New arts district to occupy North Old Town

New arts district to occupy North Old Town

By Missy Schrott |

At its public hearing on Saturday, city council voted unanimously to approve amendments to the city’s zoning map and master plan that allow for the creation of a new arts district in North Old Town.

The amendment to the city’s official zoning map adds the Old Town North Arts and Cultural District Overlay, which covers portions of North Fairfax, Montgomery, Madison, First, North Saint Asaph, North Pitt, North Royal, Third and North Washington streets and Canal Center.

The master plan amendment involves converting the Crown Plaza hotel at 901 N. Fairfax St. into a multifamily residential building. The redevelopment also includes adding 41 townhouses and a theater space to the property.

The goal is for the theater to become the arts and cultural anchor for the new arts district – a designated cultural hub.

According to staff’s presentation, the arts and cultural anchor will be a venue where visual or performing arts and cultural works are taught, created and made available to the public, such as live theater, dance or music. The zoning map amendment specifically allows the arts and cultural anchor to be 100,000 square feet, up from the 50,000 square feet of the original proposal.

Councilor Paul Smedberg praised the increase in size, and said it would give the city great flexibility for future uses of the space.

According to the plan, the arts and cultural anchor will be designated as an arts space for a minimum of 30 years. The theater company MetroStage plans to occupy the space.

“This is a significant step in what’s about to happen in this area of Alexandria,” MetroStage Board Member Mark Feldheim said. “This designation as an arts and cultural center, the establishment of an anchor, it’s going to make this a community that’s more walkable, more livable.”

The Crown Plaza redevelopment will convert the existing 13-floor hotel building into up to 153 multifamily residential units. The plan also includes upgrading the building’s exterior. Residents will be able to park in the existing underground parking garage.

“This project … along with some other things going on in that area, is going to bring some real vitality to this neighborhood, and I think it’s enormously exciting, and I think the arts use is so central to that,” Vice Mayor Justin Wilson said.

Council voted unanimously to approve both items.

While establishing a new arts district will certainly bring vibrancy to the city, Alexandria will also be taking on a less glamorous project in the coming years: updating the city sewer system.

In April 2017, the state passed legislation that requires Alexandria to remediate its combined sewer outfalls by July of 2025.

At the public hearing, city staff and Alexandria Renew Enterprises put forward a proposed plan that was unanimously recommended by the Ad Hoc Combined Sewer System Plan Stakeholder Group, a group of 14 residents that helped critique and update the plan.

The option the stakeholder group recommended includes a unified storage tunnel with wet weather treatment that, once implemented, will capture 96 percent of combined sewer flows. Five main criteria were reviewed in the planning process: life cycle costs, O&M complexity, adaptability, schedule risk and community impact.

“It’s a very aggressive schedule but we’re showing that we’re about to get it done by July 2025,” said Justin Carl, a project manager with Brown & Caldwell.

The project is still in the public comment period, and council will vote on it at its April 24 legislative meeting.

“This is truly a model process for how things should work, with AlexRenew and city staff, in addition to this excellent stakeholder’s group,” Mayor Allison Silberberg said. “Other cities will be looking to us, probably, to see how we’ve done this. I actually have no doubt about that.”

Also at the hearing, council voted unanimously to approve an application for the construction of a single-family dwelling at 105 Uhler Terrace. Wilson recused himself from this discussion and vote, as he had previously taken a campaign contribution from the applicant.