A major face lift for Alexandria's west end was approved Tuesday night by Alexandria Planning Commission that drew the praises of community activists and commissioners alike. But, it was not without controversy over a continuing nemesis of city planning — parking.
In a 6-0 vote with one abstention, the commission approved the redevelopment of Foxchase Shopping Center that will bring an upscale Harris Teeter grocery to the city. It will replace the existing Magruder grocery store which now anchors the western side of the shopping center.
Although both commissioners and public speakers praised the planned revitalization of the center, a major stumbling block occurred with the applicant's, Washington Real Estate Investment Trust, requirement that there be four parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of retail. This would call for a reduction of 120 spaces from the zoning ordinance requirement of 703 spaces.
Constructed in the 1950s, Foxchase Shopping Center, a strip mall at 4513-4657 Duke St., has undergone several facade changes over the years. However, this project will not only change the configuration of the retail enterprises but also alter the total appearance of the site. Commercial space will be reduced by approximately 3,000 square feet.
"We all like this project but the parking is a problem," said Planning Commission chairman Eric Wagner in summing up the frustrations expressed by both commissioners and public speakers. The latter, representing various civic groups, all supported REIT's plan but expressed concern over the request to reduce the available parking spaces at the site.
Their concerns center on a variety of suggestions from instituting a valet parking system to constructing a parking garage. "This all started in 2001 when we got calls asking what we were going to do about Foxchase Shopping Center," said Catharine Puskar, attorney representing REI.
"PRESENTLY the parking lot operates at approximately 40 percent capacity. And we are taking down 3,000 square feet more than we are going to be putting back up," Puskar said.
At one point, Puskar indicated that if Harris Teeter was not able to achieve their parking space ratio of four per 1,000 square feet of retail space they may decide not to locate at Foxchase. This brought forth an angry response from Commissioner H. Stewart Dunn, Jr.
"The City of Alexandria does not have to agree to the Harris Teeter requirements for parking. If they decide they can't live with that and decide to leave, so be it," Dunn said.
Several speakers asked that the commission defer its decision in order to gain more time in analyzing the parking situation. These requests drew the support of Commission Vice Chairman Richard Leibach.
"We should defer this so that we don't make another mistake like Bradlee Shopping Center. We again find ourselves at a very late hour trying to come up with an on-the-spot solution. That's when mistakes are made," Leibach said.
However, Commissioner Donna Fossum argued in favor of taking action on the application stating, "If we put off this decision, even for a week, we are not going to have any more facts. We have a series of suggestion now, we should make a decision tonight."
She also argued against the proposal for the implementation of some form of free valet parking at the center. "Valet parking is a natural bottleneck creator. Cars are never available when you want them and people do not like it in a shopping center situation," she said. Several public speakers also opposed the concept of valet parking.
REIT'S PLAN calls for construction a 55,719 sq.ft. grocery store and 3,272 sq.ft. of retail space on the northern portion of the site plus an additional 2,375 sq. ft. of retail space on the southern portion of the center, according to the staff report.
The proposal will require the demolition of 64,415 sq.ft. of the western portion of the "L" shaped existing center and removal of Magruder's grocery store, theaters, and several smaller commercial spaces.
In order to accomplish this revitalization, the proposal requires approval of the following, according to staff.
* Special use permit (SUP) for a retail shopping establishment greater than 20,000 sq.ft. This is known as a "big box" SUP. As Jeffrey Farmer, Alexandria Department of Planning and Zoning, told the commission, "This is the first application to come before the commission seeking a big box SUP."
* Parking reduction SUP
* Transportation Management Plan SUP
* Sign SUP to permit more than two freestanding signs.
In their report, staff explained, "In 2002, City Council passed an amendment to the Zoning Ordinance requiring special use permit approval for new retail shopping establishments greater than 20,000 sq.ft. The intent... is to avoid the typical large footprints and buildings that could potentially be inconsistent with the character of the neighborhood and to evaluate any negative impacts."
In recommending approval of REIT's application, staff said, "The proposal presents an opportunity to redevelop a suburban shopping center ... into a development that can better accommodate pedestrians, provide building design and landscaping that creates an urban center more characteristic of other redevelopment that has occurred in the City," staff stated.
Other elements of the REIT plan call for:
* Elimination of the existing service road parallel to Duke Street with an eight foot wide pedestrian sidewalk and landscape strip provided in its place.
* A 10-feet wide planted median on Duke Street at the traffic signal at the 4600 Duke St. entrance and at the Harris Teeter entrance.
* Pedestrian crossing improvements with new countdown signals at the intersection of Duke and Jordan streets, as well as at the intersection to the west at the entrance to the grocery store.
* An enhanced pedestrian connection and entrance to Holmes Run Park will be provided from the Duke Street sidewalk just west of the center's western boundary.
* Landscaping for the existing pedestrian plazas as well as the existing plaza in the central portion of the retained north wing.
* Parking will remain surface parking with a reconfigured layout and additional tree islands.
* Wachovia Bank's parking lot will be redesigned and connected with the main parking area.
* The Exxon service station will be landscaped with removal of the existing curb cuts and service road in front of the station.
* Loading for the grocery store will be located on the western portion of the new store.
After a series of compromises and changed conditions agreed to by both the applicant and the commission the project was recommended for approval by City Council. Only Commissioner Leibach abstained from the vote expressing the opinion that a deferral would be better to allow more time to address the parking concerns.