A developer seeking to build three office buildings in Old Town Alexandria was turned down unanimously Saturday by the City Council, which cited not only objections to the proposed plan but also to the developer's manner of working with citizen groups.
In his fourth trip this year before the council, Andy Eshelman, a developer representing Parkway Center Parcel Owners, was denied a special-use permit that would have enabled him to build 330,000 square feet of office space at the site of the Old Colony Inn, at 625 First St.
The motel, with its serpentine brick wall evoking Colonial Williamsburg, bridges the George Washington Memorial Parkway and Old Town Alexandria, and is seen by many as a gateway to the city's historic district. Citizen groups and the National Park Service argued that the proposed three- and four-story brick buildings were unworthy of the site. The council not only agreed but made clear that Eshelman and his team had frustrated it with repeated deferrals and with a lack of communication with the community.
"We believe there hasn't been the kind of meaningful dialogue that needed to take place with citizens," said Mayor Kerry J. Donley (D). He put some of the responsibility in the hands of the neighboring citizen groups, however, instructing them to create a group that would be proactive rather than reactive. At least 300 letters and e-mails came in about the proposal, and more than two dozen people spoke at Saturday's meeting. Most of the public input was against the proposal.
"Human nature is to react to something," Donley said. "We ought to start to focus on what we want and not what we don't want."
But Eshelman left the meeting exasperated with the city's approval process, saying he and his team had held nearly 20 meetings with residents, received approval from the Board of Architectural Review and met the guidelines of the city's small area plan.
"I have complied with every conceivable guideline," Eshelman said minutes after the vote. "Not only have I complied with the written process, I've complied with the unwritten process," meaning numerous meetings with citizens. "What could they expect a developer to do?"
Whether the City Council should be explicit about what it wants from a developer was an underlying theme of Saturday's vote. Council member David G. Speck (D) argued that simply turning down the developer without giving him some direction was irresponsible and a cop-out by the council.
"If we simply deny this," Speck said at the Saturday meeting, "we are essentially saying to any landowner, 'The zoning we create, the lawful limits we establish, really may not mean anything.' "
Speck proposed offering the developer a specific counterproposal, outlining changes that would make the proposal more palatable.
But council members rejected that idea, saying that it was not their place and that giving such specific instructions to a developer would almost require them to approve the plans.
The proposal rejected Saturday was for three brick buildings with underground parking, punched windows and keystones over arched windows in the style of numerous Old Town buildings, Eshelman said. The complex would have had a landscaped courtyard and mature trees at street level.
The project architect, Bill Hellmuth, said the buildings were designed to complement the surrounding Washington Street neighborhood, and Eshelman predicted that the buildings would have been some of the "finest architecture in Alexandria."
Hellmuth's firm, HOK, designed Baltimore's Camden Yards and Hellmuth designed the U.S. Mint headquarters and the Air and Space Museum Annex, expected to open in 2003 near Dulles International Airport.
But residents said office workers in the proposed buildings would clog the adjacent neighborhood streets and that the Planning Commission's earlier vote against the development was further evidence of the project's flaws.
"If their proposal was such a wonderful thing," asked local activist Debra Johnson, "then why did the Planning Commission defeat it 5 to 2, and why did the council defeat it unanimously?"