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New apartment development in Old Town riles up nearby residents

A rendering for 301 N. Fairfax Street in Old Town (via City of Alexandria)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a new development planned in Old Town is stirring up community frustration about height and density.

A meeting of the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) last week became a bitter argument between architecture firm Winstanley Architects, the lawyer for developer Hoffman and Associates, and nearby residents who say the plans don’t fit with the neighborhood.

Hoffman and Associates is hoping to build a new four-story residential development at 301 N. Fairfax Street — two blocks west of Founders Park and two blocks north of City Hall.

During the public comment, nearby residents said the proposed building is too large for the neighborhood.

“The current building at 301 N. Fairfax has an existing gross floor area of 30,459 feet,” said local resident Tom Foley. “The proposed development asks for a total gross floor area of 98,465 feet, tripling the size of the current structure.”

Foley said he and other residents feel the size and scale of the new building is not appropriate to the neighborhood.

“I am baffled how an architecture firm as talented and respected as Winstanley cannot come up with a design that comports with the historic ambiance and style of our Old Town historic buildings,” said Jana McKeag, Foley’s wife.

But specific concerns about square footage also gave way to broader concerns about the changing character of Old Town.

“Set a precedent that makes 301 N. Fairfax a first-of-its-kind emphatic statement that demonstrates to Hoffman and every developer coming behind them that attractive new construction can speak to our colonial history and still meet the appropriate size and number of units that will respect what our neighborhood can realistically accommodate,” Anna Bergman implored the BAR. “This is hallowed ground.”

Others accused the developer of lying to the nearby community and ignoring public feedback, threatening to fight the developer tooth and nail throughout the process.

“We will not allow you to steamroll over our rights and the city protections,” said Ann Shack. “With your attitude of total defiance despite our efforts we are now forced to meet you head on. Should you decide to continue down this path you chose, even though you knew in advance you were not complying with the city regulations and requirements, know that many of our residents are attorneys. We will force you to spend money before you put one shovel into the ground.”

Attorney Cathy Puskar, of Walsh Colucci Lubeley & Walsh, represented the developer.

“I carry this water bottle with me a lot, it says spread kindness,” Puskar said. “I do that to remind myself when I hear the false facts, the accusations, and the outright threats put to me, my client, and the architect, that I need to maintain my composure because that’s not what this is about.”

The project had a mixed reception from the BAR.

“I think you’ve made a lot of changes from the first [proposal]; I thought the first one was not appropriate,” said BAR Member Michael Lyons. “I still think it looks a little out of place. It’s certainly come 70% further than it was before.”

BAR Member Andrew Scott said, for the most part, he approved of the project — if there were a change in construction material.

“I think this is really beautiful work,” said Scott. “It’s really nice… I do not think fiber cement is an appropriate material for this street and you’re not going to get my vote with fiber cement.”

Scott said, contrary to some of the comments from the public, he didn’t see it as the BAR’s role to maintain the status quo of Old Town.

“It is not our mandate to prevent change in neighborhoods,” Scott said. “It is ‘Does this building compliment the neighborhood?’ And my opinion, as someone who has seen many of these… I think this fits in just fine.”

Others were less enthusiastic about the project.

“[It’s] an improvement, but given this elevation and the scale of the nearby buildings, I think it’s too massive,” said BAR Member Theresa Del Ninno. “I would not be able to support this proposal with the current massing.”

Others said the development was out of place in historic Old Town.

“This building belongs on the north end of Old Town,” said BAR Member Margaret Miller. “If I lived across the street from it, I too would have pause.”

After multiple work sessions with the BAR, Puskar said the developer was planning to take the project to the Planning Commission and the City Council rather than continue with reviews.

“We’re going to come back if it’s approved [at the City Council] for a certificate of appropriateness,” said Puskar. “There are a lot of details between now and then that we think will improve the building even more.”

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