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Alexandria Council Approves Waterfront Hotel

Critics say hotel project sets wrong tone for waterfront redevelopment.

A conceptual drawing of the Union Street hotel. The project remains subject to a final architectural review.
A conceptual drawing of the Union Street hotel. The project remains subject to a final architectural review.

Alexandria City Council approved plans Saturday for a five-story, 120-room hotel from Carr City Centers in the 200 block of S. Union Street, a tone-setting development as the city moves forward with its waterfront overhaul.

Nearby residents expressed concerns about parking and congestion issues, the size and scale of the project as well as its architectural design.

The proposal, three years in the making, has been subject to three concept assessments from the city’s Old and Historic District Board of Architectural review. A final architectural review is scheduled before the project is finalized.

Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille said many of the architectural issues have been addressed—including some concerns on roof and window design—an will still be tweaked some more at the final review.  

Councilmembers gave specific directions on building materials for the brick, steel and stone building that McGuireWoods attorney Ken Wire, representing Carr, said “will be a high-quality building that will be around for 100 years to come.”

Carr will make a $675,000 contribution to waterfront amenities. Council deleted a $20,000 bikeshare contribution, cut back deliveries to the earlier hour of 8 p.m. and added a condition to require conformity in the building’s lighting plan.   

Critics of the project said the hotel was setting some poor precedents on the waterfront.

“This does not set the tone, in fact, it doesn’t even come close,” said Old Town resident Bert Ely.

Old Town resident Bob Wood was critical of how the city’s planning commission recommended approval on the project in early January without tackling issues of appropriate use and neighborhood impacts.

“They could only achieve good, not great as an outcome for this project,” Wood said. “How many ways can a project can scream wrong answer to our city and city leaders? What a depressing early end to our aspirations for a word-class waterfront in this very first instance of development.”

He encouraged council to send the project back to planning commission to come up with a plan that “someone other than city staff” would recommend.

Euille said many of the issues opponents brought up were not specific to the project but of the city’s waterfront zoning as a whole.

“It’s the master plan [people are taking issue with],” Euille said. “That’s already been determined and decided.”

After zero speakers spoke in favor of the hotel at the planning commission hearing, officials from the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, Alexandria Economic Development Partnership and Waterfront Commission spoke in favor of the project.

“You can’t keep a vibrant city unless you keep moving forward,” said Lisa Schumaier, an artist at the Torpedo Factory Art Center.

The hotel plan includes a 5,000-square-foot courtyard accessible to the public, an underground, valet-controlled parking garage and a restaurant.

The plan was approved by council on a 6-0 vote. Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg did not attend Saturday's hearing to attend to a family medical issue. 

monkeyrotica January 26, 2014 at 08:42 AM
Classic example of the perfect being the enemy of the good enough. Quit being obsessed with being a "world class" ANYTHING, particularly NIMBY. Clowns.
beth gibney January 26, 2014 at 10:05 AM
"Monkeyrotica", being a NIMBY, I thought I would be a good one to reply to your post. NIBMYs, in this case, are those of us who are heavily invested in Old Town, not just financially, but as volunteers, planting trees on the street at our own expense, cleaning the sidewalks and streets of trash left by tourists, relaying brick sidewalks, adding gas lanterns, complying to the excruciating rules of the BAR in order to keep our homes suitable to the historic integrity of Old Town. So yes, we NIMBYS are the exact people who have a sense of what is "good enough" in our neighborhood. And you are right, we strive for "perfect" because keeping Old Town, "Old Town" is a delicate balance, and this hotel sets the precedent of what will follow on the waterfront. Good enough might meet your low standards, but not those of the Old Town NIMBYs and those who appreciate what Old Town brings to Alexandria. The NIMBYs are the gatekeepers. The hotel does not fit - size or style. It's an ugly mansard roofed gorilla! They are shoehorning a 120 room hotel into a space that would, at best, accommodate 70 rooms. But 120 keys is the business model for the hotel, and the city is not about to let that easy tax money go. Very short sighted.
Patch Reader January 26, 2014 at 10:57 AM
If not this project, it'll be a bunch of townhouses, which is the last thing we need in that location. Some are under the illusion that the city can limit the hotel to 70 rooms and someone will still want to build a hotel there. This is a very different market than when the Morrison House was built 30 years ago. The design has been evolving, and is headed in the right direction. In a couple years when this project opens, we'll wonder what the hub-bub was about while we drink and dine overlooking a new park on the Strand. Sounds like an exciting early beginning to plans for a better waterfront.
beth gibney January 26, 2014 at 11:25 AM
If the city limited the hotel to 70 rooms, the property value and sale price of the property would have been lowered, and a developer could have afforded to build a 70 room hotel for profit. But instead of tightening the screws on that end, the city rolled over, and the winners are the sole property owner who can demand a higher price and the the 50 room tax (chump change) difference the city will realize, in exchange for cramming an oversized ugly structure in prime waterfront space. Compromise would have made sense for all. Without the NIMBYs of Old Town, we'll be another Crystal City. It looks like the city is doing it best to move the waterfront in that direction.
Patch Reader January 26, 2014 at 11:41 AM
The city doesn't control the free market. To be effective, plans need to recognize market realities. Limiting the project to 70 rooms would indeed have limited the value of the property, but to the point where a hotel would not invest here due to the cost of the high quality architecture expected in this location, the underground parking, and contributions to nearby parks and surrounding infrastructure. Instead, someone would have built condos, and that's not what the small area plan calls for in this location.
Patch Reader January 26, 2014 at 11:42 AM
Comparisons to Crystal City (and National Harbor) are uninformed. This project is no taller than a lot of other buildings already along the waterfront, including the former otolaryngologists building on S. Union St. and the Harborside condos. By the way, there already has been a lot if compromise along the way. For example, there won't be another hotel at the Robison Terminal South site. These changes are rarely acknowledged by waterfront plan opponents.
oldtowner January 26, 2014 at 02:22 PM
Agree with Patch Reader: every time someone compares what is happening along our waterfront to "National Harbor" (like Vice Mayor Silberberg) or "Crystal City" (Ms. Gibney) you know they are desperate. Such hyperbole has no place in discussions about the waterfront. No way in he** Alexandria is every going to look like Crystal City. Get a grip, folks.
Camrn January 26, 2014 at 03:22 PM
Morrison House and Restaurant Eve were both awarded a "Best" Award from AAA/CAR. This past week. They are both known for their high quality offerings. Small scale can be very lucrative. And Ms. Gibney is right - it takes a lot of expensive upkeep and maintenance to keep historic properties looking beautiful and inviting. The success of Old Town's brand is due to its distinctive architecture, big trees, flower boxes, wooden windows, small streets, brick sidewalks, and people who care about where they live. Yesterday's vote basically threw out almost four years of citizen engagement to achieve a level of acceptable density that will contribute to a total 72% increase in population in Old Town, when all the proposed buildouts are finished by 2016. The ARHA property development alone accounts for a roughly 31% increase in people living close to Oronoco and Founders' Parks. I'm afraid Old Town will look very much like the the Orange line popups in Arlington. Recently, the National Flood Insurance Program gave Alexandria a negative rating on open space preservation and stormwater management. For the past twenty years the city has been rated the densest in the state. One thing for sure, in the age of the internet, it will be easy to see the results… and judge the actions of city officials.
McBrinn January 26, 2014 at 03:48 PM
I wish Euille would head to Richmond already. What kind of guy destroys his own hometown?
David L. January 26, 2014 at 04:20 PM
Unfortunately Kum Ba Yah moments in American politics - and in Alexandria - are rare when it comes to Old Town, I think. But the City will move on. This decision is not going to turn Alexandria into Rosslyn or Arlington or National Harbor. And Old Town will continue to be a delightful place to live. The City will continue to evolve and change - and it's great to see all the debate as to how to shape that change, with intelligent people on all sides. And now to move onto the next set of issues - and there are plenty out there coming up - the Robinson Terminal properties, the bus garage development plans, the City's financial commitment to the Potomac Yards metro station, the ongoing issues about the schools, the storm water system upgrades, and on and on.
Katy Cannady January 26, 2014 at 07:41 PM
I attended the hearing on the hotel yesterday. The lawyer for the project spent a long time showing pictures of the one story warehouse on the site now and commenting on how ugly it was. That was a waste of everyone's time. There was never any possibility that the 20th century building would remain much longer. Whatever might replace it would be much larger and very different. But all the irrelevant time wasting talk made me realize that that lawyer did not have much faith in the attractiveness of his building. If he had any such faith, we would have heard more about the new building and less about the one that was always going to be torn down.
jon.wallman January 27, 2014 at 03:26 PM
I moved to Old Town 20 years ago. It seems that the arguments over what to do with the waterfront were already old and well seasoned, but nothing has happenned since then. Now finally, something will change. That is a good thing. Old Town will continue to be Old Town, only better.

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