By Carla Branch
As the Alexandria City Council unanimously approved the redevelopment of the Calvert property on Mt. Vernon Avenue on Saturday, members also began a discussion about rationalizing the development process.
The Calvert is a 16-story apartment building with single-story wings of retail on either side. There are large surface parking lots in the front and the back and a retaining wall along Mt. Vernon Ave. United Dominion Realty, the owner of the property, will redevelop it beginning in 2012. That means that no leases in the rental building are being renewed, and no retail leases are being extended. The Del Merei Grille was the first business to vacate the premises, closing on Friday night.
“We have held meetings with the residents of the apartment building and have informed them that we are not going to extend any of the one-year leases,” said Duncan Blair, the attorney who represents UDR.
When the redevelopment is finished, the high-rise will be completely renovated, inside and outside. The new façade will have more glass, metal and brick and will retain the distinctive rooftop elements that make the current building a familiar part of the Mt. Vernon Ave. skyline. The two retail wings will be demolished and will be replaced by two five-story buildings, which will house apartments and retail.
The new development will contain 145 additional residential rental units, bringing the total number of units on the site to 332. The over 16,000 square feet of retail space will be decreased to just over 11,000 square feet. There will be an underground parking garage on the corner of the site and a green plaza that can be used by residents and retail customers.
Council agreed to return the ten feet of property in front of the property to UDR so that the retaining wall can be removed and steps and green space constructed to replace it. When the property was originally developed in the 1960s, the property was given to the City to be used for the widening of Mt. Vernon Ave. That didn’t happen and the property is not needed for any such anticipated project. The retail space will be moved closer to the street for higher visibility and better access.
“This building is almost 50 years old and was a good project for when it was built,” said Vice Mayor Kerry Donley. “However, it was a suburban building, and we are very much part of the Washington, DC, metropolitan urban landscape. This is a very exciting project, and I am very pleased that everyone has worked so well together to bring it forward.”
His colleagues agreed and approved the plan.
Donley and City Councilman Rob Krupicka asked City staff to bring forward a discussion about the policy for approving individual rezoning requests outside a Small Area Plan review. The document that Council considered on Saturday contained the criteria that staff currently uses in considering individual zoning applications.
“I need to make it very clear that if someone presents us with an application, the law requires that we process it,” said City Planning Director Farroll Hamer. “We have discussions with developers and let them know that if they go forward with the application, we may or may not support it. We cannot stop anyone from having their application heard, first by the Planning Commission and then by Council.”
Members of Council and Alexandrians who signed up to speak were confused. “I’m glad I listened to the conversation that has just taken place because I have just discarded all of my prepared remarks,” said Jack Sullivan. “I was integrally involved in the Comprehensive Master Plan process in 1992 and in looking at our zoning ordinances in 2002. After painstakingly looking at all of those ordinances, we decided to make no changes.
“I’m not quite sure what the intent of this policy is, but I would caution you to be specific and not create more ambiguity than there is currently. The staff’s informal criteria is one thing, but if you codify it, it takes it to an entirely different level. You need to be very careful that you do not do something that you do not really intend,” Sullivan said.
Councilman Frank Fannon agreed. “We need to be very clear and treat everyone who files an application with the Planning Department the same,” he said. “It is staff’s responsibility to process applications, not to tell people not to go forward. We have lost some development opportunities that we will never get back and, in these economic times when we are trying to have a better balance between residential and commercial properties, we can’t afford to lose any good commercial projects.”
Donley finally suggested holding a work session with the Planning Commission on the issue. “We clearly need to remove the ambiguity from this process so that every developer and every citizen knows what to expect when individual applications are filed. Also, I want to make it clear that any policy that we pass will include our philosophy of protecting residential neighborhoods,” he said.
That work session will be held in November.