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Torpedo Factory overhaul gets a price tag and timeline

After taking some flack for not having the financial impacts at-hand; Diane Ruggiero, director of the Office of the Arts, returned to the Waterfront Commission on Monday with pricing for modernizing the Torpedo Factory.

Julian Gonsalves, assistant city manager for public/private partnerships, talked through the cost estimates for the Torpedo Factory overhaul. Continuing as-is, with relatively minor building repairs funded over time with artist space being left mostly untouched, was priced at $16 million.

Gonsalves said continuing as-is — called incremental revitalization in the city plans — keeps the existing rent policy in place, but Gonsalves said that the current rent structure essentially only covers the cost of maintaining the building and not any of the proposed improvements to the building like new restrooms or increased waterfront access, so those capital improvements would only be made when there is room in the annual Capital Improvement Plan budget.

The underlying theme from the city’s presentation was that if the city is going to invest more into the Torpedo Factory, it wants a more vibrant and active attraction than what currently exists. The more sweeping changes under consideration would be leasing out the ground floor to private development, but city staff and ultimately the Waterfront Commission are more favorable toward a “custom program” — where the city retains ownership of the building and coordinates public-private partnerships for the ground floor.

Both the custom program and the ground floor leasing option — which amount to differences in management rather than significant architectural changes — are priced at $41.5 million. That price includes some foundational work that allows for new waterfront access and other changes to the ground floor, new restrooms, and “tenant improvements and enhancements.”

Gonsalves said the construction would likely start in 2025 and take 18 months, during which artists may be relocated to a different space.

Another takeaway from the financial considerations is that the dream of rooftop access is more or less dead. Making the rooftop feasible for use would cost an estimated $27.8 million; a combination of foundation reworking costs to support rooftop use and needed accessibility changes, like new elevators and stairs. The staff report indicated that the total cost to build and maintain the roof as a usable space far exceeded the potential revenue gained from any rooftop use.

The custom and ground floor leasing plans have drawn some backlash from artists for reducing the overall studio space in the building. During the meeting, city staff tiptoed around the issue, portraying the potential ground-floor restaurant use as “culinary arts” and saying the changes give the chance to bring in a wider range of artistic spaces like glassblowing studios.

“All the scenarios present the artists being there,” Gonsalves said. “This will be an art-focused building. This is not the artists being moved out of the Torpedo Factory. This is to ensure that we can plan for the Torpedo Factory of the 21st century.”

But Gonsalves did acknowledge that overall studio space for artists in the new plans would decrease. Diane Ruggiero, director of the Office of the Arts, said that more limited studio space might be better used by artist collectives rather than individual artists.

Reception from the Waterfront Commission was mixed.

“These are not specific plans despite years of studies,” said Commissioner Christina Watters. “We are now getting a quickly thrown-together plan that does not take responsibility for what needs to happen here. Artists have been engineered out.”

Watters also said the city is selectively using profitability as a measure of what to include, noting that a single restaurant operating on the ground floor is unlikely to be the revenue-generating machine that will recoup the costs of construction.

“I think the thought that looking at the Torpedo Factory, one of the jewels of our waterfront, as a negotiable source of revenue that we would farm out to some developer who would make the future profits is a grave mistake,” Watters said.

Commissioner Gina Baum was less sympathetic to the concerns of decreased artist studio space.

“[The] artists have been oppositional…at every turn have taken an oppositional stance,” Baum said. “I’ve had it with the do-nothing crowd… If the artists want to continue to fight like they are, they are going to dig their own grave. That is the reality of this situation. The city cannot afford to just sustain this as-is. Something needs to be done.”

Baum also dismissed a petition by artists to save studio space, calling it “garbage” and saying that she was sure that half of those signing don’t live in Alexandria.

The Waterfront Commission ultimately voted in favor of the custom program and will forward a letter of recommendation to the City Council for their meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 14.

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