Robinson North plan advances amid environmental concerns

Robinson North plan advances amid environmental concerns
Conceptual rendering of Robinson Terminal North redevelopment at the corner of Pendleton and N. Union Streets. (Rendering/Morris Adjmi Architects)

By Wafir Salih |

After more than a decade of planning, part of Alexandria’s waterfront is poised for a significant redevelopment by Rooney Properties. Construction on the project, which must navigate a contentious landscape marked by past opposition and current environmental concerns, is expected to begin at Robinson Terminal North by 2025.

Despite statements from the Virginia Department of Environmental Equality and the city that the property is not a Superfund site, a significant portion of the community remains skeptical and views the planned redevelopment with apprehension.

On Nov. 10, 2023, Rooney Properties submitted a “Stage 1 Concept Plan” to the city. The plan outlined their vision for turning more than 600,000 square feet of Robinson Terminal North into mixed-use residential spaces.

Randy Chapman, the environmental manager of remediation at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, said Rooney Properties has worked with the department over the years on assessment and redevelopment.

“The Robinson Terminal is part of a long-term plan for redevelopment and the owners have been working with the DEQ over the years on assessment and planned redevelopment,” Chapman said. “Things kind of went on hold because of the AlexRenew project.”

Superfund status clarification

Robinson Terminal North – as well as the location to the west of it, which once housed the R.H. Bogle Chemical plant – is categorized as an archived Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency.

According to the EPA, Superfund sites are areas that were contaminated “due to hazardous waste being dumped, left out in the open or otherwise improperly managed.”

According to Homefacts, the area is registered as an archived Superfund site and does not necessitate any immediate clean up.

Julia Raimondi, communications coordinator for VDEQ, said in an email to the Times that Robinson Terminal North is not a Superfund site.

“The RTN site is not, nor has ever been, a Superfund site. There are no Superfund sites in Alexandria,” Raimondi said.

Bill Skrabak, Alexandria’s deputy director of infrastructure and environmental quality for the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, said the property was never a Superfund site in a traditional sense because it was never added to the National Priorities List – a list of properties in the United States with the most serious contamination.

“There was a cleanup done for the site back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the worst of it is just west of Robinson Terminal North,” Skrabak said. “… The properties just to the west [of the Dalton Wharf property] were where the worst of the contamination was.”

Andrew Macdonald, founder of the Environmental Council of Alexandria and former vice mayor of Alexandria, said the community perceives the site as problematic despite its official status. He also expressed frustration over previous delays and assurances of remediation.

“I feel like they’re always putting it off, they’re always delaying, they’re always talking about remediation,” Macdonald said. “It’s not … the top line Superfund site, but from the point of view of the community, this is a Superfund site in a sense.”

Hal Hardaway, who resided in Alexandria for more than 20 years, said he believes more borings are needed on the site.

“I think the existing borings proved all we need to know on the west side [but] on the east side [of Union Street], absolutely, there need to be more borings,” Hardaway said.

While the area is no longer an active Superfund site, Skrabak said remediation may still take place.

“There is, based upon past studies, contaminants that would be of concern,” Skrabak said. “There will have to be some remediation at the site.”

Skrabak said the contaminants known to be in Robinson Terminal North are common.

“The contaminants at this site are fairly common,” Skrabak said. “I didn’t get a chance to go back and reread all the studies yet, but I do know there were petroleum contaminants there and metals, which is pretty common for almost all the contaminated sites in the city.”

Skrabak said there is a comprehensive city process in place to deal with remediation.

“The oversight of dealing with the environmental contamination and what will happen will go through two processes,” Skrabak said. “It will go through the Virginia Voluntary Remediation Program. In addition to that, the city has its own oversight of the development or redevelopment of contaminated sites through the [1992] zoning ordinance, so there’ll be two sets of eyes that review the development of the RTN site.”

Skrabak said city staff are aware of the needed processes to be followed.

“[First] you’ve got to find out what’s there, then you do a risk assessment to determine what the chemicals and constituents of concern are and then you determine what the risks are based upon the levels of contamination and the type of use you’re going to have,” Skrabak said.

In 2015, the VDEQ reviewed an environmental assessment report from the property owners. Raimondi highlighted the report’s findings.

“The VDEQ petroleum program requested additional assessment and worked with the owners and their environmental consultant to evaluate the site in more detail,” Raimondi said. “The additional assessment determined at that time that no potential pathways of exposure existed based on current use of the site.”

Following this, Raimondi said a preliminary corrective action plan was developed. The plan outlined future remediation steps to be updated with the final development plans.

Skrabak provided details on what the remedial action plan would entail.

“It could involve things like, you know, that’s where you dig out the contaminated soil, or there’s other measures that you can do like capping it, or typically you put some type of barrier between the environment and people and any of the constituents that are at a concentration, that’s a risk,” Skrabak said.

While acknowledging the oversight process in place, Macdonald said he wants to see more transparency moving forward.

“The city needs to provide the community right now with all the information they haveand just start being a little more transparent,” Macdonald said. “I think that would alleviate a lot of concern and then people would begin to feel like, ‘OK, we’re going to have a conversation about this,’ rather than we’re just waiting for a developer or somebody to tell us it’s not that big a deal.”

Other residents have also raised concerns about the environmental legacy of the area. Among them is Ann Shack, who remains skeptical of the city’s handling of the site.

“If it weren’t so toxic, the city would not have put it into the voluntary remediation program. It wouldn’t have been declared a superfund,” Shack said.

Dean Naujoks, a member of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, noted the possibility of legacy contamination – pollution from past industrial activities – at and around the Robinson Terminal North site, but expressed his uncertainty.

“I think there’s potential legacy contamination in and around the Robinson Terminal North site that links to some of these other sites, I just don’t know it to be true,” Naujoks said.

Skrabak emphasized the approach the city will take with Robinson Terminal North is standard procedure and cited previous examples.

“Cameron Station, Carlyle, Potomac Yard, all of those sites had similar situations and the city was involved in our pro- gram the same way those sites were handled,” Skrabak said.

Timeline for transformation

In 2018, Rooney Properties partnered with AlexRenew on its RiverRenew program to “significantly reduce pollution of the Potomac River by construction of a modernized stormwater outfall and diversion facility at the Robinson Terminal North property,” according to the Rooney Properties official website.

In 2020, a portion of Robinson Terminal North on the east side of Union Street was demolished according to a previous report by the Times. The demolition took place to make way for AlexRenew’s new tunnel system to deal with sewage, RiverRenew.

Rooney Properties’ website also states they would not begin redevelopment until after RiverRenew’s project ends in 2025.

Chapman echoed how redevelopment would restart following the project’s completion.

“The understanding that we have is that once the project [with] AlexRenew is completed, then the redevelopment will then start back up,” Chapman said.

Background and redevelopment

Located at the intersection of Union and Oronoco streets, Robinson Terminal North is right by the waterfront. The property was previously owned by The Washington Post and served as a warehouse. The Post sold Robinson Terminal North to CityInterests in 2013, around the time City Council proposed a new plan to redevelop and make the waterfront more walkable.

The Alexandria Waterfront Small Area Plan was adopted in 2012 through Ordinance No. 4749 after nearly three years of discussions between residents and the city. The final City Council vote was 5-2. The guidelines stated mixed-use buildings should be the main focus of future redevelopment.

“The preferred use on the site is mixed use, emphasizing arts, history and culture (including a museum) and including vibrant commercial uses (such as hotel),” the plan reads.

The vote at the time proved controversial. Opponents of the redevelopment brought a case to the Virginia Supreme Court arguing Council needed a supermajority in order to pass such a sweeping plan. In 2013, Council voted again on the redevelopment, this time with a 6-1 vote, which led to the Supreme Court dismissing the case since the vote met the supermajority threshold.

Despite Council voting on plans for redevelopment on the Waterfront as early 2012, there have been several delays and cancellations over the years. Rooney Properties and CityInterests had plans to develop Robinson Terminal North in 2015, which were put on hold.

The Alexandria Gazette published an article on Aug. 3, 2016, that contains an excerpt of a joint statement from both developers.

“Due to shifting market dynamics, the as-entitled, luxury boutique hotel at Robinson Terminal North is no longer economically viable and high construction costs have resulted in a reevaluation of the project as a whole,” the statement reads. “As a result, we are currently considering a number of options that better reflect the market demands while providing substantial benefit to the city and community.

Today, Rooney Properties plans to develop the Robinson Terminal North without CityInterests.

What’s next?

The Alexandria Waterfront Commission met on February 20 to discuss goals for the redevelopment. The city also hosted a Board of Architectural Review meeting on February 21.

On Thursday, the city will host a virtual community meeting at 7 p.m. regarding the redevelopment project. Residents are encouraged to attend.