Wednesday, January 10, 2007

There's Got to Be A Morning After

The Growler is feeling a little wistful today, now that the proposed Harris-Teeter at the Madison has fallen through. A grocery store would have been a real asset to the Parker-Gray neighborhood.

But it's time to move on.

At last night's City Council, the politicians (principally Rob Krupicka) were a little downcast too, but the City Manager Jim Hartmann noted that the City still plans to work with the developer to attract another grocer of some kind for the property. We were also told that a compromise had been crafted but Harris-Teeter's top brass themselves nixed the deal.

From the dialogue last night it appears the Council was not willing to go into minute detail about why everything collapsed. Thus a planned tarring and feathering of Code Enforcement or Planning & Zoning staff at Market Square won't be happening soon. We may never know the full story but there are undoubtedly issues on both sides.

Nevertheless, this is not the end of the world to those of us who are long-time residents. We've lived ten, twenty, thirty years without a grocery store in the immediate neighborhood and will do fine for another few. And in the past decade we have gained a Shoppers Warehouse at Potomac Yards as well as specialty grocers such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe's that are both easily accessible by foot. The glass is half full, not half empty.

There was also such interest in attracting a grocery store that we hadn't really stopped to think about the manifold consequences, including the potential snarling of turn-off traffic from Route 1. (Many prospective customers will still use cars, especially when they are stocking up or buying heavy items like bottled water and soda.)

A cautionary lesson can be learned from the continuing mess over at Whole Foods, where traffic cops had to be deployed at Christmas to steer traffic turning in and out of Duke and Holland Streets. That's not a good use of City resources and illustrates there is a continuing disconnect between Planning and Zoning and the Transportation & Environmental Services Department in the development process.

Down the road we also faced the thorny issue of how Harris-Teeter would deal with the sale of beer and wine. Parker-Gray citizens fought the equivalent of Stalingrad with the state ABC, moving store by store, block by block over the years to restrict the sales of wine and beer that fueled criminal behavior and property damage.

It's one thing to restrict a convenience store or a mom and pop market. How amenable would a major grocery chain be to similar restrictions?

And finally there was the open-ended question of how a retailer open long hours would cope with the public housing and homeless shelter denizens who have made establishments such as the McDonald's unpleasant for many neighbors and drop-in customers.

In some respects, the Growler feels relief that this issue is dead. We had too many wild-eyed fanatics (principally centered at the Lofts) who were prepared to surrender the pink at the mere mention of a new grocery store — willing to give up anything in terms of density, mass, design, and open space just for a grocery store. The Growler hopes the lawyers and businessmen among their ranks aren't such lousy negotiators in real life.

We also need to keep in mind that Harris-Teeter was not the developer, only a tenant. It was the developers' long wrangles with the City over floor area ratio (a measure of density) and the drive to maximize profit that undoubtedly contributed to this project dragging on for years. Don't forget that they proposed some absolutely ridiculous and ugly building plans over the years, including one with the grocery store buried below the surface, with parking at ground level and a much larger building than the Monarch towering above. Yeeeoooww!

By the way, Mr. Krupicka's mooning over the loss and his plaintive request that the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership (AEDP) work hard to find a new grocer brought a refreshingly tart response from Mayor William D. Euille that it wasn't the City's job to find tenants, it's the developers.

Damn right! While everyone's beating their breasts that it's our fault or the City's fault (please!!!!), developers play the key role in attracting retail tenants and shouldn't be let off the hook lightly.

And when are people are going to start casting a jaundiced eye at the Monarch? After all, this is where Harris-Teeter fever was first incubated. Was it all a sleight of hand, just like the CVS?

The Growler is even wondering if we've now got a truly worrisome trend emerging: developers who hold up the prospect of sexy retail tenants as catnip to extract maximum concessions from residents and City officials, and then fail to keep their promises once the foundations are poured and set.