partnership CEO Stephanie Landrum said. “That’s an interesting approach because a lot of properties in Old Town and on King Street are controlled by one family. With each deal, they’re trying to shoehorn a deal in … to someone like Asana, their team can talk to multiple retailers and restaurateurs at a time. They can piece them in. I think that opens a lot of opportunities.”
Although Asana is a fairly new company, its interest in Old Town apparently isn’t new.
What is Asana?
Asana evolved out of the real estate development company Edens. Three of its former executives, Terry S. Brown, Jason Tompkins and Sam Judd, launched Asana Partners in August 2015, according to a news release issued by the company, with the goal of “balancing a vision and passion for the retail experience with the financial rigor necessary to create value.” Brown is now the company’s managing partner.
Edens already has a footprint in Alexandria. After gaining approval from city council last year, the development group broke ground this year on a mixed-use redevelopment at 530 First St., the location of the former Giant in Old Town North.
It will include 232 luxury rental units and 50,000 square feet of commercial space for retail and restaurants when completed.
The company also owns Van Dorn Plaza on Alexandria’s West End, a 32-unit shopping center anchored by a Safeway that also contains a CVS, restaurants, a coffee shop and a gym, which it renovated.
Edens’ footprint also extends to D.C., where it redeveloped Union Market in D.C.’s NoMa neighborhood, which boasts about 40 tenants, including popular restaurants Rappahannock River Oysters, Red Apron Butcher, Dolcezza’s Factory and newcomers like nostalgic soda shop Buffalo & Bergen and cheese shop Righteous Cheese.
Asana, thus, already had some knowledge of the market when it started shopping about a year ago, Landrum said. Investing in Old Town also fits well into their existing portfolio.
“Alexandria is well known as a downtown retail neighborhood, which is something Asana is focused on in the south,” Landrum said.
“Their strategy has been to bring in a mix of independent, regional retailers alongside some recognizable brands,” Landrum said.
Asana shows similar interest in urban core areas.
Just this year, it acquired 28 properties in Deep Ellum, a popular historic district in Dallas, Texas. It made similar investments in its home base of Charlotte, as well as in Nashville, Tennessee, where it bought properties near Music Row, and Atlanta, Georgia, where it bought historic buildings Plaza Theatre and Majestic Diner.
Though it’s too early to see the end result of those investments yet, some of their development progress offers clues of how they might proceed. So far, at its development near Charlotte’s South End, they’ve announced tapas and wine concept Barcelona Wine Bar and Atlanta-based TexMex restaurant Superica, according to the Charlotte Business Journal.
Asana declined to talk about further plans for Old Town at this time, with Director of Development Reed Kracke, who has been spearheading the project, saying via email: “Old Town Alexandria is a strong retail corridor, and we are excited to be a part of the community and about the opportunities here.”
What it means
Several of Alexandria’s business leaders have reacted positively to Asana’s purchases and the company’s potential impact.
For Bill Reagan, director of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, Asana follows the legacy of PMA Properties’ Rob Kaufman, who he said had a long-standing reputation of working well with his tenants. Kaufman declined to comment for this story.
“Asana is a very forward-thinking, progressive-minded property owner that looks for sophisticated businesses,” Reagan said.
“They maintain properties at a high quality level so businesses that lease their space will get top notch sales. They bring them to the right conditions and they have a good reputation.”
Reagan also said their investment is an endorsement of Old Town’s robust business environment.
“It looks to me that when someone of the quality of Asana comes in and buys properties, it says they have an optimistic view,” Reagan said.
The kind of capital they bring to the table is also attractive, Landrum said, with the
potential to transform the now vacant former European Country Living and Old Town Theater spaces on King Street. Landrum said she particularly hopes to see the block of King Street between Patrick and Henry streets activated.
“Having someone like Asana take control of that asset and be able to invest in tenant improvements and to bring in an anchor tenant, that’s one of the most exciting opportunities,” Landrum said.
Asana’s move into Old Town also coincides with an evolution across the river as retail and restaurants open at The Wharf D.C. between this fall and spring of 2018.
“It’s absolutely competition. We’ll be competing with them for regional visits. When you think about what you’re going to do on the weekend, you’ll ask ‘do I want to go to Old Town or National Harbor or the Capitol Riverfront?’ It’s another neighborhood we’re competing with. It will be the new shiny penny for the immediate future,” Landrum said.
The company’s redevelopment of properties could help make Old Town competitive with The Wharf for regional visits, Landrum said.
“I think what Asana is doing and who they end up bringing in could help us and lead to exciting things,” Landrum said.
What it means for small business
Small retailers in Old Town, for the most part, still aren’t sure what to expect from Asana. For some, it’s a nuanced reaction.
While Asana could bring in more customers that boost Old Town’s retailers as a whole, some worry it could raise rents and push small businesses who are already on the edge out.
Suzanne Runyon, who has owned the boutique Hysteria on South Fairfax Street for five years, is still undecided about what Asana could mean.
“I’m concerned it’s going to drive up rent,” said Runyon, who is also acting president of the Old Town Boutique Association. “It’s positive in that it will compete with The Wharf … We
feel we need traffic, but we need the right kind of traffic.”
The lack of information on retailers, she said, also makes it difficult to know what the impact will be on the neighborhood.
“There’s a lot that’s unknown and a lot of uncertainty about who’s going in. Until we know who’s going in, we won’t know the true impact,” Runyon said.
Reagan, who works with small businesses on a daily basis, said the mix of retailers Asana brings in could make a major difference.
“There is a property owner that intends to fill those stores and I think their reputation is filling spaces with a mix of businesses. They may bring a few national and regional brands, but they also get independent local brands,” Reagan said. “Most business owners I know look at that mix as being attractive.”
Landrum advised residents to look at Asana like any new neighbor.
“I think they should look at Asana as a new partner and neighbor,” Landrum said. “I think they should think about approaching Asana as a new neighbor where they live. You want to be welcoming, you want to learn about their interests, and you want to figure out how to work together.”
Landrum’s hope is that Asana brings in businesses that reflect Old Town – and work with the city in achieving its economic goals.
“I hope they plan to be an active partner – they’ve shown every sign that this is the case, but I hope they get involved in the discussion about the long-term sustainability of our business community,” Landrum said. “I think they are very in touch with our overall brand.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated Asana Partners purchased the Old Town Theater at 815 King St. Although Asana Partners do own 815 1/2 King St., they did not purchase 815 King St. The Times regrets the error.