Setting the Tone

First redevelopment proposal of waterfront plan heads to City Council.

It's too big. It's too bulky. It's too boxy.Those were the comments of speaker after speaker Tuesday night, as members of the Alexandria Planning Commission considered a proposal to build a five-story hotel at the northeast intersection of Union and Duke streets. By the time the public hearing was closed and members of the commission started debating the plan, not one speaker has signed up to support the plan in public. Nevertheless, the commission approved the plan and sent it the City Council."It's a cold night, but it's not that cold, that there might be somebody to come out — even somebody who has a commercial interest," said Planning Commissioner Steward Dunn, the only member who did not vote in favor of the proposal. "The Chamber of Commerce didn't even come out and speak in favor of it."Dunn tried to shave off part of the building in an effort to make it less objectionable to neighbors in Old Town. Leaving his seat on the dais, he walked over to the model and explained how parts of the building could be modified. His suggestion was that the developer remove 10 rooms so that the proposal was a 110-room hotel instead of a 120-room hotel. Dunn also said he would like to see some kind of financial evidence that reducing the scale of the building would make the project unworkable A lawyer representing the developer flatly rejected the compromise and the effort to obtain more information.

"We will not build a 110-room hotel," said attorney Kenneth Wire of McGuireWoods, the same firm that represented the city government in a series of lawsuits challenging the waterfront plan. "We're not going to show you the financial numbers."AS THE WITCHING HOUR approached Tuesday night, city officials and lawyers for the developer retreated to the back room to craft a last-minute arrangement. They emerged from the room with language members of the commission approved in a six-to-one vote directing city staff to work with the developer in an effort to reduce the size and scale of the building. That means the plan that comes before City Council is likely to be a modified concept, one that will have the stamp of the Planning Commission."You work on the finances with the city manager to make sure it's as small as we can possibly get it, and then in concert with that you make it look as small as you can possibly get it with the best design as you can possibly get it," said Planning Commission Chairman John Komoroske. "I'm pretty comfortable with staff handling that."For city officials and development interests, stakes are high. Supporters of the waterfront plan say they're worried that excessive restrictions on the size and scale of the building might jeopardize the hotel proposal. Komoroske said if the hotel deal falls through, other developers might come forward with plans for office or residential projects. "There's blood spilled all over this dais up here from all the pain we've been through to get these hotels," said Komoroske. THE PROPOSAL will be closely watched because it's the first redevelopment under the controversial waterfront plan, which initially passed in 2012 and then was the subject of a number of lawsuits — one of which has yet to be fully resolved. Several commission members said they wanted to be careful to set the right tone with this proposal because it would be viewed as the template for future redevelopment projects along the waterfront. City officials say they believe the proposal would set the right tone in activating the waterfront plan, although they acknowledge it's still being tweaked."It was the best that we could make it," said Planning Director Faroll Hamer. "We think it's good."That comment prompted Planning Commission member Derek Hyra to wonder why the project didn't have a more ringing endorsement.

"You felt it was good, but you didn't use the term great," Hyra told Hamer. "Everyone up here wishes that you could use the word great when you were describing this."Although the City Council chamber was packed with people who opposed the plan, six members of the commission voted in favor. Dunn abstained, calling the proposal a "roadside motel" that was "not special." The rest of the commission said they were hopeful the plan could be improved. As the proposal now moves to City Council, supporters of the waterfront plan predict people in the future will look back on these events as a turning point in the history of the city's waterfront."I think this is going to be of great benefit to the city, and I put the word 'great' into my sentence there," said Planning Commission member Eric Wagner. "It is going to be of great benefit to the city. I think we will be proud when it's built."