Council approves Old Town North arts anchor

Council approves Old Town North arts anchor
According to the plan, the combined residential building and arts and culture center on North Royal Street will hold 90 multi-family units and feature a ground floor arts school run by The Art League. (Rendering credit: City of Alexandria)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

During the new city council’s abbreviated first public hearing on Jan. 12, council unanimously approved a development special use permit and site plan for an arts and cultural anchor in Old Town North.

The meeting was held in a mere hour-and-a-half, as some docketed items were consolidated so the hearing could be adjourned before the impending snowstorm hit.

The arts and cultural anchor, slated to sit at 1201 North Royal St. at the intersection of North Royal Street and Bashford Lane, will consist of a 90-unit, eight story multi-family residential building and will also feature an outdoor arts walk and an indoor arts space operated by The Art League.

The new site is part of a broader city plan, the Old Town North Small Area Plan, that aims to develop an arts district in Old Town North and preserve arts projects like The Art League.

Last April, city council approved a development plan to move the MetroStage theater to a new site currently occupied by the Crowne Plaza hotel on North Fairfax Street as part of the small area plan. Both The Art League’s new arts center, to be located on the current MetroStage site, and the new MetroStage theater will serve as powerful anchors for Old Town North’s new arts district.

Rendering credit: City of Alexandria

As proposed in the site plan, The Art League’s arts and cultural center will occupy 5,732 square feet of the site’s 9,034 square foot ground floor. The space will be dedicated to a private, commercial arts school run by The Art League that will provide arts programming throughout the year. The Art League will continue to operate from its headquarters in the Torpedo Factory but will move many of its educational programs from its Madison Annex to the new, expanded space at the North Royal Street location, according to Mayor Justin Wilson.

“This is a great project and I really appreciate the partnership with The Art League,” Wilson said after council approved the permit. “The Art League is quietly one of our largest educational institutions in the city and it’s great for it to have a permanent home in this location.”

The Department of Planning & Zoning’s presentation of the plan was the culmination of a three-year process for the city, developer Carr City Centers and the community.

According to Kenneth Wire, Carr City Centers’ attorney, the developer received a lot of input from residents and business owners. A lot of that input was included in the plan put before city council, Wire said, including building monitoring for residents and business owners in the surrounding properties.

“On this site, the community members asked for some monitoring,” Wire said. “We agreed to put seismic monitors on their houses if they wanted, and we will do some external monitoring.”

This was the first time council had seen the plan presented and illustrated in detail and although they approved it unanimously, several council members expressed concerns about the traffic and construction complications that are sure to follow.

Councilor Mo Seifeldein said he was primarily concerned about the amount of parking that will be available to long-time residents if the arts anchor starts drawing people from across Alexandria.

“This will be worked out during final site plan design where we will work at crossing enhancements on both sides or one side of the intersection and we’ll be work- ing with our engineers and the applicant’s engineers,” Heather Diez, deputy director of right-of-way and development services, said in response.

Diez said there will be a parking garage with 144 parking spaces available to residents of the new units with off-site parking available for the arts walk and arts center.

Councilor Del Pepper had questions about how the new building will fit in with Old Town’s aesthetic.

“Do remember that this is Alexandria and brick is always beautiful,” Pepper advised members of Planning & Zoning after seeing the site’s brick, steel and glass design.

Councilor John Chapman, sitting in former council member and ardent glass defender Paul Smedberg’s chair, was more accepting of the design.

“In terms of the glass, I think it’s the perfect opportunity in Old Town to have a different standard of building,” Chapman said. “I think the brick we have in the southeast quadrant doesn’t always need to be replicated in other parts of the city.”

In response to points raised by both councilors, Rob Kerns, development division chief, said the property, with its step-ladder like rise from three story to eight story sections, is designed, both in its aesthetic and height, to transition from Old Town to the more industrial areas in the north.

“This location we view as being a transition property between the lower townhome scale that’s currently there and, on the power-plant side, the taller buildings there are going to be in the future,” Kerns said.

The plan as proposed states that space will be dedicated to the arts for the next 30 years. While many council members expressed concern that the developer might switch the function of the property after those 30 years are up, Wire assuaged those fears. The developer would still have to propose that change to city council, which means it will ultimately be up to future councils to decide how the space is used, Wire said.

All members of council were excited about the plan and what it means for Old Town North and the future of Alexandria’s artists, none more so than Pepper, who made sure the record showed she liked the plan.

“We are just delighted to have this arts anchor there and I know that The [Art] League is quite pleased to be there too,” Pepper said.