Alexandria's King Street Metro station sits in the heart of one of the city's most downtrodden neighborhoods, a seedy area of car dealerships, unrestored storefronts and 1950s-vintage commercial buildings.
Metro service to King Street will open next December, and already there are signs of pressure to develop the surrounding area. City officials who are unhappy about the prospects of a Roslyn or Crystal City growing up in the lee of the Washington Masonic Memorial Temple fear that attempts to control development may end up costing the city more than it bargained for.
A task force of developers, businessmen and city planners has been working on design standards for a 38-acre area around the King Street Metro station, and is almost ready to present the Alexandria City Council with recommendations that they say could assure high-quality development in the King Street area.
But the design standards are for public land, for the sidewalks, streets and open spaces that the city owns and will have to maintain with taxpayer money. What the task force will not propose are design standards that would restrict what developers can do on their own property, nor will the developers promise to help the city pay for the design standards they want adopted.
"It has been the policy of the task force to specifically avoid anything that has to do with private space," said Greg Fazakerley, President of Development Resources Inc., one of 15 development firms on the task force. "We would not have gained a consensus if we had done that."
It all started a year ago when, at the instigation of the city planning staff, the King Street Task Force was organized to help define an identity for the area, something that would make it unique among Metro stops and marketable for developers. The task force decided that King Street should be a dense, but scaled-down office and retail center, with wide brick sidewalks, plazas and courtyards, trees and flowers; trappings that would reflect the ambiance and character of Old Town.
But because of the economics of development, there are few guarantees that the city will get the neighborly mix of stores, offices and residential units that it wants. The developers say they can make money at King Street only if they build office space that can compete with the business centers to the north. To create a market for the retail and residential uses, the developers claim they will need to build high-density complexes.
The city council, however, already has imposed a height limitation of 77 feet, or six or seven stories, for the King Street area, and that restriction will make it tougher for developers to build at the density they say they need to attract retailers to the area.
That is why the task force's recommendations have become the developers' highest priority: They say that if the city will adopt the design standards, that would go a long way towards making the King Street area a special place. And they say that a special place, a Metro stop ringed with human-sized lamp posts and brick sidewalks, would attract the pedestrian traffic that would bring in the stores.
"We were attracted to King Street because of the city's planning effort, especially their efforts to encourage mixed-use development," said Gretchen Mozer, director for development with Oliver T. Carr Co., one of the developers on the King Street task force. "It's not going to be another Harbour Place, not right away, but maybe someday it will be. We want that kind of life, that vibrancy."
The Carr company has broken ground on land directly across from the Metro station. Within two years, it hopes to move its first tenants into a 130,000-square-foot, six-story office building that will include 15,000 square feet of retail space, awnings and a brick terrace. Plans include a second building with 200,000 square feet of office space, more terraces and a clock tower or fountain.
Station Square Associates, a consortium of Alexandria firms, has won the contract to develop a 16-acre site adjacent to the Metro station, on land owned by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and the Richmond, Fredricksburg and Potomac Railroad. The complex will include a 300-room hotel, retail shops and 650,000 square feet of office space.
Fazakerley's firm already has built a small cluster of office buildings in the area and is starting construction on a second cluster, a four-building, 188,000-square-foot complex with a courtyard.
The planned development compares with the low-rise, parking-lot-and-drug-store construction in the area. Developers such as Carr and Fazakerley are concerned that other redevelopment in the area meet the standards they are setting. And they are looking to the city to keep these standards high.
The city's current zoning code provides only limited tools for controlling the kind of growth that will go in around King Street. Along with the height limitation and density restrictions, the city has adopted an elaborate parking code for the area that will require developers to put 75 percent of their parking in structures hidden from street view. Parking requirements were reduced 25 percent in anticipation of Metro use, and developers will be able to get further reductions if they use valet parking. And they will not have to provide parking for the first 10,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space.
"We want King Street to be the portal to the city," said Alexandria's Director of Planning and Community Development, Engin Artemel. "We are trying to make the Alexandria stations look different from Crystal City and Roslyn. We want to create an urban feeling, but not like Tysons Corner or K Street. We want it to look like Alexandria."
Larry Grossman, the city's senior planner for the Metro stations, said that the design standards would include specifics on widening sidewalks, landscaping and planting, set-backs, high-quality building materials for sidewalks and terraces such as brick paving, and street furniture. Grossman explained that, with the standards in place, the city would be able to ask developers to fund some of the improvements in exchange for further parking reductions and, possibly, even allowing slightly higher building heights.
But although Artemel said he was "very encouraged" by the progress of the task force, he added that there will have to be some "give and take" with the developers if the people-type development they want around the King Street station is ever going to happen.
The developers are optimistic. "We will be an important part of the city," said Carr's Mozer. The development at King Street "will help the city, and we want the city to help us."