Alexandria’s City Council heard more than 60 speakers at a marathon public hearing Saturday who attended largely to express their concerns about the city’s plans to redevelop its waterfront.
The discussion among council members, city staff and Alexandrians touched on some of the most contentious issues that have dogged the beleaguered plan – hotels, parking and flood mitigation.
The waterfront discussion kicked off with a presentation by City Planning and Zoning staff who have spearheaded the proposed changes. Department Director Faroll Hamer aimed to allay citizens’ concerns by reiterating that a newly revamped Alexandria waterfront would in no way resemble its across-the-river neighbor.
“National Harbor has 4,000 hotel rooms. This plan has more like 400 hotel rooms,” she said, adding that another major difference is the height limit. Buildings at National Harbor can stretch 17 stories into the sky, but Alexandria’s plan maxes out at five stories.
She also said: “The plan is a vision. It’s not a blueprint,” which appeared to be a sticking point for some speakers who bridled at the suggestion they should agree to something that appeared vague in its details.
Deputy Director Karl Moritz addressed one of the more prickly points of the discussion – the intended addition of hotels on the waterfront. He said the plan recommends no more than three boutique hotels.
However, a recurring thread throughout the discussion is just how many rooms does a “boutique hotel” really have?
City Council member Del Pepper said she thought these types of hotels had up to about 50 rooms, but planners had something more in mind like Hotel Monaco, which has 240 rooms. Alexandria resident Bruce Miller agreed in his testimony that he thought boutique hotels were smaller.
Linda Couture, president of Founders Park Community Association, also questioned what additional density would do to the neighborhood, and said she found the Planning Department’s definition of a boutique hotel as “arbitrary.”
“The association is not against redevelopment of the Robinson Terminal site, but we are scared of what they might put there,” Couture said via email to Patch, adding that hotels will bring delivery and laundry trucks, beer wagons and garbage issues along with taxi stands and circling cars.
City Councilman Rob Krupicka called for strengthening residential parking rules to spur visitors to park in parking garages.
Councilman Paul Smedberg said part of the strategy should be to entice visitors to park in the middle area of King Street, which does not see as much foot traffic as other parts of the neighborhood. He noted that the city owns two lots there and redevelopment opportunities should be researched.
Vice Mayor Kerry Donley said more discussion should be given to transit alternatives like encouraging employees to use the King Street Metro and the free trolley to discourage single occupancy cars.
Plan proponent Mayor Bill Euille said many of these concerns could be addressed when each portion of it, such as an application for the creation of a hotel, must go through additional hearings in the permitting process.
Donley agreed, saying the “SUP…is a mechanism for enforcement” and because these changes would also occur in the historic district, the approval process is quite stringent.
But former Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald, a staunch opponent of the current plan, disagreed with the argument that the SUP process will help keep a close eye on the plan’s progress.
“Once you get to the SUP stage, developers have the upper hand,” he said.
Restaurateur and businessman Mike Anderson said he had concerns with an “increased” SUP process.
“Everyone wants local flavor restaurants but I’m worried that there will be local restrictions and you’ll end up with an Olive Garden down there and not someone like me or Cathal Armstrong,” he said, referring to the owner of Restaurant Eve and other restaurants in the area.
Donley commented on the waterfront flooding problems, saying, “No matter what we do here, it’s incumbent upon use to undertake flood mitigation as a priority.” He noted that there had been no rain all week until Saturday and The Strand area on the waterfront flooded four times.
A lawyer representing the Old Dominion Boat Club, yet another 800 pound gorilla in the waterfront debate, said the club wants to reach an agreement with the city on its redevelopment plans and will “work hard to accomplish that by June 15.”
Most speakers lauded the council’s decision to delay a vote on the plan.