Monday, January 24, 2011

The Long Goodbye ... to Retail

After a long dry period — mostly attributable to the beleaguered economy — there's suddenly a lot of development activity going on in our neighborhood that will bring permanent change to our community.

EYA and ARHA say that nearly 20 townhouse units in the first stage of the Bland redevelopment project are under contract or sold, and they are now proposing to change the sequencing of the project so that all of the blocks closest to our neighborhood are done first.

In addition, ARHA and EYA are proposing a significant change in the troublesome layout of the multi-family buildings on N. Patrick Street. Instead of configuring these buildings with two lower floors of public housing and two upper floors of market-rate units with separate entrances, EYA has found that for financing reasons it would be better to break up the two groups and keep the market rate units and subsidized units in separate buildings. The Growler's philosophy? Whatever it takes to ensure those market rate units sell is acceptable.

A few blocks away, the walls of Jericho are going down at the Payne Street warehouse, and we can soon expect the jolt of pile driving. The Madison project, too, is back with a new financing partner and is going to Planning Commission and Council next month to propose some revisions in its previously approved site plan. Hopefully that project will get started in 2011 as well.

However, there's some news related to the Madison that may sadden those who still cherish forlorn hopes for quality retail in our neighborhood.

While strolling through the new model homes at the Bland redevelopment project, the Growler heard that a new Harris Teeter would be coming soon ... but east of N. Washington Street, not here.

The Cranky One later confirmed with Planning & Zoning staff that they have indeed received a concept for a new project on the block surrounded by St. Asaph, Pitt, and Madison in Old Town North that would include a Harris Teeter grocery store that would be approximately 54,000 square feet in size, with 166 residential units on four floors above the grocery store and underground parking below.

Readers may remember that five years ago when the Madison project was first under discussion, it was slated to include a Harris Teeter. This would have been the first full-fledged grocery store in our neighborhood in many years.

Debate still rages in the neighborhood about whether Harris Teeter was sincere in its interest in the site or just fishing, and whether P&Z staff under a previous regime scared off the chain during micromanagement of the site plan details.

Nevertheless, to the Growler it seeems that if a Harris Teeter goes in on St. Asaph Street it will be unlikely we will have our own grocery. (It will probably also sound the death knell for the small Giant store a few blocks away.)

Other sad but not unanticipated news: the revised Madison site plan will include less retail space, dropping from 23,620 sf in the original site plan to 9,672 sf. The project consists of two buildings, and the retail space in the northernmost building will be repurposed for a leasing office, a gym, and more residential units.

The Growler is not surprised at the reduction in retail, given that there are still huge unleased gaps at the Monarch just a few blocks away. Two years ago when the Madison developers obtained their approvals from Planning Commission and Council, they mentioned that CVS was interested in the space. But apparently the drug chain bowed out during the recession. (It surely didn't help either that the day before a CVS vice president's visit to the site a pair of murdered bodies were dumped in the middle of N. Patrick Street a block away.)

There's no doubt that mixed-use as a concept has been grossly oversold in Alexandria. But what is most embittering is that the second team of consultants who developed the final and most notorious Braddock Road Neighborhood Plan three years ago clearly spun fantasy tales about what was achievable in terms of retail in our community. The first retail consultant had always seemed quite sensible to the Growler in the way she discussed the chilling effect of competition from nearby establishments on King Street and in Potomac Yard and how this made it potentially difficult to recruit retail businesses for our neck of the woods.

What will happen is that many of the residents closer to N. Washington Street will walk to the new Harris Teeter as they do now to Trader Joe's, and those of us closer to the King Street Metro will continue to walk to Whole Foods. And of course many of us will continue to drive to the huge Duke Street Giant or the Shoppers Food Warehouse at Potomac Yard.