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Heron, a proposed hotel development at 699 Prince Street, image via Monarch Urban

This week, the City Council is docketed (items 27 and 28) to review a proposal for the city to, in a round-about way, be involved in the financing of a new luxury hotel in Old Town.

With hotel revenue going into freefall during the pandemic, the prospect of building or renovating hotels in Alexandria hasn’t been a particularly financially appealing option, but a report prepared by Alexandria Economic Development Partnership (AEDP) and city staff said that’s going to be a hit to tourism in the city as people travel again.

At the City Council meeting tomorrow (Tuesday), the Council is scheduled to vote on a “tourism development plan” developed with the Virginia Tourism Development Financing Program (TDFP) to provide gap financing for a hotel project at 699 Prince Street.

The project is coming to the city for financing because the project is below the anticipated yield investors would hope for. According to the tourism development plan being presented to the City Council, the anticipated operating profits for the hotel are between 6.5% and 7% — below the 10% yield targeted by investors for financing before the pandemic. According to the report:

The project’s $69.6 [million] (includes building sale) ancipated cost will be capitalized with approximately $45.2M (65% loan-to-cost) senior construction financing, and approximately $10.27 million of net historic tax credit proceeds. The remaining $14.13 million will be funded through a combination of TDFP proceeds and investor capital.

It’s a somewhat complicated chain of financing, but a graph in the presentation lays out some of the financing web.

Hotel project financing, via City of Alexandria

The tourism development plan laid out to Council also highlighted some of the issues with hotel room supply city-wide. One of the big issues, the plan said, is that residential units are seen as a safer bet than hotels. The report noted that the city has lost five hotels in the last two years.

“The major challenge for Alexandria’s tourism economy is our recent reduction in hotel room supply,” the plan said.”The loss of hotel rooms is largely a result of the booming residential real estate market. With low-interest rates and increasing post-Covid migration from urban centers to suburban communities, the demand for residential housing in Northern Virginia is causing many hotel property owners to convert their properties to residential. As a result of these conversions, Alexandria’s hotel base dropped 17% in the past two years.”

The report also said while there are “upscale properties” in the city, there are no real luxury hotels in Alexandria.

“This proposed development would fill a void in the market and in turn, increase City revenues by increasing our Average Daily Rate,” the report said.

The report also said the new hotel would provide large meeting spaces that are in short supply in Old Town.

Finally, Alexandria would benefit from more hotel meeting space in Old Town. Our largest conference hotel, the Hilton Mark Center, is located on the City’s West End, a 20-minute drive from Old Town. Within Old Town, Alexandria has only three properties that can accommodate a large meeting (200+) — the Westin, the Hilton Old Town and Holiday Inn & Suites. Despite the walkable and historic downtown that many meeting planners and their attendees are seeking, Alexandria loses mid-size meetings to adjacent localities like Arlington, VA and National Harbor, MD.

The report from AEDP and city staff, though, said the expectation is for the hospitality market to rebound this year and next — how the ongoing wave of Covid cases from the omicron variant affects those projections isn’t said.

“In the recent HVS market study, the tables indicate demand for higher-end hospitality that will surpass pre-Covid levels in 2022-2023 and point to continued growth thereafter,” the report said. “Targeted for delivery in the 2023 timeframe, the Project will be well-positioned to capture this demand.”

At the meeting on Tuesday, the City Council will vote both on creating a “tourism zone” at the site to incentivize hotel development and, immediately after, a tourism development plan for the proposed hotel.

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After six months of waiting for the city’s Permit Center to approve an expansion of her nail salon, Kathleen Le was ready to throw her hands up in resignation.

“I tell my staff that if they hear me talk about opening another location or expanding to please kill me instead,” Le told ALXnow. “Don’t let me do it.”

Just last month, with the grand opening days away for an expanded Salon Meraki, Le failed an inspection. A sprinkler head in her new salon had paint on it, and after replacing it, she says she was told that all of her paperwork was going to have to go through the city from the beginning.

“I called City Hall to reschedule the final inspection the very following day, because I had the grand opening party, but they said I couldn’t do that,” Le said. “They told me I was going to have to bring in my permit drawing and they would have to review all of my paperwork all over again from square one.”

Le turned to Danielle Romanetti, the owner of fibre space and last year’s winner of the Chamber ALX small business of the year award. The move worked, since Romanetti is well connected.

The multi-department Permit Center is intended to streamline the approval process for residents and business owners. Like many city services, the Permit Center closed at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, although the city says that its online APEX permitting system was still up and running. In November 2021, after 19 months of the pandemic, the city says it fully reopened to in-person business. During the interim period, though, Le said her messages and calls were seldom returned, prolonging what should have been a simple exercise.

“The first phase started with in-person services by ‘appointment only’ in the summer of 2020,” said Kelly Gilfillen, the city’s acting director of the Office of Communications and Public Information. “The second phase began in April 2021 with permit technicians located on the first floor of City Hall. On November 15, the fourth floor Permit Center reopened to in-person customers. Online services continue to be available.”

Gilfillen said that some processes will remain electronic for larger projects submitted by major developers and contractors, although small businesses and residents (to include their contractors) will continue to be provided same day services.

Soon after contacting Romanetti, Le’s permits all got approved and she got the green light to open.

“Prior to the pandemic, we had a one-stop-shop expediting service for small businesses that allowed us to schedule a time to run a project through all departments at once,” Romanetti said. “That is gone. It existed for a reason. We can’t wait 30 days to get permits for a sign on a new business.”

Le said she appreciated the approval, but that the process was unfair.

“It’s not fair for other business owners who have to go through the same thing that I went through,” she said. “What if they don’t have the connections I have? It’s not fair, because the city is supposed to work for the public.”

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Faced with a drastic disruption in foot traffic, Alexandria-based Comfort One Shoes had to pivot. The pandemic forced the company to focus its energy on online sales, bringing in more casual merchandise and closing the Union Station location in D.C.

Company President Garrett Breton says the efforts made 2021 sales higher than the pre-pandemic year of 2019.

“The Old Town locations (200 and 201 King Street) are on fire right now,” Breton told ALXnow. “People are wanting to go out and do stuff. They want to see their friends, and they need new shoes, because if you try to put your old dress shoes back on and go to the office, even if it’s one day a week, you’re pretty miserable.”

Comfort One Shoes sells brands around the world like Mephisto, BeautifeelEcco and Dansko at its 14 locations in Maryland, Virginia and D.C. The company’s Dupont Circle location has been the most successful of the stores for years, but the reduction in Metro traffic has changed things.

“Before we went into the pandemic Dupont Circle was our number one volume store,” Breton said. “It won’t be for a really long time, maybe never again. It’s based on downtown commuter traffic. People have to walk from the metro to their jobs. I don’t know when offices are coming back. It is what it is.”

Breton became president in January 2020 after the retirement of his father, Maurice, who opened the first Comfort One at 201 King Street nearly 30 years ago. A lifelong Alexandrian and 1998 graduate of Bishop Ireton High School, the younger Breton says that, in the early days of the pandemic, he was challenged to temporarily lay off staff he’d known most of his life. The company employs just under 100 employees, and all its stores closed between one-to-four months in 2020.

During those first months of the pandemic, Breton said, more focus was put on internet sales and he’d have to shift from buying dress shoes to casual shoes and sneakers.

“The online business grew at around 40% at the end of that crazy year (2020), and by last September we exceeded 2019 numbers,” Breton said. “That’s with tons and tons of athletic shoes, and that was not even a part of our business 10 years ago. Nobody is buying dress shoes right now. We’re selling lots of athletic shoes and a lot more slippers — shoes you just slide on to run out quickly.”

Via Comfort One/Facebook

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Walking in snow-covered streets, shoveling out submerged cars and all the other telltale signs of a snowstorm were seen in Alexandria on Monday (Jan. 3).

Nearly one foot of snow fell on Alexandria from the morning throughout the afternoon, prompting the closure of the city government and virtual learning for Alexandria City Public Schools. Many eateries throughout the city are still open, including in Del Ray and Old Town.

The National Weather Service’s Winter Storm Warning remains in effect until 4 p.m., and Tuesday is expected to be sunny with a high of 37 degrees.

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A number of New Year’s Eve parties are being voluntarily canceled in Alexandria, and some businesses scaling back their services. All of this, of course, is in response to a dramatic jump in COVID-19 infections over the last month.

According to the Del Ray Business Association, the following businesses have stopped in-person service:

In Old Town, the rising tide of new cases led to the cancelation of First Night Alexandria, the city’s New Year’s Eve celebration.

These businesses have canceled their New Year’s Eve parties:

These New Year’s Eve celebrations are still on:

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A 24-year-old Alexandria man has been arrested for the Dec. 13 drive-by shooting in the Braddock area. No one was injured in the incident, but police say nine handgun rounds were fired at another vehicle.

Antonio Barkley was charged with unlawful discharge of a weapon, felonious assault, and shooting or throwing missiles at vehicle.

The incident was reported at around 8 a.m. in the area of First Street, Fayette Street and Route 1. Police briefly closed off the area during Monday morning rush hour traffic.

Barkley was interviewed at home by police, and said that the victim tried to fight him while he was walking to his car to get to work, according to a search warrant.

Barkley reportedly said that he went back home and got a handgun, then walked back outside to get into his car and saw the victim waiting in a black SUV.

Barkley told police that he was afraid of being assaulted, and “unprovoked, (Barkley allegedly) fired nine handgun rounds at the vehicle,” according to the warrant.

The victim’s car was damaged, but no one was hurt.

Police recovered video footage of the incident at the nearby McDonald’s. Both the victim and Barkley told police that their problems started after an argument in mid-November.

Via Google Maps

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Alexandria Police are searching for a man that has been identified as the suspect behind a hit-and-run that injured an officer in Old Town early on Monday night (Dec. 27).

APD says that Nnanyereugo Onuoha is on the run driving a newer model Black Honda Pilot with Maryland tags 1EV8163.

Police were responding to an armed individual in a domestic dispute in the 2400 block of Mandeville Lane near the Eisenhower East area at around 6:18 p.m., and found the suspect near the 200 block of Swamp Fox Road, which is near the Alexandria jail.

“As Onuoha fled the scene, he struck one officer with his vehicle and another officer was injured while trying to avoid being hit by the suspect,” APD said in a news release. “Both officers were transported to Fairfax Hospital with non-life-threatening injuries and have since been treated and released.”

As previously reported, Onuoha’s ex-girlfriend called police and said she was afraid that he had a knife and broke her phone.

Onuoha is wanted for assault and battery on law enforcement and hit and run. APD said that there are also a number of open warrants for him in other jurisdictions.

Anyone with information on Onuoha’s whereabouts is asked to contact APD Investigator at Matt Barnickle by phone at 703-859-5150 or email [email protected]. Callers can remain anonymous.

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(Updated at 1:45 p.m. on Jan. 5) The new owner of 628 King Street is shopping the property around, and wants it to remain two retail spaces.

Douglas Development now owns three of the four buildings at the intersection of King and Washington Streets. The D.C.-based commercial real estate firm owns the adjacent properties at 700 (Lululemon) and 701 King Street (the now-closed Le Pain Quotidien), as well as 610 King Street (Anthropologie), 614 King Street (H&M) and 615 King Street (the former Walgreens) and 700 King Street.

Douglas Development bought the property on Dec. 10, and representatives of the firm say there has been some interest from prospective tenants, although nothing definite. The building was previously owned by the family of Wellington Goddin, and was appraised for $6.2 million last January.

GAP Inc. has leased the three-level, 20,000 square-foot building at 628 King Street since 1986, where it has long been home to a Banana Republic and Gap Outlet store, which will permanently close on Jan. 24. Staff at both stores said Gap Outlet was underperforming at the space, with most business coming in on weekends.

Commercial real estate firm KLNB’s represented Douglas Development in the purchase of the building, and is managing its next steps.

The owners plan on splitting the property into two units, keeping the uses as retail and renting them out as soon as possible.

The firm says their 652 retail transactions this year is a 39% increase over 2020 and 15% over 2019, but that property values have stayed relatively flat over the last two years.

“Brick and mortar retail also remains extremely relevant regardless of what folks may say about it being dead, as evidenced by KLNB’s transaction volume,” KLNB President and Chief Operating Officer Marc Menick told ALXnow. “All this being said, transactions are well up over 2019 levels, but value is basically flat.  More deals, less value.”

The property, which has 158 square feet of frontage on King and S. Washington Streets, was originally developed as a 600-seat theatre in 1854, was converted to a Union hospital during the Civil War, changed hands through the decades and even burned down.

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After an online celebration last year, Alexandria’s First Night celebration is back, fireworks and all on New Year’s Eve.

“I’m thrilled First Night is back,” said Laverne Chapman, chair of the board of First Night. “It took us two years to come back, and we’re ready to come back.”

On Tuesday, City Council made its proclamation recognizing the upcoming event and thanking its organizers.

“This is the city’s great party and you don’t want to miss it,” said Councilwoman Del Pepper.

Today, Dec 15, the Virginia Department of Health reported 75 new cases of COVID-19 in Alexandria. That’s the most single-day infections reported since January.

“We’ve taken all the COVID precautions,” Chapman said. “Masks will be worn at all the events. We’ll be doing cleaning between the events.”

The First Night schedule starts with activities for seniors and kids from noon to 5 p.m., followed by an evening schedule of events that lasts until the fireworks finale over the Potomac River.

Tickets for each event range from $5 for kids to $20 for adults and seniors.

Below are First Night Alexandria’s daytime and evening schedules:

Daytime schedule

  • 12-2 p.m. — Kids celebrate NYE at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, 101 Callahan Drive
  • 12-2 p.m. — Seniors celebrate NYE at the Oswald Durant Center, 1605 Cameron Street
  • 3-5 p.m. — Kids celebrate at the George Washington Masonic Memorial
  • 3-5 p.m. — Seniors celebrate at the Oswald Durant Center

Evening schedule

  • 6-6:30 p.m. — Welcome and kickoff at Market Square, 301 King Street
  • 7-8:30 p.m. — Battle of the buskers, various locations in Old Town
  • 7-8:30 p.m. — Early shows at select venues
  • 8-10 p.m. — Teen showcase at the Oswald Durant Center
  • 9:30-11 p.m. — Late shows at select venues
  • 10-midnight — Countdown to 2022 street party at Market Square
  • Midnight — Fireworks finale over the Potomac River

Via First Night Alexandria/Facebook

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Alexandria Town Crier Ben Fiore-Walker was largely silent during the pandemic. Now he’s back, bell and call and all.

Earlier this month, Fiore-Walker stood at the reviewing stand in his Colonial uniform and opened the Campagna Center’s Scottish Christmas Walk Parade in Old Town. While he’s spoken at numerous online events and small outdoor concerts over the past year, the Scottish Christmas Walk was his first large public gathering since he previously walked through Old Town ringing his bell and declaring, “Hear ye! Hear ye!” at the George Washington Birthday Parade in February 2020.

“It never gets old,” Fiore-Walker told ALXnow. “The common element in all of the events and parades is seeing happy Alexandrians and visitors. For me, it’s about seeing the city so happy. The kids, of course, they think I’m a pirate, but that’s to be expected.”

The 53-year-old Fiore-Walker has created hundreds of cries since he started the job 10 years ago. There was a lot of competition, too, and he beat out 11 other candidates for the position in a “cry-off“. He is the city’s fourth town crier since 1976, and took over after his predecessor William North-Rudin moved away.

Town criers go all the way back to ancient Greece. For thousands of years, people with booming voices and commanding presences educated mostly illiterate populaces with the latest official word on tax increases, the news of the day or public executions. For Fiore-Walker, it means two-to-three monthly events to emcee, or open. It’s a volunteer position, and he has his own uniforms. At private events, he says, the hosts will usually buy him dinner and pay a $150 honorarium to help pay for dry cleaning and gas.

“It’s given me an outlet that is different than my day-to-day,” he said.

Married with two children, Fiore-Walker has lived in Alexandria since 2002. He’s a doctor of neuroscience, and his career includes stints as the associate dean of diversity and inclusion at Georgetown University, the manager of diversity programs with the American Chemical Society and as a senior director at Teach For America. He recently started work as the senior director of the Opportunity & Inclusion Center for the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, although his coworkers aren’t yet aware of his other identity.

“I don’t think it’s come out yet,” he said. “Usually it comes out when when you’re meeting people and you say something about yourself that nobody else would know. That’s usually the thing I lead with.”

A metamorphosis occurs when Fiore-Walker puts on the uniform.

“I am no longer Ben,” he said. “I am the town crier for the City of Alexandria. That means that the town crier always uses his turn signals to change lanes, but Ben might not. The town crier doesn’t go shopping in the supermarket, but Ben does. I’m always mindful when I’m wearing the uniform that I’m not me. I’m representing the city. I don’t do things that would bring negative attention to the city.”

That schism has become the subject of jokes within Fiore-Walker’s family.

“A few years ago, I was talking with my sister about the town crier in the third person,” Fiore-Walker said. “And she said, ‘You do realize you are the town crier, right? I just wanted to make sure that you’re not having a mental break here and you realize that you’re the town crier, it’s a role that you inhabit, and that when you take off the costume you are no longer inhabiting that role.'”

Fiore-Walker has no plans to hang up his bell anytime soon. He says the job is too much fun, and he’s also honed stellar vocal cords.

“One thing I’ve learned is I now have a town crier voice and use town crier volume,” he said. “When my kids were younger, I’d read to them and my son would say, ‘Don’t use the town crier voice, daddy.'”

Fiore-Walker’s next performance will be at Market Square for the opening of the First Night celebration on New Year’s Eve.

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