Alexandria: Past, Present and Future

Alexandria: Past, Present and Future

History's settlement on the Potomac

Alexandria's history is interlocked with that of the nation. From the founding of these United States through their near unraveling during the Civil War, as a thriving seaport, to a ship and munitions manufacturing center in World War II, to the tragedy at The Pentagon on 9/11 -- this City has seen it all.

British frigates were stopped by Fort Hunt, which had gunspointed dead at their bows. The first deaths of the Civil War, for both the North and the South, occurred at what is now the site of the Holiday Inn Select on King Street. Jones Point Park was a shipyard in World War II, when the Torpedo Factory Art Center was actually a torpedo factory.

Some of America's most historic sites dot the Alexandria landscape. It is home to a George Washington favorite hang out, Gadsby's Tavern, at 134 N. Royal St. The boyhood home of Robert E. Lee can be found at 607 Oronoco St., and Carlyle House, 121 N. Fairfax St., is where General Braddock met with royal governors in an attempt to finance his campaign against the French and Indians. Meanwhile, the City's Tourist Center, Ramsey House, former home of William Ramsey, Scottish merchant and City founder, was once a brothel frequented by merchant ship sailors.

Today all that history makes for good economics in tourism, housing, retail and commercial development, and business in both the for-profit and non-profit spheres. In the past year. this has been most evident in the residential market.

According to David Howell of McEnearney Associates, the average residential price tag rose by nearly nine percent between July 2003 and July 2004. It now stands at $413,217. The median figure has gone from $340,000 to $351,350 in the same time frame.

The percentage applies not only to individual homes, but also to condominiums. The only downturn has been in the rental market, which suffered to low interest rates that made purchasing more desirable and affordable.

Even though rates have been climbing from their recent historic low, we are still in a seller's market, Market Watch for Northern Virginia reports. Ninety-two percent of all home that settled in June 2004 were on the market for 30 days or less. That marked the second month in a row to top the 90 percent mark.

This has been paralleled by Alexandria development activity overall. As reported in the Department of Planning and Zoning's Second Quarter 2004 report for the period January through June:

* Ten residential projects are under construction for a total of 1,191 units. This is coupled with 17 project approvals, with 2,343 total units, slated for future development.

* In the commercial category, covering office, retail and hotel, 10 projects are under construction for a total square footage of 2,006,343.

* Nineteen projects have been approved for a total square footage of 3,314,833. This represents an increase of 1.5 million square foot over 2003 given the same number of projects.

THE BIG GROWTH YEARS for the completion of anticipated developments are projected to be the next two. Estimated housing unit completions is projected at 1,000 in 2005, and approximately 1,700 in 2006. As of now ,projections for 2007 show less than 500.

Two of the largest projects in the year ahead are those planned for the 800 and 900 blocks of South Washington Street. In the 800 block, a mixed use development will consume the area between Green and Jefferson streets, fronting on Columbus Street, with the majority being residential. The present buildings on Washington Street will remain.

The entire square block of 900 S. Washington Street, now home to Gunston Hall Apartments, will be demolished to make way for a combination condominium/townhouse development. Plans call for two condominium buildings, consisting of 48 luxury units, to be constructed fronting on Washington Street. Along Columbus Street, between Green and Church streets, there will be 12 townhouses with individual garages. Parking for the condominiums will be underground.

Office and retail completions will also show a marked increase. Office space tops out in 2006 at a little less than 2 million square feet. This is in contrast to the present forecast for 2007 of less than one million square feet.

Estimated retail completions are predicted to hit their zenith of nearly 120,000 square feet in 2006. The 2005 estimate is pegged at just over 80,000 square feet.

Of the residential developments presently under construction, the largest are: Northampton I, Highrise Apartments, 275 units; Potomac Greens, Parcel A, Potomac Yards, 227 units; Chatham Square, 152 units; the Royaltons/Whole Foods, 114 units.

Large approved residential projects not under construction as of June 2004, excluding the Washington Street projects, include: Cameron Station VII, 400 Cameron Station Boulevard, 148 units; Carlyle Block O, 601 Holland Lane, 274 units; The Post at Carlyle Block L, 501 Holland Lane, 317 units; Northampton II, 4380 King St., 275 units; Mill Race, 2201 Eisenhower Avenue, 695 units; and Park Center, 4380 King St., 173 units.

Presently, there are 511 units in eight residential projects currently under review. These range from single family homes to townhouses and mid, low and high rise apartments.

All development and redevelopment in Alexandria comes under close scrutiny of both the Alexandria Planning Commission and the Alexandria Board of Architectural Review [BAR]. The latter was formed primarily to oversee development along Washington Street which is actually a part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

However, BAR's mandate, particularly in the Old and Historic District of Alexandria, which consists primarily of Old Town Alexandria, is to serve as the guardian of historic preservation. This pertains to both residential and commercial/retail properties.

Alexandria Planning Commission meets on the first Tuesday of each month and BAR, Old and Historic District, meets on the first and third Wednesdays of each month. BAR also meets on the second Wednesday of the month to discuss matter pertaining to the Parker Grey District.

TWO PRIMARY ISSUES facing Alexandria City Council on a continuing basis are those of preservation of open space and affordable housing. The latter is exacerbated by the skyrocketing cost of housing within the City, causing many who work in Alexandria to live elsewhere.

One example of addressing the affordable housing issue is the new Chatham Square development in the northeastern quadrant of Old Town. Previously known at Samuel Madden Homes Downtown or, colloquially, as "The Berg," this 152 unit development will mix 100 market priced units with 52 units of public housing.

Designed under a joint partnership of private development and the Alexandria Housing and Redevelopment Authority [ARHA], it has been hailed as one of the most advanced housing project concepts in the nation. It is supplemented by three off-site projects that will provide an additional 48public housing units.

City Council has identified a list of sites that have been designated priority sites for open space creation, acquisition or preservation. These are spread throughout the City.

One of the largest sites in the City recently passed over for open space preservation is located at the intersection of Seminary Road and Quaker Lane. It is known as the Second Presbyterian site in reference to its previous owners, the Presbyterian church. It is now scheduled to be developed into eight home sites with two parcels set aside for open space.

A major effort in the last two years impacting Alexandria development has been the King Street Retail Study. Its primary purpose was to define the objectives and methods to not only maintain King Street's economic viability, but also develop a game plan to increase that viability.

The study, completed in 2003, put to rest many visceral impressions that Old Town's commercial/retail core was caught in a downward spiral. To the contrary, it found that commercial/retail vacancy had increased by only 52 square feet between 1996 and 2003.

The study analyzed the entire Old Town commercial/retail stretch of King Street from the river to the King Street Metro Station. The primary goal of the study was "to create a common understanding of the role of King Street" within the total fabric of the City.

As noted in the study, mass transit is vital to the City's economic well being. Alexandria residents and tourists are served by a multi-dimensional transit system. It is composed of Metro trains, run by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), which has stations at King St. and Braddock Road in the City, as well as near the City at Reagan National Airport and Huntington.

That is complimented by the Metro and DASH bus systems that operate throughout the City. There is also the special DASH ABOUT bus service that operates on upper and lower King Street from the King Street Metro Station to Market Square in the heart of Old Town. It is a free shuttle service with periodic stops along King Street to facilitate tourist and resident mobility.

TWO VITAL ELEMENTS of Alexandria's economic base are its more than 400 restaurants with cuisine to satisfy any taste and its diversified retail establishments. The latter range from individual shops in the heart of Old Town, to the shopping mall at Landmark Center on upper Duke Street.

Included among Alexandria restaurant characteristics is a tradition that is recognized worldwide. It is one of the globe's great dog lover cities. That is epitomized by the King Street Holiday Inn Select's "Doggie Happy Hour" each Tuesday and Thursday night in their Courtyard area from Spring through Fall, which has been acclaimed in international tourist publications.

Dogs and pets are welcomed at a number of Old Town restaurants with outdoor seating such as Pat Troy's Restaurant and Pub, 111 Pitt St., and Chadwick's Old Town, 203 S. Strand St. An array of outdoor dining possibilities exists throughout Old Town.

Every Saturday morning, those who like their produce and bake goods fresh can find them at the nation's oldest operating farmer's market on Market Square in front of City Hall commencing at 5 a.m. There are also a number of other items for sale by area artisans.

Other pluses of Alexandria residency include:

* A well developed park and recreation center system that includes a variety of outdoor and indoor venues.

* A citywide library system

* Museums such as The Lyceum on Washington Street and Gadsby's Museum on Royal Street

* One of the best equipped and trained Fire Departments in the Metropolitan Region

* Senior Services of Alexandria, a full service non-profit organization dedicated to meeting the needs of seniors

* Inova Alexandria Hospital, a complete medical facility with particular capabilities and expertise in oncology, heart health, a dedicated stroke unit, newly upgraded emergency room capabilities, and single room capabilities for OB patients

FOR THOSE WISHING to become active participants in the City's governance process there are a wide variety of civic and neighborhood associations. Alexandria is a City of participatory democracy.

Although cloaked in history from its cobblestoned streets to the Freeman Cemetery of freed slaves, to the Masonic National Shrine, to the Old Presbyterian Meeting House and grave of the Revolutionary War's unknown solider, Alexandria is ever changing. It is a confluence of past, present and future both physically and sociologically.