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Alexandria Neighborhood Outlook: Redeveloping and Reshaping Old Town
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Alexandria Neighborhood Outlook: Redeveloping and Reshaping Old Town

Some residents continue to harbor resentment.

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Townsend “Van” Van Fleet, President of the Old Town Civic Association.

Redeveloping and Reshaping Old Town

Alexandria’s Old Town, with the shops along King Street and the historic Waterfront, is the most iconic neighborhood in the city. However, as the city moves forward with development plans that will reshape the waterfront, the last year in Old Town has been defined largely by a deep conflict between many residents of the historic district and local government.

According to Stephanie Landrum, president and CEO of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, Old Town’s primary industry is in its tourism.

“King Street and the Waterfront are our established downtown,” said Landrum. “The interesting dynamic here is that it’s where most of the tourists visit. Three million people walk up and down these streets. That is certainly a differentiating factor for this market. We tend to see a lot more independent stores and restaurants than we find in the West End.”

Over the past three years, the city has been taking steps to transform and capitalize on the appeal of its waterfront neighborhood.

Townsend “Van” Van Fleet moved to Alexandria 30 years ago, and since has become the leading spokesperson for residents of Old Town. Van Fleet is president of the Old Town Civic Association and is a regular at the City Council public hearings. This fall, he plans to take that activism one step further by running for City Council. “Van Fleet for Council” signs are already visible at a few spots around town and, even when it’s not mentioned, it’s apparent in the way Van Fleet talks.

“The Waterfront is changing immeasurably in ways that don’t fit in with the historic district,” said Van Fleet. “This council, the Planning Commission, the Board of Architectural Review, they have failed to see what’s going on. People don’t come here for breakfast at the Charthouse, they come here for the history, and it’s not just Old Town that’s under fire. People from all across the city are taking the council on in this.”

Over those 30 years in Old Town, Van Fleet says the biggest change he’s seen is the new developments that have become commonplace in the neighborhood. Van Fleet notes that he’s not opposed to development, just development that doesn’t fit in with the historic character of the neighborhoods. His own home in Harborside, a community on the waterfront, is not historic, but Van Fleet says that the buildings in the community are designed to look consistent with the historic presence around them.

This issue has been the core of Van Fleet and other Old Town residents’ fight against EYA’s Robinson Terminal South Development and other new additions to the area. The fight even led to a battle at Virginia’s Supreme Court over Carr Hospitality’s planned hotel at 220 South Union St. But so far, it’s a fight Van Fleet is losing. The Supreme Court sided with city, which approved the development, and the first stages of construction are currently underway. This year saw a series of battles at the Board of Architectural Review, the Planning Commission, and City Council over various aspects of the Robinson Terminal South Development, mostly fought between city government and local citizens.

“Economics overcame rationale,” said Van Fleet, and then repeats a phrase he and others have repeated at City Council: “They’re killing the goose that laid the golden egg.”

North Old Town

The conflict between new development and old residences isn’t isolated to the King Street area of Old Town. Tom Soapes, president of the North Old Town Independent Citizens’ Association, said that redevelopment is the biggest issue facing his neighborhood as well. Soapes isn’t opposed to new retail and new housing, not to the degree that southern Old Town is often characterized as, but says the local residents still have concerns about how the Old Town North area will be developed. Many of these issues will be decided in the Old Town North Small Area Plan, which will be drafted over the next year and a half, but Soapes said residents are also looking at what is developed in the recently closed Giant, the now-empty GenOn Plant, and the city’s reactions to the Best Western Old Colony Inn as signs of North Old Town’s future. The expansion plans for the Old Colony Inn faced outcry from local citizens and were rejected at the June 17 Board of Architectural Review (BAR) meeting, but will return to the BAR, the Planning Commission, and the City Council in the fall.

So far, Soapes said local residents are satisfied with the current residential/commercial mix.

“We took a survey last year of North Old Town residents and a strong majority wanted to see continued mixed use development,” said Soapes. “They want to see more residential, but also want to open some parts of the area being used as small local businesses. Nobody wants any big box stores with huge amounts of traffic, but business and residential developments that blend in with the community are desirable.”

In fact, Soapes said that the mix of retail and residential has been one of the best aspects of the neighborhood for newcomers.

“There’s a lot here for meeting your daily needs, like groceries or pharmacies,” said Soapes.

“The neighborhood residents use these quite a lot.”

Van Fleet’s favorite thing about Old Town is its walkability, which Van Fleet insists is an Old Town experience that can’t be replaced by driving or even bicycling around the neighborhood. The walkability is actually one of the pieces of the Waterfront Development Plan that Van Fleet likes. The new plan will include an uninterrupted walking path along the entirety of the Waterfront. Van Fleet’s advice for new residents to Old Town is to get out of their homes and take long walks around the neighborhood to get to know the local history.

Del Ray: The Town inside the City

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Mount Vernon Avenue, the main street of Del Ray.

Wedged between the concrete canyons of Arlington and the tourist-heavy Old Town Alexandria, Del Ray may come as the biggest surprise in Alexandria to those unfamiliar with the city. Nearly every store along Mount Vernon Avenue in Del Ray, be it a cafe or an exotic plant and comic book store, is a local “mom and pop” store. And yet, Del Ray doesn’t receive nearly the tourist density of Old Town. In many ways, the residents of Del Ray believe the area is Alexandria’s best kept secret.

“This is the stuff you just can’t find at big box shopping centers,” said Jay Nestlerode, president of the Del Ray Citizens Association. “And we don’t have a lot of high buildings, so it still gives you that low storefront appeal.”

Landrum noted that Del Ray has a small town, family-friendly atmosphere considered very desirable for Alexandrians hoping to stay in the city but escape the higher density of other neighborhoods. Its main street, Landrum noted, is characterized by its walkability and its complete lack of national chains.

“There are no chain stores, everything here is one of a kind,” said Rod Kuckro, a past president of the Del Ray Citizen’s Association. “In our zoning, we didn’t allow enough size for national chains to come in. It’s not just a residential community, it’s also a destination for people outside of Del Ray to enjoy the ambiance. Two years ago, people didn’t come to Del Ray. Now people can’t find parking.”

When Kuckro first moved to Del Ray 30 years ago, he said the neighborhood used to be notorious for its crime issues. However, over time the criminal elements of Del Ray seem to have faded away. Kuckro credits the heightened presence and sophistication of Parent Teacher Associations in the local schools for helping to keep local youths away from criminal activity.

Life in Del Ray isn’t cheap though. Kuckro said that the price of having a small town lifestyle unlike anything else in Arlington or Alexandria is a more expensive real estate market.

“It’s a great area if you can get in here, but it’s like anywhere else, the extra goods and services come at a premium,” acknowledged Nestlerode. “Being closer to the metro or restaurants is more expensive, but it pays off in the long term. It’s tough, though, if you’re just coming here short term.”

But the secret is out on Del Ray. Kuckro and Nestlerode expressed concerns that Del Ray’s days as a small town within the big city may be numbered.

“The biggest challenge is not becoming another Clarendon and Ballston,” said Nestlerode. “With the closeness to D.C., the developers are chopping at the bits to bring in the most dense products they can and that’s not always what’s best for the neighborhood.”

“Today, we’re face pressure from developers who would like to see more infill development and larger structures on Mount Vernon avenue, particularly in the historic district,” said Kuckro. “Del Ray is in its golden age, but we have to have a constant vigilance about that.”

New Life in the West End

While Old Town and Del Ray struggle against new development, the West End desperately craves it. According to Landrum, retailers and personal services industries are beginning to flock towards the West End because of the residential density that isn’t permitted in Old Town or Del Ray. With plans to redevelop Landmark Mall and the recent announcement that the Transportation Security Agency will be moving into the area, many are hopeful that the West End could see a revival.

“The West End has highest population and the most disposable income,” said Landrum. “There are opportunities like Landmark Mall where business can capture residents not only from the West End, but Fairfax and Arlington.”

Lynn Bostain, president of the Seminary West Civic Association and the West End Business Association, said the impending arrival of the TSA headquarters is going to be a boon for the West End but isn’t a reflection of the future of the area.

“The TSA headquarters is going to be great, we’re delighted it’s going in because that building has been empty for 10 years,” said Bostain, “but I think the strength in the West End is in small businesses rather than large. There’s not a lot of land left over here to build on.”

Bostain has lived in the neighborhood since 1976, and says the single largest change in that time has been the increase in traffic. The Van Dorn Street metro station straddles the Alexandria and Fairfax border, but Bostain said that she was always hopeful for another metro station located somewhere in the West End. Bostain believes a station near where the TSA headquarters is moving into would have been very beneficial to the area.

“There is a lack of transportation options in the West End,” said Bostain. “There’s no quick way for people to move around, and that’s a big problem.”

On Sept. 17, from 7 to 9 p.m., candidates for City Council will face off at the William Ramsay Elementary School. Alongside questions regarding the schools and the Beauregard Small Area Plan, Bostain said she believes transportation will be the biggest issue discussed. With City Council and most other government functions taking place in the City Hall in Old Town, Bostain said many residents of the West End feel underrepresented in city decisions.

Bostain acknowledges that the West End is a very different type of neighborhood than Old Town or Del Ray and faces very different issues.

“There’s a lot of nature over on this end of town, and you don’t really have that in a lot of other areas of the city,” said Bostain, noting Holmes Run park as particularly popular. “We also have a really diverse population in the West End, but it puts a huge burden on the schools, which are overcrowded already.”

But Bostain also says the diversity of the West End is one of the area’s greatest strengths.

“There’s a rapidly increasing number of ethnic restaurants, and people here want to see more,” said Bostain. “There’s a huge potential for ethnic populations here. Most are Ethiopians or Hispanics from Central America.”

To new residents of the West End, Bostain advised them to meet their neighbors and get involved in the local political scene.

“Learn how the city’s politics work,” said Bostain. “Involve yourself as much as you can. City politics can be very daunting because people don’t know how it works. That’s one aspect of Alexandria that could really be improved, especially when there’s a language barrier, as there is for many West End residents.”