Alexandria has ambitious plan for its waterfront

By Jonathan O'Connell
Monday, February 28, 2011; 4

Alexandria's waterfront is already among the most popular recreation and retail destinations in the area, one that helped the city earn a ranking from Amazon.com as the country's most romantic city -- based on sales of romance novels, romantic comedies and sexual wellness products -- two years running.

But city planners see the area as capable of much more, including a more accessible waterfront, a public arts walk, an evolved Torpedo Factory Arts Center, a boutique hotel overlooking the Potomac, new restaurants and maybe, with some luck, an Apple store.

Last week the city completed its most recent plans for the waterfront, a stretch of parks, shops and warehouses along the Potomac River centered around the foot of King Street. The idea is to continue celebrating the area's architectural and cultural history while expanding its ability to attract visitors, new development and tax revenue. "The main thrust of the plan is really to create great public spaces," said Faroll Hamer, Alexandria's planning and zoning director.

Despite the area's success, a 2009 retail study found that the Alexandria waterfront was not living up to its potential in terms of drawing shops and shoppers. Val P. Hawkins, president and chief executive of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, said the plan would allow developers and land owners to begin updating properties and enlivening the area. "The issue is you really can't develop anything until there is a plan in place," he said.

City officials said they would like to see some of the area's best waterfront assets put to better use. For instance, the city owns the land beneath the Torpedo Factory, its food court and the Chart House Restaurant, and city officials are in discussions about upgrades to all three. The food court, which planners said "doesn't draw sufficient customers to be successful," could be turned into two new restaurants. A 2010 study by the city found that the Torpedo Factory, despite being a highly popular cultural center, "must improve its sales focus," and a new board has been formed to consider its future. "I think obviously there's a common desire to make the Torpedo Factory a place that people want to go to and enjoy and use it as a draw for people to visit Alexandria," said Tom Gates, Alexandria assistant city manager.

There is some concern that focusing on new restaurants and retail would disturb the art center. Penny Barringer, president of the Torpedo Factory Artists Association, said she agreed that the food court needed to be revitalized but that transplanting artists to make way for a retail gallery and restaurant, as has been proposed, was not the answer. "There are 72 restaurants on King Street between the water and King Street Metro," she said, adding that she didn't think more were needed.

The waterfront also contains a few development sites, led by two shipping terminals owned by a subsidiary of The Washington Post Co. Robinson Terminal North, at the intersection of Union and Pendleton streets, is made up of warehouses and a large pier that planners consider ideal for a new hotel and riverfront park. A hotel "would work well with public amenity space along the dock," Hamer said.

The Post does not appear to be in any hurry. The properties aren't currently being marketed for sale or development, according to Rima Calderon, vice president of communications and external relations. The company "might consider selling the properties if it makes sense from an operational and business perspective to do so," she wrote in an e-mail.

The plan requires approval by the city council. Hawkins hopes it spurs all the property owners to think bigger about the area. He said Apple had been interested in opening a store at a site on King Street, but that the property owner opted to lease the space to Walgreens instead. He said there are other locations that might attract top-notch stores but that the waterfront needed to continue in the right direction.

"We lost a great opportunity," Hawkins said.

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