For more than two years, visitors strolling along Alexandria's waterfront and into Old Town have been met by the desolate sight of three vacant buildings at the corner of King and Union streets.
Dismayed that three buildings at this historic crossroads had been vacant for so long, Alexandria city officials last year began exploring more aggressive ways to revive the site.
Last fall, they threw a cozy catered lunch for 100 prospective tenants and brokers touring the three brick buildings, which date to the 1800s and formerly housed the Seaport Inn, Fish Market and Alamo restaurants. At the same time, officials considered more severe remedies, such as whether the city could condemn the properties as blighted and seize ownership.
Barbara Ross, deputy director of Alexandria's department of planning and zoning, told the City Council on Feb. 25 that the city is now on its way to accomplishing its goal.
Last month, a District real estate broker bought the $2.1 million building at 100 King St. that formerly housed the Alamo restaurant and plans to open an Asian restaurant there in June. Part of the old Seaport Inn building south of Union Street has been leased to the Starbucks coffee shop chain. City planners are recommending that the council grant the company's request to place sidewalk tables and umbrellas along King Street in April.
"It looks like by late summer we are going to see a complete turnaround down there," Ross told the council.
Council members applauded the progress. City officials have long blamed the problem on greedy landlords asking exorbitant lease and sale prices.
"We're all glad to see progress is being made," said Council Member William D. Euille (D). "Hopefully, we can bring closure to all three promptly and have them sold or leased."
But local Realtors and restaurateurs, who said the deserted corner has been terrible for business, believe that the city's timetable is overly optimistic. They complain that the city has been its own worst enemy in the revival effort. Alexandria officials have rebuffed some applicants as not being sufficiently upscale and discouraged others with complicated permitting and historic requirements for aging buildings, critics said.
"Old Town has a reputation for being very difficult," said Claude Chandonnet, a partner in Urban Investment Advisors LLC in the District, the group that owns the Seaport Inn building. "I've had so many tenants who wanted to be in there. They say, 'Look, why do I want to spend money to go through hearings when I could do a deal in Bethesda or Clarendon and not go through any of this?' They just get scared."
On balmy evenings, tourists and locals flock to the lower end of King Street for a stroll, an after-dinner ice cream cone or the sights and sounds of street magicians and other buskers. The seaport has been central to the town's economy for more than 250 years, but now tourists, not merchant seamen, disembark from boats on the river.
Chandonnet and his partners bought the property at 6 King St. after the Seaport Inn closed in 2000 and originally hoped to lease the entire 8,622-square-foot space to the upscale seafood chain McCormick & Schmick's. The brick-and-stone warehouse building dates to about 1780 and originally belonged to John Fitzgerald, a former aide-de-camp to George Washington and one of Alexandria's first mayors.
When that deal fell through, in part because of the high costs of retrofitting the old building, Chandonnet said his partners decided to divide the space into three parts -- the one facing Union Street that will become a Starbucks, the restaurant space and office space on the second floor.
Leasing the restaurant has been challenging, Chandonnet said.
For example, representatives of the Italian restaurant chain Buca di Beppo had met with city officials to discuss moving into the property, Chandonnet said. But the talks stalled when the restaurateurs said that they wanted to drywall the first-floor windows to re-create their trademark Mediterranean decor, reminiscent of an old wine cellar.
"They looked at us like we were crazy," Chandonnet said.
Although anxious to work with landlords to sell or lease the properties, Ross and other city officials said the city is constantly doing a balancing act between the needs of merchants and residents whose million-dollar townhouses abut the retail properties.
Officials also must ensure that the charm and character of the city remains intact.
"I think the city is looking for mid-level to upscale retail and restaurant use," said City Council member Claire M. Eberwein (R). "There is a concern that because this is the center of the historic district, we avoid the T-shirt and fast-food strip feel."
City officials balked last year when District real estate developer Bradley Gray signed a contract to buy 100 King St. Known as the Corn Exchange Building, the property was built in 1871 to house corn shipments from Virginia farmers.
Gray said he had already leased the bottom of the building to the Five Guys hamburger chain when the city stonewalled him.
"It was a done deal, and all of a sudden, it was not acceptable to the city's taste," Gray said. "They wanted a five-star [restaurant]. . . . They were picking and choosing. I didn't realize they were in that kind of mindset because it hasn't been leased for years, and those corners are kind of anchors down there."
Ross said city planners did not feel that Five Guys was the right type of restaurant for that corner and recommended that the City Council deny a special use permit.
Gray gave up.
Restaurateur Gordon King, who has owned Bullfeathers Restaurant at 112 King St. for 15 years, said the city's conflicting priorities mean that vacancies will persist.
"Everyone knows that coming to Alexandria to do business is an expensive and frustrating undertaking," King said. "Although the city code spells out a procedure for obtaining the right to use a building for a specific use, the 'special use permit,' the reality is that each request for the permit is just a variation on the game show 'Let's Make a Deal.' . . . That is the main reason these buildings have been vacant for years, and I believe will stay that way."
The city has used the special use permit process to ask a landlord to pay for parking for all of his or her employees, for example, to lessen the parking burden on residential streets, or to seek closing earlier than 2 a.m.
As for the third corner, the Fish Market lost its lease on part of its restaurant space -- part of the building known as 101-103 King St. -- six years ago. The building is owned by a family trust, and Riggs Bank and the owners had hoped to lease all of it to one tenant, who would gut the building and bring it up to code.
That was an unrealistic approach and one reason why the building has been vacant for six years, said Timothy Geary, current Realtor for the property and president of Clarke & Sampson Inc. in Alexandria. The owners have reconsidered and put the building up for sale at $2 million. Geary is negotiating offers on the building.
"Things are getting better on that corner," Geary said.
Another real estate broker, Peter Mallios, bought 100 King St. last month. He plans to renovate and then open a restaurant with "Asian fusion" cuisine by June. Although the city has looked favorably on his proposal, even Mallios has had his share of difficulty. It took him months to close his deal on the property, and his chef quit two weeks ago.
But the location is worth the headache, he said.
"It's a great location," Mallios said. "It's Main and Main of Old Town. If you're going to do business in Old Town, this is the corner."