King Street in Old Town Alexandria is having an identity crisis.
Blocks and blocks of quaint Edwardian and Victorian row houses have among them 20th-century structures, purveyors of clothing, food, books, wine and much else. But with sprawling big-name shopping centers sprouting to the north, south, east and west, city officials are nervous that cozy Old Town has lost its retail edge.
Officials list the competition as if naming ballplayers in a lineup: Pentagon Row, the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City and the Market Common Clarendon, all in Arlington; Potomac Yard on Route 1 in Alexandria; and in neighboring Fairfax County, home to Tysons Corner and other high-end complexes, there are plans for additional pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use town centers.
Each competitor subtracts something from the weekly revenue of Old Town businesses, city and business leaders say. And to stay in the game, they say, Old Town needs an infusion of mixed retail and residential development to revitalize the aging King Street -- the main street of Old Town that begins at the Potomac River and ends 16 blocks west at the King Street Metro station.
With that goal in mind, city officials have approved, among other projects, a 65-unit condominium complex with 5,400 square feet of retail space on the ground floor, underground parking and a 4,600-square-foot courtyard for residents and shoppers. But to build the complex, developer DSF-Long King Street LLC of Boston would raze a pair of row houses built in the early 1900s in the 1500 block, demolish a rear addition to a building in the 1500 block and gut a building in the 1600 block, all of which is about two blocks from the King Street Metro station.
The development could be halted even before ground is broken: A group has challenged the developer's plans. An appeals hearing on a demolition permit was scheduled for Tuesday before the City Council, and the group said it planned to argue that the city's historical fabric and charm would be threatened if the buildings were destroyed to make way for the development.
"If you want to build the condos, that's fine, but to get rid of a cultural asset makes no sense," said Charles White, owner of a commercial leasing business in one of the affected buildings. "Don't destroy these buildings indirectly by leaving only the facades. It's a hypocrisy to say you want to preserve the history to then gut the buildings."
Retail success, however, depends on far more than history, said City Council member K. Rob Krupicka (D). Such success hinges on whether the 1,600 retail shops and restaurants in Old Town are able to compete, especially in parking and retail diversity, with new developments and upcoming projects scattered about the region, from town centers in Fairfax to clusters of shopping strips in the District.
A recent study, the King Street Retail Strategy, that explored ways of enhancing King Street, was adopted by the City Council in May. It essentially authorizes the development and revitalization of upper King Street, where the proposed condominium complex would be built, and encourages shopkeepers and property owners to be creative in marketing themselves.
The King Street Retail Strategy specifically designates the 1500 and 1600 blocks as redevelopment sites and anticipates razing or partially demolishing buildings, said Jeff Farner, development division chief for the city's Department of Planning and Zoning.
"The whole point of the study was that the retail on King Street is not thriving," Krupicka said. "Shopping areas like Clarendon and Pentagon Row are taking business away. And so we need to bring new energy to King Street. That will help preserve the area."
Numbers tell the story. Alexandria's sales tax revenue increased 7 percent last year, but Arlington County's grew by 12 percent and Fairfax County's by 10 percent.
"It's an enormous challenge for our retail community in Old Town to compete with the very organized, sophisticated markets that have grown in those counties," Krupicka said. Another solution proposed in the retail strategy report will be considered by the City Council in November. A group of shopkeepers and commercial property owners petitioned the council to create a business improvement district covering the area along King Street from the waterfront to the Metro station, King Street's adjacent north and south intersecting streets (the 100 blocks of Union, Lee, Fairfax, etc.) and parts of the 100 to 300 blocks of North and South Washington streets.
The business improvement district would be a nonprofit entity financed through a service fee added to the real estate taxes paid by property owners. The nonprofit entity would be responsible for the area's upkeep, including the cleaning of sidewalks, the upgrading of landscaping and the provision and maintenance of street furniture, marketing the attractions of Old Town and coordinating more convenient parking for shoppers and restaurant patrons.
According to the proposal before the council, BIDs have been successful across the nation in "rejuvenating older downtown areas and in making those areas more competitive with newer commercial areas such as suburban shopping malls," the document states. Nationally, the districts have been used in such cities as Philadelphia and New York. Locally, similar districts exist in the District of Columbia, Rosslyn and Fairfax City.
"The BID could make King Street even more exciting than it currently is," Krupicka said. The BID, he added, is "King Street's way of saying, 'We want to keep up.' "
The overall debate -- and the area's seemingly unresolved future -- lies in deciding how best to preserve the historic character of Old Town and also compete with other commercial areas, officials and residents said. To those who oppose the construction of the condominium complex if it means demolishing historic structures, the only course is to vote to retain history and all that it lends to the area's charm.
"Do they need to take old buildings and convert them into brand new condos?" asked Boyd Walker, a member of the coalition of residents that opposes the destruction of the buildings and was scheduled to speak at the appeals hearing on Tuesday.
Standing on the red brick sidewalk outside the affected buildings last week, Walker brushed sweat from his face as he pointed at the buildings and said: "We live in a town full of history and character, and these buildings are part of that history and character. This isn't a good precedent to set."
City Council member Andrew H. Macdonald (D), who opposes the project, said: "It's been argued that by retaining the shell, it is still preservation. But are we really preserving Old Town if we allow new buildings to come in and replace the old ones?"
Instead, he continued, the "historic fabric in these historic buildings" cannot be lost. "I think it's been recognized that preservation helps us sustain in this retail environment," he added.
But the overall goal in helping King Street to compete better against other nearby shopping areas is not to encourage "wholesale reconstruction" of the 16-block street but to "energize" it so that it attracts more shoppers, Krupicka said. Should the condominium complex be constructed, a wholesale reconstruction would be launched, despite the best intentions of city officials, opponents said.
"You're unraveling the historical fabric of King Street if you put in a modern building like what is proposed," said Elizabeth Wright, one of three Alexandrians who reviewed the developer's plan and wrote to the council opposing its implementation. "This is our gateway into Old Town from the Metro station. We don't want it to look like just any other place in the region."
"We don't want it to look like just any other place in the region."