Two restaurants proposed for former Robinson Terminal South site

Two restaurants proposed for former Robinson Terminal South site
An aerial depiction of the development site. (Rendering: City of Alexandria)

By Missy Schrott |

Proposed changes to a development at the former Robinson Terminal South site on the waterfront would add a second restaurant to the plans, bringing total restaurant seats on the site to more than 500.

The original development special use permit for the project passed in 2015 and accounted for a 251-seat restaurant and about 5,000 square feet of retail. The special use permit applications that went before the planning commission Tuesday evening would expand the original restaurant to 267 seats and convert the retail space into a 64-seat café partnered with a 232-seat restaurant on the pier that juts into the Potomac River. The planning commission unanimously approved both SUPs.

Alexandria Restaurant Partners has proposed to operate all three restaurant spaces. The main 267-seat restaurant would be a high-end, chef-driven concept with focus on char-gilled dishes, according to ARP partner Scott Shaw. The open-air pier restaurant would have bar, lounge and restaurant seating and would serve light American fare and seafood out of an airstream trailer. While the café would be associated with and primarily serve as a prep kitchen for the pier restaurant, it is also planned to have a small dining area.

“We’ve been playing with ideas and saying, what’s a cool 900-square-foot concept that we can do that can be open to the public?” Shaw said. “It might be sushi, it might be a juice and coffee bar, it might just be a wine bar, but it’ll be something fun and neat and active that is essentially masking the kitchen behind it.”

The café will also have public restrooms that will be available to all pier and waterfront visitors, not just restaurant patrons.

In the time between the DSUP approval in 2015 and the current SUP proposals, the planned retail space was converted to a restaurant because of its distance from King Street, according to Jonathan Rak, the attorney representing ARP.

“What we’ve discovered over the last few years is that this isolated space, there was no demand for a retail type of operation there,” Rak said. “And when Scott and his group said that they’d like to incorporate that within the restaurant operations, we thought that was a very good solution to that demand.”

In response to concerns about the conversion, Planning Commissioner Maria Wasowski said it would have been difficult to attract a retailer to the location.

“It’s not possible for us to say we want retail in a certain place and then assume that that retail will be successful, and that a business will be able to establish itself and function there if there is not demand for retail,” she said. “ … I think we just need to remember that it is not economically viable to run those businesses anymore.”

Several of those opposed to the SUPs live in nearby neighborhoods and are concerned about parking. The 2015 DSUP required that 58 parking spots be provided for the combined restaurant and retail spaces. At the time, it was a 29-space parking reduction from the requirement of 87 spaces.

While the restaurant SUPs have upped the seat count, they have not required the applicant to provide more parking because of the new parking regulations that were implemented in January 2018. ARP still plans to provide 58 spaces, despite it being over the 39-space maximum set by the new regulations.

Commissioner Melissa McMahon asked whether there were repercussions under the new policy for going over the maximum parking requirement.

In response, Principal Planner Dirk Geratz said there were not, since the DSUP had been approved before the regulations changed. However, he hinted that another commercial development might be coming to the site and sharing the parking.

“There’s another user on the site that’s not reflected here because that hasn’t come forward yet,” Geratz said.

Tim Morgan, president of the homeowners’ association for Waterford Place, one of the site’s neighbors, said he had heard rumors about another restaurant being proposed for 2 Duke St. The rumors have not been confirmed.

Morgan said residents in his 36-house neighborhood were primarily concerned about being able to park near their homes and the noise associated with outdoor restaurants.

“If you can’t park within a couple blocks of your home then I think something’s wrong,” Morgan said. “… We’re in favor of development because we think development is necessary. It was a warehouse before, so we knew that was going to happen. What we were not in favor of was the mass and scale of the buildings and the density, as well as the failure to provide adequate parking.”

Morgan said he estimated about half of his neighborhood relied on street parking. Another nearby neighborhood, Harborside, also has residents who rely on a combination of on- and off-street parking.

Harborside resident Richard Platt said his neighbors have had mixed reactions to the proposals. He said he was among those concerned about parking.

“It’s gone from retail to over 500 seats in a restaurant,” Platt said. “It’s not that we don’t want restaurants, we just don’t know where they’re going to park.”

In response to concerns, Shaw said he expected locals who walk instead of drive to be the restaurant’s main patrons.

“The challenge as an operator is this is off the beaten path,” Shaw said. “This restaurant will succeed or fail based upon winning the loyalty of the people who can walk to this restaurant. It’s not for the tour buses. It’s not for the crowds that come in. This is a restaurant for locals.”

Beyond walking and driving, Commissioner Mindy Lyle said the restaurant’s patrons would likely use ride-hailing apps.

“I am not concerned about the parking and part of the reason is a couple of weeks ago I was on King Street on a Friday at about 10:30 at night and as I stood outside waiting for Lyft, I noticed all these people walking out of various restaurants and not one of them walked to a car. They all stood on the curb with their phones waiting on their [Uber or Lyft] and I think realistically that’s where we are,” she said.

In addition, Lyle put forward a motion to increase the restaurant’s hours to 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday and midnight Sunday through Thursday. In the original proposal, ARP had requested weekend hours of 1 a.m. for the pier restaurant and 11 p.m. for the main 267seat restaurant.

“This is my issue with this: we are competing with every other waterfront in the metro area,” Lyle said. “Let’s give businesses the opportunity to expand if they need to and not keep having them come back for additional amendments … and on King Street we’ve been going [to] 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.”

Like Lyle, several other commissioners mentioned making Alexandria’s waterfront comparable to the Wharf, National Harbor and other regional hot spots.

“I think the pier will literally be an unprecedented destination piece that is going to help activate the public access and enliven the flow and the traffic along the waterway itself,” Commissioner Stephen Koenig said. “And I think [this] concept is strong enough to fulfill the applicant’s vision.”

With the planning commission’s approval, which includes expanded hours, the proposal is docketed for a final vote at city council’s March 16 public hearing. Assuming it is approved, Shaw said both restaurants would open by summer 2020.