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A group of activists pushing back against city plans to overhaul the Torpedo Factory Art Center have accused city leaders of working with developers to astroturf a pro-overhaul faction, but city leaders said the goal wasn’t to mislead.

A Change.org petition with 7,694 signers at time of writing has become an online hub for those opposing the city’s plans to reduce artist studio space in the Torpedo Factory and replace it with alternative arts spaces (like glassblowing) or restaurant space. A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request made public by the petition organizers highlighted city emails with and about the “Torpedo Factory for All” initiative spearheaded by developer Route 66 Ventures — one of the developers pushing to lead the overhaul.

The Torpedo Factory for All page describes the initiative as being led by “Torpedo Factory for All is a group of Alexandrians who are excited about the potential for a vibrant and sustainable Torpedo Factory Art Center.” The page makes no mention of Route 66 Ventures.

The emails show that city leaders were aware of the distinction. In one email from City Manager Mark Jinks, he pointed out that the Torpedo Factory for All initiative was not the same as the community-based Waterfront for All it was trying to imitate.

“While the marketing message is similar, in my opinion, the difference between ‘Waterfront for All’ and ‘Torpedo Factory for All’ is that the former was largely a community-based organization and the latter is driven largely by for-profit interest(s) including the largest single property owner on Union and lower King,” Jinks wrote.

Internal newsletters and email indicated that the city and Diane Ruggiero, director of the Office of the Arts were facing confusion about whether the Torpedo Factory for All was a city-led initiative. According to one email titled “DRAFT Talking Points for Torpedo Factory for All Campaign”:

While my recommendation overall would be to not engage in a discussion about this, I’ve edited the talking points. Please do not mention Rt 66. We don’t have any information on that and I don’t want us to be part of what could be seen as a rumor.

I am continually asked about this. My answer is that I don’t know who is behind it or what they’re trying to do. We agree that the Torpedo Factory should be for everyone and of course we agree with the statistics – they’re from our reports. Right now, staff is focused on implementing the vibrancy and sustainability plan and on gathering the information needed to go to council in December. When they ask a follow up, I repeat the above statement.

I know it’s hard to be on the front line, but we can’t get dragged into this.

The petition organizers said in an update that this shows the city knew who was behind the campaign and were in communications with the organizers — and emails show that city staff did have communications with a representative from Route 66 Ventures — but opted not to share that information with the public:

Some of you may remember the “Torpedo Factory for All” campaign that appeared out of nowhere last summer and disappeared just as quickly.

At the time, the staff at the Office of the Arts claimed no knowledge of this project. However, these emails obtained via the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) show that they not only knew about it, they were in communication with the organizers, and they conspired to lie about it to the artists whose future might be impacted by such a campaign.

Ruggiero told ALXnow she didn’t have concrete information about who was organizing the Torpedo Factory for All initiative and didn’t want to misinform the public.

There were a lot of people (including artists) who thought TFFA was a City initiative (or that we were involved, which we were not) and my team was interested in clarifying it. My request to not mention Rt 66 was that we didn’t have any specific information connecting them to the Torpedo Factory For All (TFFA) initiative. We thought they might be involved (especially since there were signs in their office space), but there was no information on the website or signs that provided a point of contact or anything mentioning Rt 66 and I was hearing from others that there was a “community group” involved so if someone asked why we mentioned Rt 66 we didn’t have anything to point to.

Since we couldn’t be 100% sure, I felt it was best to not mention them in our FAQ in case we were wrong. It was not in an attempt to hide anything.

Alexandria’s City Council recently approved a set of guidelines for potential changes at the Torpedo Factory. Of note: changes at the Torpedo Factory will also be the topic of the next Agenda Alexandria discussion scheduled for Monday, Jan. 24.

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There’s been a lot of discussion about changes happening inside the Torpedo Factory, but at least one group in Alexandria wants a little more attention paid to what will happen to the building itself.

At the Historic Alexandria Resources Commission (HARC) Advocacy Committee meeting last Tuesday, the group said there needs to be a seat at the table in Torpedo Factory discussions representing the historic elements of the building.

“It was disturbing to me that the three options that were presented to the council did in fact address the exterior of the building, the architecture, but it seems the Mayor doesn’t want to deal with those yet, so I’m not sure if the Arts Commission or the Office of the Arts and the City Council are all on the same page,” said committee chair Danny Smith. “I believe the best thing that we can say is we need to stay tuned and see what happens.”

Smith said it doesn’t seem like there’s a clear vision of where the project is going or a solid timetable moving forward, which had been earlier criticisms by the Waterfront Commission.

Earlier this month, the City Council voted to approve a series of principles to guide Torpedo Factory development, but the vote also left some more confused than satiated.

“I always think it’s unfortunate after a long extended debate, Council has a meeting and no one can really tell you for sure what happened,” said Commissioner Martha Harris. “For me, the standout thing in the memo is that the city will set up a separate public entity to coordinate artistic real estate assets in the City of Alexandria.”

HARC members shared concerns that the topic of the Torpedo Factory as a historic building seemed deliberately cut out of the narrative.

Historic Preservation Architect Bill Conkey told HARC that any changes to the building will have to run through a city approval process, where the historic preservation aspect will be a part of the discussion.

“Its location in the historic district provides great protection,” said Conkey. “Linked to that, as this goes forward, preservation staff and of course, the [Board of Architectural Review] are going to be integral to that conversation. Nothing will go forward without those ideas being discussed with us… We’ve made it very clear, we are involved in this as well.”

As Torpedo Factory plans move forward, HARC members reiterated that they want to be part of talks about the future of the building.

“We are in chapter 11 of a 22 chapter saga,” Smith said. “There’s more to come and we definitely do need to do everything we can to be represented on this stakeholder group.”

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Alexandria leadership are sticking to their guns on changes planned for the Torpedo Factory Art Center as it looks at building a new governing structure to plan out the art center’s future.

At a City Council meeting last week, the Council and Deputy City Manager Emily Baker discussed evolving plans for the Torpedo Factory and what direction the city should take. The art center is one of the most popular destinations in Alexandria, attracting an estimated 500,000 visitors a year.

During the discussion, the City Council expressed a general interest in moving forward with the previously approved vibrancy plan, despite pushback from artists and supporters critical of plans to reduce studio space.

As previously reported, plans for the Torpedo Factory could involve replacing some ground-floor space with other types of artist spaces — like glass blowing — or uses like a cafe or restaurant. The idea is to make the location more vibrant and attractive to visitors, although artists in the building have resisted against plans that could reduce the studio capacity in the building.

The city approved a path forward laid out in the following memo written by Mayor Justin Wilson:

I believe that Council should endorse principles and ask that our City staff work with partners (AEDP, etc) to return with a plan in alignment with this approach:

  1. Create a separate public entity (e.g. Arts Community Development Authority) to consolidate Alexandria’s artistic real estate assets (Old Town North arts space, Torpedo Factory and beyond) with the mission to:
    • Strategically manage Alexandria’s artistic real estate
    • Take advantage of unique financing tools to rehabilitate, build-out and sustain real estate assets
    • Provide a framework for future consideration of public/private partnerships
    • Project financing and a schedule of City facility capital investments
  2. Ensure that the Torpedo Factory remains a world-class center for the arts, by defining a structure within the newly-created authority that:
    • Implements the approved Action Plan for Vibrancy and Sustainability, to build and sustain a high-quality arts program and visitor experience
    • Retains a place for Torpedo Factory artists as the facility evolves
    • Broadens scope of artistic expression included in the Art Center and throughout the district (e.g. performing arts, etc)
    • Solicits and incorporates structural changes from the City’s Race and Social Equity Officer to improve diversity of artists
    • Retains a place for non-Art Center tenants (Art League and Archaeology Museum
    • Extends the Torpedo Factory brand: combine with the Old Town North Arts District (e.g. “The Torpedo Factory Arts District”)
    • Engage with all stakeholders to develop a coherent vision/mission for the Torpedo Factory and the connected Arts District

During the meeting, city leaders expressed an interest in combining revitalization of the Torpedo Factory with the Old Town North Arts & Cultural District, and Wilson said revitalization plans can move forward on multiple fronts simultaneously.

“My goal is not to stand still,” Wilson said. “This is not a one-month undertaking to piece all this together. My hope is for us to continue to make progress… With an acknowledgment that we’ve already endorsed the vibrancy plan and will put together a structure that makes sense. We have to be able to do two things at once.”

City Council member Mo Seifeldein added a suggested task force comprised of artists, community members, the Archeology Museum, and potentially City Council members to look at creating a consolidated body to oversee all the city’s artistic real estate.

Baker noted that major renovation at the Torpedo Factory won’t start until 2026, but other changes within the building — like the rearrangement of artist spaces — could happen sooner than that.

“While the studies, debate and acrimony surrounding the Torpedo Factory have continued, the City has worked to expand the amount of space in our community dedicated to the arts,” Mayor Justin Wilson wrote in a memo. “Per our request, our staff has brought us a series of alternatives to consider. While a decision to select an individual alternative would not be immediately actionable in its current form, the areas of broad agreement from the various studies provide a set of principles that can and should be adopted by City Council at this time.”

The city voted to approve the principles laid out in the memo.

“The Torpedo Factory has got a long way to go in terms of — I don’t want to say modernizing, but for heaven’s sake fix the toilet,” said City Council member Del Pepper. “The whole thing looks like it’s 1950. Let’s do some of the things that can be done.”

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Fans of the “Goodnight Moon” classic children’s book are in for a treat, as there’s a new Goodnight Moon Room installation at the Torpedo Factory Art Center.

The project in Studio 9 is led by longtime Torpedo Factory artist Lisa Schumaier, who said she wants to give visitors a literary hug.

“When your parents get you on their lap or at night when you’re ready to go to bed, they’ll read a book to you, and it just gives you this cozy feeling,” Schumaier told ALXnow. “For me, when I have something bad happen, I can pick up a book and I feel that snuggle from my parents. I feel that snuggle from the book.”

The installation, based on the book by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd, includes the painting of the cow jumping over the Moon, the bunny, the red balloon, and even a fake fireplace.

“I have this weird love of fake fireplaces,” Schumaier said. “People just give them to me.”

As a mixed media artist, Schumaier said that she ordinarily gets odd gifts from friends and art fans.

“People give me weird stuff,” she said. “Like, I recently got a kimono. And bottle caps. Most people just give me bags and bags of bottle caps.”

The paintings in the installation were created by Torpedo Factory artists Marcel Artes Deolazo, Judy Heiser and Chris Cardellino. On the bookshelf are banned books, including “The Catcher In The Rye”, “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Beloved”.

The installation opened on Saturday, Dec. 4, and closes on Sunday, February 20.

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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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The City of Alexandria is sending its Torpedo Factory plans into a public engagement phase that’s been decried by some city commissions as rushed.

The city is hosting virtual public meetings on Thursday, Dec. 9 at 7 p.m. and Friday, Dec. 10 at noon. Registration is required and each meeting is scheduled to last about an hour. Those wishing to speak on the plans can also do so at the Alexandria Commission for the Arts tomorrow (Tuesday) at 7 p.m.

Plans for the Torpedo Factory could involve replacing some ground-floor space with other types of artist spaces — like glass blowing — or uses like a cafe or restaurant. The idea is to make the location more vibrant and attractive to visitors, though artists in the building have pushed back against plans that could reduce the studio capacity in the building.

According to a press release from the city, three frameworks are being considered:

  • Incremental Revitalization: This scenario assumes that mostly modest improvements would be made in the near term, including reinvesting in the building to perform substantial deferred maintenance.
  • Custom Program: The City would manage and fund capital improvements in a mixed-use space to enable subsidized art uses and market rate revenue generating use options that will help pay for a portion of the rehabilitation.
  • Ground Lease: A private entity would develop, operate, maintain, and lease the facility for mixed use in a 40-year term lease.

Less than one week after the first of the virtual public meetings, the scenarios are scheduled to be presented to the City Council at their Tuesday, Dec. 14 meeting. The press release said the city will not be deciding on a plan, but developing scenarios based on guidance.

“There are currently no plans being presented; only concepts are being proposed,” the press release said. “Based on guidance provided by the City Council, staff will further develop a scenario in more detail. Plan development will begin at a later point once a scenario is chosen.”

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Morning Notes

Arts commission criticizes proposed changes to Torpedo Factory — “The city’s proposals for the future of the Torpedo Factory Art Center have received criticism from artists, and during its Nov. 16 meeting, the city’s Commission for the Arts fired some warning shots as well.” [Alexandria Times]

Alexandria ranks third in national office conversions — “Number of office-to-apartment conversions: 955” [CNBC]

Holiday Card Lane returns to Del Ray — “Now much more than one street, the nationally-famous holiday cheer effort returns.” [Alexandria Living Magazine]

LA Musician got her start in Mount Vernon — “Fort Hunt alumni Julie Gigante started playing the violin at age 5 and now is featured on an 11,000-square-foot mural in Los Angeles.” [Alexandria Gazette]

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Morning Notes

Baseball game raises $10,000 for SRO/International Academy soccer program — “Thank you to The Congressional Baseball Game for Charity for their continued support of our SROs Gary and Johnny’s soccer program at the International Academy at Alexandria City High School.” [Facebook]

Washington Post digs into Torpedo Factory fight — “As the Alexandria City Council is set to consider three sharply different visions on how to fund renovations and bring in more visitors, some of the artists at the Torpedo Factory fear they will be kicked out for good. And while the city contends that will not happen, several ideas on the table call for at least some studios to be converted to other uses.” [Washington Post]

Alexandria Choral Society raises $4,790 for charity — “Thank you to everyone who contributed to our #GivingTuesday fundraiser this week. Because of your generosity, we raised $4790, over twice our goal!” [Twitter]

Alexandria Living Magazine profiles the city’s Rock n’ Roll legends — “Some of the country’s most famous musical acts have ties to Alexandria.” [Alexandria Living Magazine]

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This week was a mix of big plans for the future in Alexandria and concerns about public feedback on city projects.

The top story this week was on Sunday, when a driver struck and killed local resident Roy Saravia Alvarez. The driver, Fredy Ortiz-Dominguez of Hyattsville, Maryland, was arrested last night and charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Here were the most-read stories around ALXnow this week:

  1. UPDATED: Pedestrian struck and killed in Arlandria
  2. Construction begins for Inova’s massive Oakville Triangle project
  3. Petition gains steam to save Torpedo Factory artist studios
  4. Multi-use development at 1300 King Street could be finished by late 2022, says developer
  5. City considers axing Complete Streets feedback form
  6. Deterioration forces additional closures to Arlington-Alexandria bridge
  7. Francis C. Hammond Middle School student suspended for alleged ‘shooting up the school’ message
  8. Alexandria looks to improve Van Dorn Street bridge and Holmes Run Trail crossing
  9. Archeologists discover new pieces of early 19th century waterfront brewery in Old Town
  10. New field lighting baked into Minnie Howard campus expansion permitting
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The Torpedo Factory plan took a direct hit from the Waterfront Commission as Commissioners criticized staff for a rushed timeline that gives little room for public and commission feedback.

Plans are in the works to potentially overhaul the structure of the Torpedo Factory, with options like new cafe space on the first floor or artistic changes like a new glassblowing studio all being considered. But at a Waterfront Commission meeting earlier this week, the group unanimously voted to sent a letter to the City Council warning about the inadequate time given to considering public feedback at the end of the process.

While city staff have previously outlined potential changes to the layout of the Torpedo Factory, other important planning aspects like a cost breakdown are still unknown as plans went to the Waterfront Commission for review ahead of a City Council meeting next month.

At the meeting, Diane Ruggiero, deputy director of recreation, parks and cultural activities, explained that the Office of the Arts is working on a constrained timeline laid out by the City Council. Ruggiero explained that the timeline for the presentation of the Torpedo Factory plan was originally 18 months but was shrunk down to four months.

It’s a justification that went over poorly with members of the Waterfront Commission.

“You’re having a series of public meetings and then going to Council next week?” asked Commissioner Nathan Macek. “How does that provide any time for the public to provide feedback or for you to meaningfully incorporate that into what you’re bringing to City Council? This schedule is not realistic and I think you’re going to have to rethink it. I know you’re trying to get this in before this Council leaves, but I don’t think it’s fair to the community to cram this in at two weeks of the holidays and blame the schedule. You’ve had four months. You had four months. Failure to use the four months you had adequately shouldn’t be something we should be punished for and the community is given to react with.”

Chair Steve Thayer said it was unrealistic to expect the Waterfront Commission to be expected to endorse a plan lacking many of its basic elements.

“The devil is always in the details,” Thayer said. “There’s no way we’re going to have enough information to sit down in the middle of December and mix and match and decide what we think as a body. We’re well within our rights to tell Council we’re unable to fulfill our responsibilities because we received insufficient information.”

Staff from the Office of the Arts suggested holding a special meeting of the Waterfront Commission in December, but Thayer said that would likely create additional difficulties with trying to get all of the Commission members together around the holidays.

The concern expressed by many on the Waterfront Commission is that the stunted feedback time would erode public confidence in a plan already under fire from artists at the Torpedo Factory.

“The community at the Torpedo Factory is a bit up in arms, and if we rush this, there will be greater lack of trust,” said Commisioner Kristina Hagman. “We have to address this in some way, shape or form.”

While the Waterfront Commission was united in concerns about the timeline of the plan, there were some divisions over its content — with some saying the city hasn’t done enough to mollify artist concerns and others criticizing the artists for being unwilling to accept any changes.

“There was always a ‘do not do anything, do not change anything’ type attitude and I really like Diane’s changes for the building,” Hagman said. “I myself left the Torpedo Factory because it was a bit moribund. On the other hand, I think there will be a real distrust or community backlash, and I think that will be a real issue to deal with.”

The Waterfront Commission unanimously voted to send a letter to the City Council saying the Waterfront Commission did not have adequate time to consider the Torpedo Factory plans.

“Diane, I hope you understand why we’re upset with your office about this,” Macek said. “We asked you for information a month ago to provide adequate information to form an opinion on this. You’re running out the clock and saying ‘Sorry, this is the timeframe we’re on.’ That is not appropriate to back a commission into a corner with that… It’s just not the way business should be done in the city.”

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