In marketing materials produced by Studley, which Capital Business obtained from a potential buyer, the warehouses are pitched as “one of America’s most storied, vibrant and sought-after locations” and “unparalleled opportunities to create world-class redevelopment icons for generations to come.”
The reality, however, is that divisions remain in Alexandria about what should be built in place of the warehouses and whether the properties are capable of coaxing the bustling crowds off King Street a few blocks north or south to new attractions.
Val P. Hawkins, president and chief executive of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, said both sites could make successful mixed-use developments.
Under a waterfront plan adopted by the Alexandria City Council more than a year ago, the 3.2-acre north terminal site between Pendleton and Oronoco streets, briefly envisioned by officials as a landing spot for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, could accommodate 238,815 square feet of new development. The 3.5-acre south terminal site, located between Duke and Wolfe streets, could afford 380,528 square feet.
Hawkins hoped the projects would incorporate museum or arts space along the waterfront. “The city would love to see a cultural arts component on the east side of Union Street,” he said.
Worries about Old Town’s character
Despite the plan’s passage, there are still residents fighting to prevent the Robinson Terminals from being replaced with major mixed-use projects — and the tourism and traffic that they may attract.
The Alexandria Planning Commission voted unanimously last week to endorse the plan, which would allow the construction of two hotels on the waterfront, but two lawsuits on the matter have not been resolved.
Bert Ely, co-chairman of a residents’ group called Friends of Alexandria Waterfront that opposes the waterfront plan, said the warehouses should be developed into a mix of new buildings and open space, but that hotels shouldn’t be part of the equation because of the parking and crowds they would produce. “I can assure you that the people who live in the immediate area don’t want hotels,” he said.
Allison Silberberg, the city’s new vice mayor, said she doesn’t want to see more than one hotel added to the waterfront, despite city budget shortfalls. “It might increase revenue, but you have to remember that if it changes the character irrevocably of historic Old Town Alexandria, then that’s killed the goose that laid the golden egg,” she said.
If the plan remains in place, city officials and prospective buyers of the warehouses will still need to determine how to lure crowds of shoppers and diners off of Old Town’s main drag.
Bill Dickinson, a broker at the Rappaport Cos. who grew up in the nearby Bell Haven neighborhood, said part of the interest in the Robinson Terminal sites comes from the difficulty restaurant operators have in finding space on or near King Street. “Old Town is on a lot of national and local restaurants companies’ targets, and they struggle with finding a viable location,” he said.
He said some restaurants off of King Street, including Union Street Public House and Virtue Feed & Grain, were already succeeding. “Union Street is viable, it’s just that you need the physical structures to be well-designed,” he said.
The trick, he said, will be building something new that can blend into an old and cherished neighborhood.