As the Washington region quickly adds new residents and the housing, transportation, shopping, restaurants and everything else to accommodate them, the quandary facing Alexandria has been: How do we get a piece of the action without screwing up what we’ve got?
What Alexandria has already is a well-preserved historic district, in Old Town Alexandria, that is one of the more popular places to live and shop in the region.
The risk, however, is that even a well-preserved historic center can fall out of favor if other jurisdictions land major employers and add the right amenities. And that’s a concern for local governments like Alexandria because commercial activity is what pays the bills.
Alexandria is banking on a two-part strategy: Invigorate Old Town by redeveloping industrial sites there with projects that fit the existing neighborhood, and push increased zoning and development at transit-accessible areas outside of Old Town.
Both strategies have been on display recently. Last week the Alexandria City Council approved a 120-room brick facade hotel by Carr Hospitality which, when it replaces the one-story warehouse at the corner of Duke and South Union streets, is likely to be the city’s first major redevelopment since Alexandria passed a new waterfront plan in 2012.
On Monday, Alexandria officials and developers gathered in a tent on the parking lot outside the AMC Hoffman Center 22 movie theater, the site of the future headquarters of the National Science Foundation. Alexandria officials and the Hoffman family, owners of the land, landed a deal for the agency through the General Services Administration, which manages real estate for the federal government.
Alexandria picked a good organization to go after. The NSF, currently based in Ballston in next-door Arlington County, employs more than 2,100 headquarters employees, contractors and scientists and beyond that it draws more than 60,000 visitors every year, many of them serving on scientific review panels.
Alexandria provided a $23 million tax abatement to make the deal work. Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said the effort to develop the Eisenhower Valley area was 30 years in the making and that the neighborhood would become “the place in Alexandria where we could realize our economic potential without detracting from the character of our residential neighborhoods.” Eventually the developer plans 7 million square feet of offices, apartments, hotel rooms and retail.
Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D), a possible candidate to replace Moran (who is retiring), predicted the deal to land a major government employer would be remembered as a key catalyst for bringing hotels and housing to the area. “In the future we will refer to NSF as the accelerator,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Alexandria lured an agency from Arlington. Some officials there are still smarting from the Patent and Trademark Office’s departure. Hubert N. “Jay” Hoffman, III, of the family that owns the Eisenhower Avenue land, said his son who lives in Ballston informed him recently that he was “the most hated man in Ballston” for plucking NSF away.
Alexandria as lined up a couple of other projects as well. Like the Carr hotel, development proposals of both Robinson Terminal sites on the waterfront are moving along despite concerns about the crowds the new projects could draw. And Alexandria continues to pursue a new Metro station at Potomac Yard, which could make that neighborhood a second economic engine away from Old Town.
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz