By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
A proposed redevelopment of the Heritage at Old Town could increase the multifamily apartment complex from 244 to 777 units.
The Heritage, located at 413 S. Columbus St., currently spans three blocks and 136,800 square feet in the southwest quadrant of Old Town. Because two of those blocks fall either partially or entirely within the Old and Historic Alexandria District, the Board of Architectural Review must grant the redevelopment a certificate of appropriateness.
The developer, Asland Capital Partners, acquired the property in November 2019, and the project is still in the early concept review stages. The development special use permit application for the project is slated to go before the planning commission and city council in early 2021.
On July 15, the BAR considered a request to completely demolish the existing buildings on the site and provided a concept review of the proposed new development.
In considering the request for demolition, BAR members were essentially tasked with determining whether the existing buildings had significant architectural or historic value.
“We’re here to talk about whether these buildings are worth saving on their architectural merits,” Christine Roberts, BAR chair, said. “Anything outside of that is really outside of our purview and more appropriate for city council or the planning commission.”
The buildings were constructed in 1976 and 1977 as part of an urban renewal project in a traditionally Black neighborhood known as The Bottoms. According to the staff report, the buildings do not meet the city’s preservation standards based on history or architecture.
“We have looked at these buildings and we don’t find anything to be historic or have any architectural merit,” Cathy Puskar, the applicant’s attorney, said. “It’s nothing that couldn’t be replicated today, and they’re not historic.”
However, the BAR voted to defer a decision on demolition because of notice.
The applicant had given notice of the proposed demolition to those required to receive notice, including residents whose homes are adjacent to the property. The applicant did not individually notify the residents who are currently residing in Heritage, although they did host several meetings for residents related to the project, according to Puskar.
“Maybe we have a hole in our notice ordinance if the people who are living in the buildings aren’t getting notice of the demolition of the buildings,” Roberts said. “I understand that the statutory notice was given, but I do think that people who live in the buildings might have opinions as to the architectural merit.”
The BAR voted to defer the demolition decision to a future meeting so that residents of the building can provide input.
During the concept review of the proposed development, the BAR provided feedback on the project’s height, scale, mass and architectural character. Since concept review is an informal stage in the DSUP application process, the BAR did not take any formal action on the project’s design.
Under the current proposal, the redevelopment will include three buildings totaling 777 multifamily residential units and underground parking. The BAR will only provide feedback on the two proposed buildings located on the blocks that fall within the Old and Historic Alexandria District.
The development will also include a redesign of Wilkes Street Park, an open space located within the development along a bicycle route through Old Town.
The buildings incorporate a range of heights, with the tallest portions located closer to South Patrick Street and away from the shorter townhomes that run along South Alfred Street. The proposed development is seven stories at its tallest, and the applicant plans to request bonus height and density from city council for the provision of affordable housing, according to the staff report.
The preservation of affordable housing in this section of Old Town has been an ongoing discussion for several years. In the fall of 2018, city council adopted the Route 1 South Housing Affordability Strategy, a plan that has since been renamed the South Patrick Street Affordable Housing Strategy.
The strategy focuses on preserving affordable housing at the Heritage and Olde Town West III, two rental communities that collectively have 215 affordable units. The plan was developed because the affordability contracts at the two developments will have both expired by the end of 2020.
Of the 777 units proposed in the Heritage redevelopment, 195 are slated to be affordable housing.
Some of the public speakers at the BAR hearing expressed concern about the affordable housing aspect of the project. However, Roberts reiterated that the BAR is limited to criticizing height, mass, scale and architectural character.
Many of those who spoke during the public hearing period said that the project is too large and does not align with the architectural character of the neighborhood. Several of the speakers were residents who live nearby or adjacent to the Heritage.
“Some of [the neighboring homes] are older than others, some of them from the 70s, but they’re all unique and they’re all quaint. This new structure is not quaint at all,” resident Darryl Resio said. “If you look at the architecture that’s proposed, again, it is a massive commercial building. It has no aesthetic appeal that belongs in Old Town Alexandria.”
Stephen Milone, president of the Old Town Civic Association, said the organization was opposed to the current design proposal.
“The proposal is completely out of scale with other projects approved in this southwest quadrant of Old Town,” Milone said.
The members of the BAR largely agreed with the comments from the public about the height and scale of the project. However, they acknowledged that it is difficult to tell how the development will look compared to surrounding buildings based on renderings.
“Internally, my gut feeling is saying this is way out of scale, but I can’t confirm that based on the drawings we’ve been given,” BAR member James Spencer said. “I also have a major issue with the seven-story mass on Alfred Street because that is a small townhouse kind of street.”
The applicant agreed to provide more detailed renderings at the next concept review.
The proposed design includes a series of setbacks, balconies and cladding materials meant to “break up the massiveness of the building and bring it more into scale with the surrounding community,” according to the staff report.
Still, BAR members expressed that this might not be enough.
“I feel like this is going to feel like a giant wall, as far as massing goes, when you walk along this thing because regardless of which way you look at it, it’s just continuous,” Spencer said.
Aside from concerns about the mass and scale, BAR members were critical of the proposed architectural character of the design.
“It can’t just be something that we can find next to an airport somewhere or in Arlington. It needs to be something that fits into the Old Town architectural vocabulary,” Roberts said.
BAR member Purvi Irwin said that a new building in this area could actually contribute to the neighborhood’s character.
“Because there’s such a wide variety of ages of buildings in this neighborhood, I actually think that is a case for putting something new here,” Irwin said. “I think that’s what makes our city vibrant and interesting, having all these different eras of buildings living next to each other in harmony.”
The applicant will likely come back to the BAR for another concept review before the DSUP application goes to the planning commission and council in 2021.
(Read more: Preserving affordability on Route 1)