Currently, the city block between in North Old Town that formerly housed the Giant grocery store sits empty except for a lone ABC store. Surrounded by hotels, restaurants, offices and community centers, the mostly vacant lot stands out, which is partly why city staff and the Planning Commission were pleased with a proposal from EDENS to redevelop the plot for a mix of retail, townhouse-style units, and apartments. The Planning Commission voted to approve the proposal at its March 1 meeting, but not without objections be several local community members.
Building sizes in the new development range from two to six stories, with two levels of underground parking. For those worried about being cut off from the closest alcohol supply, the Virginia ABC store will remain in place, though the other tenants for the complex have not yet been determined. The application calls for restaurants, small specialty grocery, and furniture or home goods stores as anchor tenants.
Agnes Artemel, a former president of the Old Town North Community Partnership, spoke in support of the proposal.
“It’s not perfect, but it is the best we can get,” said Artemel. “This [could be a] valuable asset for the neighborhood in the future… I think this project has the potential to bring the kinds of mixed uses that would be good for this neighborhood. We need to build on the fabric that’s been building for the last 10 or 20 years.”
Planning Commission member Maria Wasowski noted one email in particular from a local business owner highlighting the need for market rate rental units in order to entice employees to live in the city. Mary Catharine Puskar, the attorney representing EDENS, argued that residents attending the meeting in protest weren’t representative of the whole community. Puskar also pointed to the developer’s nearly full year of community outreach leading up to the Planning Commission meeting.
“This whole thing is rigged.”
— Joan Drury, member of VISION
“I think we sometimes confuse people not liking the outcome with inadequate process,” said Puskar.
The mood of the audience at the meeting was decidedly against the development. Criticism of the project centered around transportation and scale concerns. Many of the opponents represented local civic associations, including Tom Soapes, president of the North Old Town Independent Citizens Association. In a seven-page letter sent to commission, Darrel W. Drury, Ph. D, and president of a group called Volunteers in Service to the Improvement of Old Town North (VISION), expressed concern that the project would exacerbate what Drury called the dangerous conditions at the intersection of First Street and North Washington Street.
Planning Commission chair Mary Lyman noted that she had not had time to read the letter before the meeting, and when Joan Drury began to read the letter to the commission, Lyman cut her off and insisted that the public hearing portion not be devoted to members of the group approaching the podium and reading the letter verbatim.
“The implications for traffic congestion in the future are daunting,” said Darrel Drury in the letter. “Several pipeline projects throughout Old Town North that are currently in various stages of development are expected to generate about 5,510 daily trips by the year 2021. This, in turn, will increase the length of the queue at the left-hand turn lane of North Washington Street by about 27 feet. [This project], when completed, would generate 3,964 additional daily trips and extend the left-turn lane queue on North Washington street by another 100 feet.”
Carrie Sanders, acting deputy director for Transportation and Environmental Services, said that staff had reviewed the applicant’s traffic study and found it consistent with the city’s standards.
“You’re going to see traffic conditions increase, but it wouldn’t be substantial,” said Sanders. “Certainly with a new development, we’ll see an increase in trips, but those trips will happen regardless of this particular development. The general traffic [in the area] is increasing. [We’re working] to mitigate these with signal timing changes and increasing walkability in this area.”
Sanders said that the city had asked the developer to incorporate a contribution for signal timing changes, which she said would help with the traffic congestion, but that whether that contribution would be implemented before the project was completed was uncertain.
The letter goes on to express concerns about the project’s parking reduction and the fact that the primary loading dock entrance for delivery vehicles and the entrance for the parking garage is on First Street. Among the citizens speaking at the meeting, however, one of the biggest concern seemed to be that development approval was a foregone conclusion before staff met with local residents.
“This whole thing is rigged,” said Joan Drury.
It didn’t escape the notice of Lyman that many of these complaints were similar to those in the discussion surrounding the nearby Old Colony Inn redevelopment.
“[I] share your concern that the perception that the neighbors are not being listened to,” said Lyman. “We’re hearing same things about Old Colony Inn, so we need to look at that.”
“I think staff is a fine staff,” said Planning Commission member Stewart Dunn, “but it is true that there is a perception that the staff isn’t listening and that there’s a set line on what we’re going to do. That’s what we’re hearing from many of the people here.”
Dunn said he thought it was a good project, but argued that the transportation and citizens concerns made him uncomfortable with approving of it so swiftly. However, despite some similar concerns, Dunn’s fellow commission members did not feel the project approval needed to be deferred.
Planning Commission member Nathan Macek argued that property hadn’t always been vacant, and that the transportation grid had been able to support the busy Giant. Planning Commission member Stephen Koenig said he understood the neighbors concerns, but felt that the project solved more problems than it hurt. In response to the citizens, Lyman said the city would continue to look for ways to make the process more transparent.
“We can promise that we’ll listen, but we can’t promise that we’ll see eye to eye,” said Lyman. “It doesn’t mean we don’t respect your opinion, we just can’t always agree with it.”
In a series of votes, all of which every member but Dunn voted in favor, the Planning Commission approved the redevelopment of the property.