Chris Issak, John Waters and Judy Collins are just a few of the dozens of famous artists who petitioned the Alexandria Planning Commission and City Council to approve The Birchmere‘s Special Use Permit request to keep up its flashy new 5-foot-by-2.5-foot digital sign along Mount Vernon Avenue in Arlandria.
The Planning Commission approved the request 7-0 on Tuesday, and it now goes to City Council. Planning Commission Chair Nathan Macek said that the letters with all of the supporting signatures would be “an excellent auction item.”
“Performing artists are now expecting the venues to keep up with the times,” wrote Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Judy Collins. “It is a necessary tool to promote the artists as well as the venue.”
Some requests were simple, like filmmaker John Waters, who wrote, “I am writing to support the Birchmere’s request to be allowed to keep their new LED sign.”
Chris Isaak wrote: “I wholeheartedly support the Birchmere Music Hall in their effort to retain their beautiful new sign. Please help them out… thank you!”
Gary Oelze, the owner of the music hall, erected the large electric sign last summer without city approval, prompting a request from the city manager’s office to go through an official process. Oelze, who was recently named a Living Legend of Alexandria, died last month.
“I think you know we do have a process in place for digital signs,” Macek said. “This is probably a case where they should have come in advance of putting the sign in.”
The Commission also approved a request to keep the sign lit until midnight, as well as the installation of a smaller sign at the entrance of the venue.
The following artists wrote letters in support of the new sign:
- Bela Dona Band
- Karla Bonoff
- Chris Botti
- Norman Brown
- Carbon Leaf
- Judy Collins
- Daryl Davis
- Raheem DeVaughn
- Will Downing
- Charles Esten
- Samantha Fish
- Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer
- Chris Isaak
- Glenn Jones
- Samara Joy
- Kenny Lattimore
- Musiq Souchild
- The Seldom Scene
- Ricky Skaggs
- Rick Springfield
- Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes
- Storm Large
- Livingston Taylor
- William “Smooth” Wadlaw
- John Waters
- Alyson Williams
- Dar Williams
- Jason D. Williams
The former home of Landmark Mall is likely to soon get a new tenant. The 1.1 million-square-foot Inova at Landmark Project sailed through the Alexandria Planning Commission last night, with just one hurdle left before getting the green light to start construction.
With the 6-0 (Chair Nathan Macek recused himself) approval further bolstering Inova’s plan to move Alexandria Hospital to the West End site, the matter will now be presented to City Council at its public hearing on Saturday, March 18.
“We should be celebrating a little bit bigger,” Inova’s attorney Cathy Puskar said. “Because this is a huge milestone for the city to get this project approved and moving forward and constructed, hopefully by 2028.”
Inova Alexandria Hospital opened at 4320 Seminary Road in 1962, and will eventually move its operations to the Landmark site. The project was designed by Ballinger and Ennead Architects and is managed by Inova.
The project takes up a fifth of the total land use on the 52-acre West End Alexandria development, and includes a 565,000 square-foot hospital center, a 111,000 square-foot cancer center, an 83,000 square-foot specialty care center and a retrofit of the mall’s old 550-space parking garage. The parking garage is the only remaining vestige of the once-popular shopping destination. The project also includes an underground 1,488-space parking garage below the specialty care center.
Inova’s height request of 250 feet (23 stories) for the main hospital building was also approved without discussion, although the current plans call for the height of the building to be 184 feet tall.
Commissioner Melinda Lyle said she’s excited for the project.
“This hospital is such a needed addition not only for the city of Alexandria, but for the region,” Lyle said. “I think we should all be celebrating.”
The Montgomery Center redevelopment is heading to Alexandria’s Planning Commission later this month.
The proposed development, first announced last spring, is a sweeping overhaul of a block at the heart of Old Town North.
The plan is to replace the current structure with a mixed-use development, featuring 327 residential units and 25,273 square feet of ground-floor retail. As part of a trade for bonus density, developer Carr Companies will provide 22 on-site affordable housing units and a monetary contribution.
Carr is also looking for city or public funding to aid in the construction of a three-level garage — or a two-level garage if no public funding is made available.
With the writing on the wall, some of the current tenants of Montgomery Center have been struggling to find a new home. Seichou Karate, a longtime martial arts school in the Montgomery Center, has been struggling to find a comparable new location. Local bike shop Wheel Nuts closed last December.
The project is heading to Planning Commission review at the March 30 meeting.
The 1.1 million-square-foot Inova at Landmark project is headed to the Alexandria Planning Commission on Tuesday, signaling the beginning of an official public approval process. If all goes according to schedule, construction of the four-building medical campus could wrap in the second quarter of 2028, according to site development partner Foulger-Pratt.
The hospital building is designed to face Interstate 395, and is proposed to have a two-story glass atrium at its entrance, above which would be a six-story Z-shaped inpatient tower. Inova anticipates that the building will be 184 feet tall (nearly 17 stories) to hide hospital mechanical equipment, although the hospital system is asking for a maximum height allowance of 250 feet, or 23 stories.
“This layout ensures that the primary hospital building–the tallest building on the site–will be a visible anchor and focal point for the western end,” City staff said in a report.
Following approval by the Planning Commission, the City Council will hold its public hearing on the project on Saturday, March 18.
The project takes up a fifth of the total land use on the 52-acre West End Alexandria development, and includes a 565,000 square-foot hospital center, a 111,000 square-foot cancer center, an 83,000 square-foot specialty care center and a retrofit of the mall’s old 550-space parking garage. The parking garage is the only remaining vestige of the once-popular shopping destination.
“This will not only revitalize a site that many had given up on, but will also provide a catalyst for redevelopment and enhancement throughout the West End of our City,” Mayor Justin Wilson said in his March newsletter. “Despite over two decades of decline, it is not a mystery why we had been unable to spur redevelopment on this site in the past, It is a complicated site, with a complicated ownership structure requiring significant infrastructure investment.”
The fate of the Landmark Mall property lingered for years. The mall opened to the public in 1965, and was the first in the region to feature three anchor department stores (Sears, Woodward & Lothrop, and Hecht’s). By 2010, the mall had nearly no tenants, and in 2021 the city bought the 11-acre parcel of land for $54 million from The Howard Hughes Corporation. That same year, Inova signed a 99-year ground lease for the property.
The project was designed by Ballinger and Ennead Architects and is managed by Inova.
After a series of neighborhood complaints, the popular Arlandria neighborhood bar Hops ‘N Shine (3410 Mount Vernon Avenue) is being brought back to the Planning Commission for a review of its special use permit.
The docket says Hops ‘N Shine says a special use permit, originally approved in 2020 for more outdoor entertainment and indoor seating, is under review after “violations of Special Use Permit conditions.”
Concerns were raised at the Planning Commission back in 2020 that the building might be too small and the parking lot too crowded to sustain the sort of increase the bar was requesting. At the time, staff confirmed there were no outstanding violations of the restaurant’s permits despite objections raised by neighbors, but the staff report from 2020 notes that the city has relaxed some of its regulations as a result of the pandemic.
While the restaurant owners had requested permission to have live outdoor entertainment, the staff report noted that only indoor live entertainment was allowed.
According to the report:
Indoor live entertainment is permitted from 4:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m., consistent with the noise ordinance. Outdoor amplified music in the form of background music is permitted from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., consistent with the noise ordinance. No live outdoor music is allowed at any time.
Tony LaColla, Land Use Services division chief, said outdoor live entertainment is one of the reasons the bar is being brought back to the Planning Commission for an SUP review.
“The Special Use Permit for this business is being docketed because of dozens of neighborhood complaints and multiple violations of SUP conditions which include citations related to operating hours, outdoor live entertainment, and noise,” LaColla wrote.
The permit review is scheduled for the Planning Commission meeting on Thursday, March 30.
Photo via Hops N Shine/Facebook
International shipping company DHL Express drew some flack from Alexandria’s Planning Commission after the company let slip in a recent meeting that they had no plans to find a permanent home for their “temporary” trailer business on Duke Street.
The company was granted approval for a temporary trailer set up in the parking lot of Shoppes of Foxchase (4513 Duke Street) during the pandemic. DHL was up for a two-year extension of their permit to operate in the parking lot but was applying for an additional three-year extension beyond that.
“This was supposed to be a temporary trailer several years ago,” said Planning Commissioner Mindy Lyle. “A temporary trailer was suggested as a use during the Covid emergency. The President is declaring an end to the Covid emergency in May. Therefore, I think we should go ahead with the two-year recommendation of staff.”
Lyle recommended DHL find space to set up shop permanently in one of the nearby empty retail locations.
“There’s lease space available in West End Village and Van Dorn Plaza,” Lyle said. “Two years is plenty of time to get a space built out, under contract, and move the trailer. No one in the neighborhood thinks the trailer is a good idea and I’m not sure why staff was recommending a two-year, then a three-year extension. I’m fine approving two years, then the trailer goes away because it really is a glorified sign.”
But representatives from DHL said the company is making the temporary trailers approved by Alexandria during the pandemic its new primary business model. Representatives said the company only has two brick-and-mortar locations but around 20 pop-ups.
“We are preparing to close one [brick and mortar] location,” said Kelly Shepard, head of US retail with DHL Express. “The model has made sense with pop-ups and brick-and-mortar has been not scalable for us. We’ve been focused on scaling for pop-ups and our sustainability goals.”
Shepard said the company’s plan was not to transition into a brick-and-mortar location. Shepard said the plan was to continue operating the pop-up as long as it was considered acceptable by the city.
“I understand we would have two years to try and solve the problem of how we could potentially stay in Alexandria, but as a company, after we opened our two brick-and-mortar locations and that was not successful for us, we made a decision that this was our way forward,” Shepard said. “The intention is not to look for another brick and mortar solution, it was to continue with the pop-up.”
This ruffled some feathers on the Planning Commission, with members indicating this may have been a dishonest use of the city’s temporary zoning allowances.
“What you’re saying is: this is no longer temporary, this is a permanent ‘temporary’ solution that will never go away and you’ll keep coming back for temporary usage of a trailer,” Lyle said. “Staff has either been deceived that this was a temporary use or didn’t ask the right questions of the applicant.”
Staff noted that there had been other temporary trailer uses granted to some businesses, but Planning Commissioner Melissa McMahon noted that each of those involved unique circumstances.
“I appreciate staff pointing out that we have trailers for other types of land use that we support, but there are some differences,” McMahon said. “In a couple of the cases, trailer supported brick and mortar use, and that’s important to keep a business here and make sure this works in the space they have.”
Lyle said that if DHL, being a global company, wanted to operate in Alexandria they should file a permit to open in a retail location like every other business.
“There are places all over the West End and developers who have spent millions for approval, millions renovation shopping centers, and I don’t believe it’s fair to local businesses that we allow a pop-up for some things and other people have to go into brick-and-mortar,” Lyle said.
Planning Commission Chair Nathan Macek proposed a compromise of a three-year extension from DHL to keep the approval consistent with other trailers approved in the past, which Lyle brought forward as a motion on the condition that, on Feb. 25, 2026, the trailer is gone.
While the city has had some success with pedestrian zones on King Street, city staff say less retail and sloping conditions could make it harder to add a similar zone along the 200 block.
Many residents have welcomed the pedestrian zones that the city added to the 100 and unit blocks of King Street, according to a survey. Motivated by this early support, Chris Ziemann, transportation division chief, said the city is focusing on improving the now-permanent pedestrian zones at the 100 block of King Street and the unit block — the block closest to the waterfront.
Ziemann told ALXnow that City Council voting to make the blocks permanently pedestrianized means the city can move forward with improvements like protective bollards. That will be part of the department’s focus in the near future, per an interdepartmental work plan for the 2024 fiscal year.
While the logical next step would seem to be a pilot converting the 200 block, Ziemann said it’s not quite so simple.
“There are still ongoing discussions about that, but there is no real ongoing consensus about that,” Ziemann said in a Planning Commission meeting earlier this month. “Things are moving, but moving slowly.”
Ziemann told ALXnow that the uses along the 200 block are different than those on the 100 block or the unit block.
“There’s not quite the density of restaurants there that there is on the 100 block,” Ziemann said. “On the 100 block, everything is a restaurant. It lends itself to outdoor seating.”
Retail and clothing stores could still make use of outdoor space with racks of clothing, but it isn’t as natural a fit as outdoor dining, he added.
Elevation is also a challenge on the 200 block.
“What makes it a little harder is the slope elevation,” Ziemann said. “It doesn’t make it impossible, but from the restaurant standpoint, it makes it harder to keep the tables level. There are also residential units on the 200 block that are not on the 100 block. There’s a whole different kind of group of stakeholders.”
Meanwhile, Ziemann said the city is also working on pedestrian-focused planning at the former Landmark development and the North Old Town power plant.
Image via Google Maps
(Updated 10:10 a.m.) Like Bob Dylan, The Birchmere has switched to electric — at least for its signage. Also like Dylan, it’s a change that’s causing some trouble for the music venue.
It started last summer when famed music venue The Birchmere Music Hall (3701 Mount Vernon Avenue) was finding it difficult to hire someone to change out the letters on the venue’s old sign.
According to a special use permit application:
In July 2022, after having trouble finding people willing to do the manual labor of changing out the sign, trying to think of ways to enhance The Birchmere and attract additional business coming out of a devastating pandemic that severely impacted its revenues, and looking at the modern technology employed by other successful music venues in the region and beyond, the owner of the music venue replaced the changeable copy sign with a digital freestanding sign in the exact same location along Mount Vernon Avenue.
The venue owners built a new sign using the same pole as the original sign, with an additional pole on either side for added stability. The new sign is slightly larger than the previous one and has a new digital display.
Unfortunately for The Birchmere, the change ran afoul of the city’s zoning ordinance.
“Although the sign is constructed using the same sign pole as the original sign and is only slightly larger, the current sign can no longer be approved administratively due to the 2016 revisions to the Zoning Ordinance pertaining to signage requirements,” the special use permit said.
In November, a warning was issued to The Birchmere along with instructions to bring the sign back into compliance.
The venue has since filed an aforementioned special use permit application to waive some of the requirements for the sign.
“This modern sign, which allows for the digital change of copy, is consistent with the use of the Property as a music venue,” the permit application said. “The Birchmere is an iconic venue that has been attracting major artists and their fans to the City of Alexandria, celebrating music and contributing to the City’s tax base, for over forty years.”
The Birchmere argued in the application that the new sign isn’t causing any harm and is vital to the venue’s continued success.
“Given that the old sign and new sign are similar in size, in the same location, and illuminated (albeit through different mechanisms) there will be no negative impact of the new sign on pedestrians, drivers or the surrounding area,” the application said. “Finally, the proposed sign is a critical component of The Birchmere’s continued success as an arts and cultural venue, the value of which has been emphasized in the City’s Master Plans and economic development initiatives.”
The new sign application is scheduled to take the stage at a Planning Commission meeting on Feb. 7.
Alexandria has kicked off the new year with a glimpse at some of this year’s biggest priorities.
A memo from Director of Planning Karl Moritz, published ahead of Planning Commission meeting this Thursday, lays out some of the work priorities for the city over the upcoming year.
Planning and Zoning
There are some major items on the plate for Planning and Zoning, most of which involve updating some of the city’s older outdated plans for locations around the city.
- Alexandria West Plan: With some major developments reshaping the West End over the coming year, the city launched last fall an 18-month planning process for a large swath of the neighborhood. The process includes updates to the 1992 Alexandria West Small Area Plan and the 2008 Beauregard Plan, combining them into a sort of super-plan for the West End. According to the memo, priorities for that plan include “addressing topics such as equity, housing, mobility, land use, parks, infrastructure and safety.”
- Zoning for Housing/Housing for All: Another major project that started late last year and will continue through 2023 is the city’s Comprehensive Zoning for Housing and Housing for All Package” — a whole-cloth review of the city’s housing policy to try to work affordability into regulations from the ground-up. In a previous memo, Moritz said the goal is to remove policies and regulations that were intended to support exclusion and segregation, as well as creating new more equitable policies and boost the supply of both committed and market rate affordable housing. The goal is to complete the plan by the end of 2023.
- Vision Plan: This planning process will look at documenting and updating policies established in the various Small Area Plans dating back to 1992. This process is set to start this summer if staffing and resources are available.
- Duke Street Plan Update: This land use update is set to follow some of the ongoing plans around transforming transportation along Duke Street.
A planned redevelopment of an affordable housing building in Arlandria could triple the number of units on the site.
Community Lodgings Inc. is headed to the Planning Commission on Feb. 7 to pitch redevelopment plans for 3908 Elbert Avenue, currently the 29-unit Carpenters Lodgings building.
The building, originally constructed in the 1940s, was purchased by a housing nonprofit called Community Lodgings Inc. in the 1990s and maintained as an affordable housing residence.
The plan is to replace the current building with a new six-story one (one level of parking and five floors of apartments). All 91 units in the building will be affordable at a range from those making 60% of the area median income (around $59,820 annually for one person) down to those making 30% of the area median income ($29,910 annually for one person).
The building will have 64 parking spaces — above the minimum 60 spaces required — with 15 passenger van parking spots and 30 bicycle parking spots.
The development is part of a pair of affordable housing redevelopments that received financing from the City of Alexandria earlier this year.