On a frigid night last week, more than 150 Alexandria residents turned out for a meeting to hear plans for a large-scale redevelopment of Landmark Mall, the fading shopping center off Interstate 395 that city officials hope will be the catalyst one day for an urban renaissance in the city's West End.
Officials from General Growth Properties Inc., the mall's developers -- who bought out their investment partners last fall and now own a large chunk of the mall -- set out trays of hors d'oeuvres and cookies and invited the residents to break up into discussion groups to talk about their shopping habits and what kinds of stores they'd like to see in the new mall.
Chicago-based architect Joe Antunovich addresses Alexandria residents' concerns at a recent public meeting about the large-scale redevelopment of Landmark Mall.
(Michael Temchine - For The Washington Post)
But before the tea party could commence, residents wanted an answer to a single tough question: Could the developer explain why its business plan for the mall included the expectation that the city would invest $60 million in public funds for streets and other infrastructure within the new shopping complex?
"I'd like every group to say how they favor $60 million taxpayer money . . . going into this project," said attendee John H. Sullivan, a consultant and former chairman of the Alexandria Civic Federation.
Maura Feaheny, a senior development director with General Growth Properties, responded that at this early stage -- the mall's $900 million redevelopment plan is nowhere near approval by the city -- the $60 million number was just an "assumption."
"But the fact of the matter is, this is an expensive project," she said, to scattered boos. "It is not meant to be a cash donation, it was an offset of future tax dollars."
Over the last year, as General Growth Properties began private discussions with the city over the future of the mall site, rumors and misconceptions about future plans, most of them false, have abounded -- the Hecht's store was closing. Nordstrom was coming in.
And the city wants everyone to know that the Van Dorn Street bridge over Duke Street will not be torn down, as rumors suggested, although the awkward "flyover" ramp off Duke Street into the mall is likely to be history.
What is clear, city officials say, is that much needs to be done to make the city's West End -- a mix of high-rise apartment and condominium buildings with a few residential streets, warehouses, strip shopping centers and the mall, cut through by busy Duke and Van Dorn streets -- more user-friendly for residents. To that end, the city has launched its own planning effort for the area surrounding the mall, envisioning a friendly neighborhood with sidewalks, bike paths, a town center and a better transit link to the under-used Van Dorn Metro station.
"We as elected officials constantly hear from folks in the West End, 'We don't feel like we're part of the city. We feel a disconnect,' " said Mayor William D. Euille (D), who campaigned on a theme of revitalizing the city's west side. "To close that gap in terms of a disconnect, we need to do things in terms of streetscape, lighting, road improvements and pedestrian improvements."
And, the mayor said, the city must do what it can to help ensure that the mall survives. First built in 1965 and last remodeled in 1990, the fusty Landmark Mall has been rapidly losing stores and customers to more chic shopping venues such as Tysons Corner, the new Pentagon Row and Market Common Clarendon. Landmark provides 2,000 jobs and annual tax revenue of $4 million for the city, a number both the developer and city officials say would be far greater if the mall were redeveloped.
"It's been suffering for more than 10 years with the reduction in volume of business," Euille said. "It's sad to go to the mall and see a lot of storefronts boarded up. We all need to be working to make sure the mall survives. There is a strong market here in Alexandria, and we need to make sure we take advantage of it."
After General Growth Properties -- a Chicago real estate trust -- bought 22 acres of the mall property in the spring, the company formulated an early conceptual plan for a major redevelopment of the 52-acre site, which would still include Hecht's and Sears as anchors. Both of those stores own their own property and buildings.
The developer hopes the current Hecht's store would be replaced by a larger 280,000-square-foot building much closer to Duke Street, although negotiations with the May Co., which owns Hecht's, are continuing, Feaheny said.
According to the "working plan" for the new Landmark Village shown to residents at last week's meeting, much of the enclosed mall would be torn down and replaced with streets and walkways that would link rows of shops and cafes with outdoor seating, with much of the parking underground. At the center would be a leafy town square. A hotel and 1,650 condominiums or apartments are also planned.
Joe Antunovich, an energetic Chicago-based architect, was brought in by the developer to the recent public meeting to help cheerlead for the project.
"We could have the high school band come and play! We could have a trellis! We could have all that right here in the center of Landmark!" Antunovich said excitedly as he helped lead one of the small discussion groups at the meeting, held in an abandoned Old Navy store at the mall.
Antunovich faced a tough bunch seated on folding chairs before him, including Sullivan, as well as David S. Olinger, the current co-chairman of the Alexandria Civic Federation.
"What about my $60 million question?" Sullivan asked.
"We're not going to do some back room deal," Antunovich said. "We're not going to ram the money through. This place is losing money hand over fist. You said it, it's awful. But there is an ability here to make money for the city."
Mark Jinks, the assistant city manager for finance, said that the city had responded to the developer's estimate of a $60 million city investment by hiring a consultant to examine whether the tax revenue generated by the redone mall would be lucrative enough to justify the initial cash. An even earlier proposal by the developer had estimated a $100 million contribution from the city, the mayor said.
Jinks said Alexandria would be one of the first jurisdictions in Northern Virginia to enter into to this type of financial agreement, called tax increment financing, which has been used elsewhere in the state, including Henrico County.
"It's something new for us to consider," Jinks said. "We're willing to listen and learn to see what's necessary, but in the end we're looking to do what's in the best interests of the city."
City officials said they are willing to wait and see what the consultants learn. But City Council member Andrew H. Macdonald (D) said, "My opinion is that the city should not spend one dime of taxpayer dollars to pay for the infrastructure this development might need."
Vice Mayor Redella S. "Del" Pepper (D), the only City Council member who lives west of Quaker Lane, said she is excited about the prospect of redevelopment in the neighborhood, but that the city should proceed with caution.
"Before I sign off on spending $60 million for infrastructure, I want to make sure it is in our economic best interest -- and they're going to have to prove it five ways 'til Sunday," she said.
At the recent citizens meeting, the developer also heard residents' concerns about worsening traffic problems on Van Dorn and Duke streets, where traffic already slows to a impassable crawl during rush hour.
"Gridlock is so bad on Van Dorn and Duke Streets, then you hear about movie theaters and hotel rooms and you have to wonder what they're thinking. It's like they're doing this with a Ouija board," said Kathleen Burns, president of the Brookville-Seminary Valley Civic Association, which includes more than 400 homes northeast of the mall. "The major problem is traffic and parking. I think that some people appreciate that some renovation is in order -- the mall was built 40 years ago -- but they don't have any great ideas."
But many who attended the meeting said they look forward to having better shops and, perhaps, movie theaters in their neighborhood.
"I'm encouraged," said Sandra Troutman, 35, a nearby resident. "It's very positive; it's a great opportunity for the community. I think in the future it really needs to be articulated how they would pay for it."
City officials hope their planning effort for the neighborhoods surrounding the mall will be finished this year. Developers are hoping to have a plan approved by the city by early 2006 and begin construction in 2007.