Our View: Something stinks along the waterfront

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Torpdo (Photo Credit: R. Kennedy for ACVA)
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The stench rising from Alexandria’s waterfront is not the D.C. wastewater treatment plant on a day when the wind is blowing east to west. Instead, it’s the classic bait-and-switch that has been perpetrated on Alexandria residents by the proposal to now add a second restaurant to the development at the Robinson Terminal South site. The proposal was unanimously approved at Tuesday’s planning commission meeting and will almost certainly pass later this month at city council’s public hearing.

A bait-and-switch occurs when one item is advertised, but the seller knows all along that another, less-desired substitute will actually be peddled. The initial item, the bait, gets the seller what they want, such as a customer in a store or – as is the case with this proposal – approval for a large parking reduction in a development project.

Once that objective has been achieved, then the switch takes place. In this case, that meant adding a second large restaurant to a project after the parking reduction had been attained. We think this approach was flat out wrong.

For those unfamiliar with the background, when the Robinson Terminal South project was approved by city council in 2015, it included just under 100 residential units, one restaurant, another 5,000 square feet for retail and a 29-space parking reduction for the restaurant and retail.

Now, less than four years later, city staff, the developer and the planning commission have had the revelation that retail space two blocks south of King Street is not economically viable. They just now decided the project’s retail space should be replaced by an almost 300-seat restaurant – which will be located in the residential heart of Old Town with no additional parking provided.

Apparently, city staff, city council and EYA, the developer, hadn’t had an inkling prior to seeking the initial parking reduction that a restaurant, and not retail, was going in that space.

And to be distinct, this is not redevelopment, with one restaurant simply replacing another as happens all the time along King Street. No, this is a brand new restaurant where an empty warehouse formerly resided going in the middle of a neighborhood already so devoid of on-street parking that 13 blocks have had paid parking installed.

Scott Shaw of Alexandria Restaurant Partners said that ARP, which would operate the proposed second restaurant, expects it to mainly be patronized by Old Town residents who will walk. Maybe that’s how it will play out, but then why are city staff and the planning commission touting the restaurant’s late-night hours of operation and vibrancy as elements that will allow Alexandria to compete with National Harbor and the Wharf?

Obviously, patrons from D.C. and Maryland are not going to walk to Old Town. Taking an Uber or Lyft both ways across the Potomac River would add around $40 to an evening in Old Town and water taxiing more. Some people will pay this, but many others won’t and will opt to drive instead.

This is not just an Old Town issue; it impacts residents throughout Alexandria. As debate on extending the pay-to-park pilot program showed, residents in other parts of Alexandria say they won’t come to Old Town to eat or shop if there’s no place to park. They seem disinclined to pay for parking, a taxi or Uber – or to ride the fad du jour, dockless scooters – across town.

Allowing businesses to pay for their patrons’ on-street parking is definitely not the solution, as that would lead to more cars on the streets and obviate the benefit residents have received from pay-to-park.

While we have little expectation this will happen, city council should have the courage to say “no” to a second restaurant at this development at the March 16 public hearing.

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