AN ARTICLE IN TODAY'S REAL ESTATE SECTION, WHICH WAS PRINTED IN ADVANCE, INCORRECTLY REPORTED THE LOCATION OF THE PORTNER'S LANDING DEVELOPMENT IN ALEXANDRIA. THE PROJECT IS NEXT TO THE OLD MASTERCRAFT FURNITURE STORE SITE, NOT ON THE SITE ITSELF. (PUBLISHED 07/03/99)
Question: Where is Alexandria's Old Town?
Answer: Almost anywhere you want it to be.
Downtown Alexandria, or the area commonly known as Old Town, is expanding.
The boundaries of the old part of the city, which is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year, always have seemed fluid--as encompassing as the people who wanted to capitalize on the name could stretch the borders.
But now, new construction in traditionally industrial areas on the edges of Old Town is pushing the limits brick by brick. And the new buildings, mostly constructed to look as old as the old, are blended into the familiar Old Town that Washingtonians have known for the last two and a half centuries.
"Old Town is pushing its boundaries," said Beth Klipfel, a real estate agent selling town houses and condominium apartments at Portner's Landing, a new development on North St. Asaph Street at Old Town's northern edge on a site once occupied by a Mastercraft Interiors furniture store. "The north end used to be on the 'wrong' side of King Street. But now it's completely changing its face. The north end is catching up."
Part of Portner's Landing was built using some of the original Portner's Brewery building, a small plant built by Robert Portner in 1862 that grew into one of Virginia's largest breweries until it closed in 1916. The Red Cross used the building as offices until it was reconfigured into condominiums.
The only part of the development that falls under the city's architectural watchdogs is the old brewery building. But who cares? Purists may, but for real estate agents seeking to sell the location, it's still in "the heart of Old Town."
Another new development, the 155-unit Old Town Village, near the corner of Duke and Henry streets, is on the southwest edge of Old Town. The development was built on an abandoned Norfolk and Southern railroad yard that abutted a heating oil company's storage facility.
Only about a dozen of the development's units are fully in Old Town and so subject to rulings by Alexandria's Board of Architectural Review. But hey, let's not split hairs.
"We like to think they're all part of Old Town," said Terry Eakin, chairman of Eakin-Youngentob Associates Inc., the company that built Old Town Village. "We like to think it's been incorporated into the community."
"People use a lot of poetic license with what's in Old Town," said Anne Best Rector, an Old Town resident and manager of the Alexandria Pardoe Graham ERA office, a big player in Old Town real estate. "It adds value to say that."
The problem is there are precious few sites for new construction in Old Town proper. A few in-fills here and there, but nothing a developer can sink his teeth jackhammers into.
"There's nothing new online," agent Klipfel said. "We're pretty much built out."
Builder Eakin agreed. "We are actively looking for sites and can't find any," he said.
Eakin-Youngentob did manage to find one site a few years ago that really was in Old Town. Their new 136-unit Ford's Landing, on the edge of the Potomac River, is nearing completion. The elegant riverfront stone and brick town houses, which have gone for prices of up to $1 million, are sold out; 23 units still are under construction. The narrow streets of Ford's Landing all end at the river, like the original streets of Old Town. The builders also have constructed a 25-foot-wide boardwalk beneath a wide public stairway along the waterfront.
It wasn't an easy job and the builder took it on only after two other developers before him had failed to get the project off the ground. The problem was a historical one, as are many dilemmas in Alexandria. An old Ford Motor Co. assembly plant occupied about one-third of the 9.7-acre site. Built in 1931, it had been designated a historic structure because of its distinctive design by Albert Kahn, a legendary art deco architect. Any firm that wanted to develop the site had to incorporate the historic building.
Eakin-Youngentob discovered, however, that the structural supports for the old Ford plant were crumbling and, after months of negotiations and back and forth with the city, they received permission to demolish the old plant and build town houses on the site. The developer did use some of Kahn's design on an outdoor structure covering two boardwalk benches.
Even if a site can be found, and its historical problems overcome, building in Old Town is strictly regulated. But supporters say it is precisely the city's rules that have kept most of Alexandria's historical charm intact.
In 1946, Old Town Alexandria was established as the third preservation district in the United States, after Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans. Alexandria residents were clamoring for protection for their town at a time when dozens of historic houses were in disrepair and in danger of being bulldozed.
"The whole idea of preservation came from citizens desiring it," said Tom Hulfish, chairman of the Board of Architectural Review and son of former city council member Tom Hulfish Sr., who introduced legislation suggested by residents intent on saving what they could of the historic area.
But parts of Old Town have changed nevertheless. Several blocks of lower King Street were bulldozed during the 1960s and 1970s under a city-approved urban renewal plan. And developments have also been built, although the city has made sure that all have been done in styles matching the old.
Yates Gardens, Pomander Walk and Harborside are just three developments that have been built since the 1940s. On the north side, technically not in Old Town proper, Hearthstone Mews and Rivergate are both relatively new developments.
Why the pressure for housing in what is effectively downtown Alexandria?
"It's a very special area," said John McEnearney, president of McEnearney Associates, one of the principal real estate brokerages operating in Alexandria. "The lovely houses, which are all different from each other, the proximity to Washington, the attractiveness of the river close by--it's just a charming place to live."
McEnearney said Old Town is comparable to Georgetown in the District, but in his opinion, even better. "It doesn't have a lot of the nightlife that Georgetown has," he said. "The undesirable nightlife, if you will," a reference to Georgetown's lively bar scene.
Houses in Old Town tend to be smaller than those in Georgetown. And public housing on the north side of the city has kept prices lower there than in Georgetown, agents said.
In fact, one of the potential sites for development on the north side, directly behind the new Portner's Landing and only a block from the river, is a two-block public housing estate known as the Berg. Plans to redevelop the Berg are mired in court battles after a federal judge ruled in 1997 that the public housing residents must be given a chance to redevelop the estate.
But most agents and developers believe the problems eventually will be solved and that the Berg represents the largest piece of property that could be developed on the edge of Old Town in the next few years.
The city also has plans for the Old Town waterfront, where warehouses and parking lots are to be replaced by a riverside promenade, town houses and a hotel. Discussions are ongoing with owners of riverfront structures that prohibit fulfillment of that plan.
The development proposal includes a park at the end of King Street, where the Old Dominion Boat Club now sits. A promenade along the waterfront also would include the removal of several parking lots, warehouses and commercial buildings, such as the Robinson Terminal, a shipping dock owned by The Washington Post Co.
And the rules governing building in Old Town mysteriously extend beyond its tiny borders, city officials said. "The historic district has created a sensitivity to the existing environment," said Sheldon Lynn, director of planning and zoning for Alexandria. "Even when you're not talking about the historic district, people are more aware of how new buildings relate to the environment."
And in Old Town proper, residents are very sensitive to any changes that could mar their beloved streetscape. The Board of Architectural Review, for example, does not dictate what color a house can be painted in Old Town. It doesn't need to--residents take care of that.
"We have found that in the instances when someone wanted to make an egregious choice of paint color, peer pressure prevailed almost every time," Hulfish said. " 'Please don't do that,' neighbors will say to each other, and it works."
Residents say one of the nicest things about living in Old Town is its community spirit. The Red Cross holds a Waterfront Festival each year, with rides for children, and vendors, crafts and outdoor concerts for the adults. Parades wind through the tiny streets on such holidays as Washington's Birthday and St. Patrick's Day. The Scottish Walk, a formal parade where Alexandria men dress up in kilts and the area's dogs parade through the city's narrow streets, is held the first Saturday in December to celebrate the Christmas season. The town's farmers market is packed every Saturday. Next weekend, the city hold its 250th birthday celebration.
The people who have made Old Town their home have chosen it specifically because of its unique characteristics.
Marcia Pixley and her husband lived in Asia, Europe and Africa while in the Foreign Service. But here in America, Old Town was the only place the couple felt comfortable.
"In between tours overseas, we came back to the Washington area to look for a place to buy," Pixley said. "We were very discouraged because we couldn't find anything we liked.
"Finally, we found Old Town," she said. "And it felt like home right away."
CAPTION: Ford's Landing, on the edge of the Potomac River, is made up of 136 stone and brick town houses that have sold for up to $1 million.
CAPTION: 1. Old Town Village, with 155 units, is a new development near the corner of Duke and Henry streets. 2. Ford's Landing, with 136 units, is a new development on the edge of the Potomac River. 3. Town houses in the 500 block of South St. Asaph Street date back many decades. 4. Portner's Landing, a new development on North St. Asaph Street, grew out of a brewery built in 1862.