New directions for Alexandria’s Old Town North

A City Council-approved plan sets out the path for retail development, arts revitalization and innovation.

old town north
Image by Greg Gersch

With the roar of the planes overhead and the whirring of a nearby lawnmower, urban planner Heba ElGawish is providing a walking tour of Alexandria. She points out a former WMATA bus depot, a 19th-century cotton mill-turned-apartment building, a relatively new Harris Teeter. This is Old Town North, a lesser-known part of the city with devoted residents, mom-and-pop shops, office space and a lot of change.

The Old Town North Small Area Plan, a revision of the 1992 Alexandria Master Plan that the Alexandria City Council passed on June 24, lays out goals and guidelines for several aspects of the area to be addressed over a 25-year timespan, including land use, housing, arts and culture, innovation and open space. The neighborhood—one of 18 delineated by the city and sandwiched between King Street and Potomac Yard—is home to Montgomery Park, MetroStage, The Art League, the Oronoco condominiums and a defunct power plant.

A comprehensive plan overhaul was necessary to best serve the community and respond to recent economic development, says ElGawish, project manager. Nearly two years ago, city planners and a 21-member advisory group of community members embarked on a plan revision.

“The big thing was to see that we move forward with developing a mixed-use community, which we already are in some ways, but to further that development in a controlled and carefully curated way to give more definition to North Old Town,” says Tom Soapes, president of the North Old Town Citizens’ Association of Alexandria, or NOTICe.

The area’s arts organizations are paramount to the community, says Department of Planning and Zoning Deputy Director Jeffrey Farner; accordingly, the city has designated North Fairfax Street as an arts corridor with suggested spaces for public art. Montgomery and North St. Asaph streets are reserved as retail corridors, and retail developer EDENS has already broken ground on a mixed-use project with ground-floor retail at the intersection of those roads.

“Part of the plan and the goal here is to create a community that is not just a 9-to-5 Monday to Friday” neighborhood but also an evening and weekend destination for residents and employees, Soapes says.

Other highlights of the plan include innovation space at the power plant site, the conversion of a rail corridor to a linear park, new mixed-income housing, improved streetscapes that support the city’s Vision Zero goal of dramatically reducing pedestrian deaths and an added 2-4 acres of open space along the Potomac waterfront.

Christa Watters, a NOTICe member and advisory group member who has owned property in Old Town North since 1983, participated in a weeklong design charrette held in late 2015 in Old Town’s Canal Center.

The center’s river views “emphasized why this plan mattered to us because a lot of us feel that we live in really the prettiest part of the waterfront,” Waters says. “It was gorgeous weather; it was blue water, blue sky, little puffy white clouds. And it showed us that this is a place worth treasuring and maintaining.”

(October 2017)