Boat club puts a hitch in Alexandria’s waterfront plan


Singer and guitarist Ku Ku performs behind the Torpedo Factory Art Center along the Alexandria waterfront. (Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST)
June 9, 2011

Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong are in the final stages of setting up their new restaurant, Virtue Feed and Grain, in the former Olsson’s Books and Records building in Alexandria.

The couple have restored the 19th-century building at 106 S. Union Street and the adjoining Wales Alley with the hope that it “will be one of the pathways to the waterfront,” Meshelle Armstrong said.

The windows on the top floor of the restaurant will fold back like accordions for a view of the Potomac River, which is just beyond the Old Dominion Boat Club parking lot.

“The river is magnificent, once you get past that,” said Cathal Armstrong, pointing to the lot at the foot of King Street.

Alexandria officials are considering a $50.5 million plan for a three-mile park along the Potomac River’s shores with scenic vistas of the Capitol. They envision a continuous link between the northern point, Daingerfield Island, and the southern point, Jones Point Park, that will offer the public access to the water, more restaurants and boutique hotels.

One major problem with the city’s vision is Fitzgerald Square, a proposed park that would unify the north and south ends of the waterfront plan that was originally planned for where King Street meets the Potomac.

The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled this year that this prime piece of real estate belongs to the Old Dominion Boat Club, a century-old private club that isn’t going anywhere. City officials hope the ruling, which ended 38 years of litigation, will lead to a plan involving Alexandria, the boat club and other waterfront property owners, including The Washington Post Co.

“The issue with the Old Dominion Boat Club, the legal issues, certainly have been a drag to preclude anything from really happening” on the waterfront, said Mayor William D. Euille (D). “We were waiting every year for a final decision that never came.”

As Alexandria waited, National Harbor was built in Prince George’s County. The District moved ahead with plans for the Anacostia and Southwest waterfronts.

But some residents, calling themselves Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan, oppose the new zoning provisions that would allow for the construction of hotels and an additional 125,000 square feet of development, which they say would be “terrible” for residents and small business.

The boat club has made it clear it does not want to move but is continuing talks with city staff to find a solution. City planners have given up hope that the envisioned park, Fitzgerald Square, will happen anytime soon. Instead, the focus is on walkways through the club’s parking lot.

The trouble started in the late 1970s when the National Park Service filed a lawsuit claiming it owned Alexandria’s waterfront, given the 1791 transfer of land to create the District of Columbia.

In response, most waterfront properties agreed in settlements to redevelop portions of their property into parkland by 1983 in return for larger redevelopment opportunities. Not the boat club. Its attorneys said the land belonged to the club, and now it has prevailed.

“No question it was a Dickensian saga there, but it has been settled now in some ways,” said Faroll Hamer, the city’s planning director.

Now, with the case finally closed, Alexandria wants to enact its comprehensive plan, which is built on new development, including hotels, at three sites along the Potomac. Two of them are Robinson Terminal Warehouse Corp. properties, a subsidiary of The Washington Post Co. since 1966.

City officials say the development’s tax revenue is needed to pay for the plan’s public amenities. As the redevelopment occurs over the next 18 to 20 years, that revenue will pay for flood mitigation, a possible museum and parks, they say. Euille wants a vote by the City Council by June 30, before the summer recess.

The Post Co.’s Robinson Terminals frame this new development on the waterfront on Oronoco Street to the north and Duke Street to the south. The two-story warehouses, which store newsprint for The Washington Post and other publications, could be redeveloped as five-story office, retail and residential buildings totaling 640,000 square feet using existing zoning, said Hamer, the city’s planning director.

The waterfront plan would allow boutique hotels and about 125,000 square feet more space but keep the average five-story cap on the properties, she said.

“We believe the plan, including its new special-use-permit process, can provide a viable and sufficiently flexible guide for redevelopment that takes into account the interests of the city, the community and Robinson Terminal,” Rima Calderon, a Post Co. spokeswoman, said in a statement.

“Robinson Terminal is not currently marketing the properties for sale or development,” she said. “The company has no present plan or schedule as to when or how it would market the properties.”

The Post Co. has been participating with the city to ensure they have the development options provided by the 1983 settlement agreement, Calderon said. Those discussions were a result of a 2008 lawsuit filed by The Post that was later withdrawn, when the city reduced the amount of redevelopment allowed by the settlement.

Numerous issues, meanwhile, cloud the Old Dominion Boat Club’s talks with the city.

Club members want an agreement in place by June 15, said Harry P. Hart, a lawyer representing the club. They want Fitzgerald Square removed from the plan because it would reduce the club’s fair-market property value, he said.

Members don’t want the city’s proposed plan to hinder their future improvement projects to the clubhouse and parking lot, Eric DeSoto, chairman of the boat club’s board, told planning commissioners last month.

Local residents say the council should hold off on a vote to come up with a better plan or make sense of the one they have. Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan, in conjunction with the Greater Alexandria Preservation Alliance, have scheduled a rally at the foot of lower King Street at 8 a.m. Saturday to urge rejection of the city’s plan, which the City Council plans to consider during a work session at 9:30.

“It is confusing and inconsistent, and it doesn’t need to be either,” said Poul Hertel, former Old Town Civic Association president. “We’ve got the boat club, and that is a problem. The rest of the [development] portions don’t need to be that complicated. We don’t need 1,000 pages to describe three properties.”

The existing neighborhoods can’t handle the amount of development the city is being proposed, he said.

“Someone once said growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell,” said Hertel, quoting Edward Abbey, an author and critic on public land-use issues.

Meshelle Armstrong is still hoping her restaurant, Virtue Feed and Grain, could one day look out at something more majestic than the boat club’s parking lot.

“For such an amazing historic town, it deserves a proper waterfront,” she said. “We are hoping. We’ll do our part, fingers crossed, that they will see what it can be.”

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