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Alexandria Hopes Huge New Projects Can Finally Draw Interest Outside Of Old Town

Alexandria has been lauded for years as one of the best small cities in the U.S. But the historic Northern Virginia city's leaders are hoping to guide new residents, visitors and businesses beyond its historic core, Old Town, as the city's population expands.

"We are the victim of our own success," Christina Mindrup, vice president of real estate at the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, said at a Bisnow event Wednesday. "Every business development highlights Old Town now."

Walsh Colucci's Robert Brant, Hilco's Michelle Beaman Chang, Carr's Austin Flajser, Lee & Associates' Josh Simon, Visit Alexandria's Patricia Washington and Alexandria Economic Development Partnership's Christina Mindrup speak during a panel at Bisnow's Future of Alexandria event.

Old Town has emerged over the past decade as the retail heart of the city, eclipsing Landmark Mall, which has since been torn down and is in the process of being reinvented as an Inova Hospital-anchored mixed-use development dubbed West End.

The success of Old Town and the waterfront has attracted office users and kept leasing stable even during the pandemic, said Chris Dyson, a senior vice president of office leasing at Lincoln Property Co.

He noted that King Street MetroPlace, which is owned by Stockbridge while LPC does leasing, recently underwent a capital renovation and has signed three deals, including combination coworking and childcare operator Two Birds to a 12K SF lease last month.

Dyson said Old Town was "arguably the most stable market in the region," with office vacancy down 400 basis points at the end of the first quarter of 2022 compared to the same time the previous year.

"Certainly there are a lot of issues we face, but here in Old Town we felt somewhat insulated due to the makeup of our tenant base, which are mostly stable firms with local ownership that did not close during the pandemic," Dyson said. 

Now, officials are hoping to repeat that success elsewhere. Top of mind for city officials is Hilco's redevelopment of the former Potomac River Generating Station in Old Town North.

The project's 18-acre site is slated to include six blocks of mixed-use development with more than 2M SF of residential, retail and commercial uses, which could include office and hotel space, according to site plans shared June 11.

Rising interest rates and other economic uncertainties are a headwind for the project, Michelle Beaman Chang, vice president of mixed-use development at Hilco, acknowledged at the event.

But she said the project's scale and the region's growing tech workforce give her confidence the redevelopment will move forward and deliver for new residents.

Rendering of the proposed redevelopment plans at the Potomac River Generating Station.

"We have a lot of land to chew through, a lot of property to chew through and the interest rate risk is frankly, a little bit scary to us," Beaman Chang said. "For so long, the government was considered recession-proof, right, but we know that that's not true anymore. So I think that really focusing on innovation, knowing that technology isn't going to go away, really helps us in terms of feeling that there's a market there."

Once completed, the site will be connected to more established parts of Old Town through trails and extend the waterfront, including by turning the pumphouse into a waterfront dining destination, Beaman Chang said.

The overall mix of uses is still being determined. Hilco projects anywhere from 20% to 60% of the site could be developed for commercial, and it plans to add roughly 15K SF of arts space as well.

The city's economic development partnership is also giving "pre-tours" of the site to try and attract new office users, Mindrup said.

"We have a couple of things up our sleeve," Mindrup said. "But we would love to create a dynamic catalyst at that site to help support what's really just the last developable waterfront land."

The site is also guaranteed to have a significant multifamily component, including affordable housing, something Beaman Chang said would be important to the project.

"We're really excited having worked with the community and other stakeholders to develop an affordable housing package that we're proud of," Beaman Chang said.

New housing projects have also become intertwined in the story of Alexandria's growth, veterans of the affordable and market-rate sectors said Wednesday.

Pillsbury's Jamie Bobotek, Wesley Housing's Shelley Murphy, Alexandria Housing Development Corp.’s Jonathan Frederick, Monday Properties' Frank Craighill and Fairstead's Noah Hale speak during a panel at Bisnow's Future of Alexandria event.

"I've really seen a sea change where housing is viewed as economic development," Wesley Housing President and CEO Shelley Murphy said. "All of that is enabling us to continue providing affordable housing in this space."

That's in large part thanks to Amazon's Housing Equity Fund, which provided Wesley Housing with a $2.3M grant to acquire the 66-unit Parc Square Apartments earlier this year.

The property, in the historically affordable Arlandria-Chirilagua neighborhood, was immediately slated for life safety improvements, and Welsey eventually plans to incorporate it into its redevelopment plans for the nearby Beverley Park Apartments.

Other operators, taking stock of the city's emerging mid-rise housing stock and new retail corridors, are reimagining housing in Alexandria as well.

Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority CEO Keith Pettigrew told Bisnow earlier this month that the redevelopment of the Samuel Madden Homes, which would transform a collection of townhomes into a 529-unit affordable development, came about in part because residents wanted a modern community that mirrored larger developments like The Kingsley nearby. 

The city isn't waiting for new developments to complete before launching a refresh, however. Patricia Washington, president and CEO of Visit Alexandria, said the promotional organization was planning to roll out a new marketing campaign for the city next year to spotlight neighborhoods beyond Old Town.

"For a lot of people, Old Town is the main attraction," Washington said. "But we have a lot of visitors who ask, 'Well, what else can I do?' We're uncovering that and we're going to be promoting that more and more in the coming months."

CORRECTION, JUNE 28, 4:30 P.M. ET: A previous version of this story misstated the ownership of King Street MetroPlace. The story has been updated.