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On the Waterfront: The City Has Designs on Revitalizing an Alexandria Treasure

By Kelly MacConomy

ALEXANDRIA, VA – For over 46 years the Torpedo Factory has been the epicenter of the Alexandria arts community. The converted one-hundred-and-one-year-old munitions factory turned arts center has been under evaluation for a revitalization plan by the City. The specific plans will be unveiled later this month.

The Torpedo Factory and waterfront al fresco dining on a beautiful day in the middle of October is bustling with visitors and locals alike despite COVID-19 restrictions. Courtesy photo.

The storied art center, founded by former Virginia state delegate and original Torpedo Factory artist Marian Van Landingham, has been witness to decades of reinvention. In the beginning volunteers and flagship artists scraped off inches of lead paint, repaired cracked or replaced missing windows, and cleaned up after scores of birds feathering their nests throughout the former torpedo factory building.

The specifics of the final proposal for reinventing the art center remain a mystery. The City officially took over management of the Torpedo Factory from the Artists Association almost two years ago. The 2020 revitalization plan was ready to be announced when COVID-19 forced the closure of the arts center to all but City staff and studio artists, who continued to pay rent while the Torpedo Factory was shut.

Quoted in the Washington Business Journal on October 4, Deputy Director for Recreation, Parks, and Cultural Activities Diane Ruggiero explains, “We want this to be the arts location for residents of Alexandria to come. We want them to really feel the arts center is theirs and that there’s something for them to do when they’re there.“

The Art League, a longtime art instruction and education organization with a gallery exhibition space is found at one end of the first floor. At the other end is the Target Gallery, with individual artists’ studios and group artists in between, working and exhibiting in their space, paying the City about $16 a square foot. Studio space is determined by jury selection and a review board annually. The City has taken over the torpedo factory jurying-in process.

The Target Gallery on the first floor of the Torpedo Factory Art Center exhibits provocative, progressive. and diverse contemporary art. Photo Kelly MacConomy

Below are the revitalization talking points submitted to the City by an independent consulting group:

Recommendations from the Study of the Studies:

• Celebrate the TFAC as an essential part of the Alexandria waterfront experience.

• Enhance the Alexandria waterfront experience through events and programs at the TFAC.

• Celebrate the building through physical art that wraps the building or visual art projections onto the building facades.

• Allow the TFAC to extend to the outdoors through exhibits and art that spill out onto the waterfront.

• Clearly delineate the building as a historic and cultural point of interest along the waterfront Art Walk through signage, advertising, and programming.

• Commission public art that tells the story of the TFAC.

• Enhance and enliven the TFAC building to make it more inviting and increase visitorship.

• Create clear and welcoming access points by redesigning the entries from Union Street and King Street

• Redesign and enlarge the entry from the waterfront side to create make it a primary entry

• Create inviting exterior and interior lighting, signage and wayfinding.

• Allow arts programs and events to spill out onto the waterfront.

• Integrate a restaurant/café with outside seating on the waterfront side and access from inside the TFAC.

After the shutdown, City Manager Mark Jinks directed staff to resume talks with investors who have expressed interest in a private/public partnership investment in the capital improvements needed to renovate the interior and to allow for some exterior reinventions of the entryways and a more integrated waterfront engagement.

Winstanley Architects and Planners, the firm working on the proposed improvements, has been approached by two groups interested in converting the first-floor galleries and studio spaces into a food hall/marketplace.

While Alexandrians agree that the Torpedo Factory artists deserve an improved working environment and updated facilities, they expressed a grave concern about commercializing the landmark “art mall.”

With respect to the wealth of dining and food options available in Old Town, people were perplexed at the prospect of adding a food hall there, recalling the prior failure of the waterfront food court where Blackwell Hitch has become a going concern. Given the rampant closures of well-established restaurants due to COVID-19-driven economic downturns, such as the closing of Pizza Paradiso a block away on King Street, investment in a new culinary destination is quite the head-scratcher.

The popular restaurant Blackwall Hitch used to be the dock food court, which remained vacant for years before being redeveloped. Photo Blackwall Hitch

Torpedo Factory studio artist Guy Jones, who was juried in seven years ago through the blind jury process of the Torpedo Factory Artists Association, observes, “The factory is being fueled by bureaucracy and not artists and it shows. I now often hear comments by people revisiting the Torpedo Factory who exclaim, ‘What is happening to the arts center? It looks like a prison now.'”

Longtime Torpedo Factory studio artist Guy Jones speaking about his art at the opening of his solo show in the Art League Gallery of the art center. Photo Kelly MacConomy

[EDITORS NOTE: The City announced its intention to release the details of the revitalization plan on October 17th. These details were unavailable at press time.]

RELATED: New Torpedo Factory Documentary Film Released

Kelly MacConomy

Kelly MacConomy is the Arts Editor for The Zebra Press.

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  1. I volunteered for the Alexandria Archaeological Research Center in 1980 at the age of 16. The ARC was located within the Northern end of, at that time, the dilapidated torpedo factory. Yes, a good percentage of the small window panes that consumed the outer walls of the building were broken. The interior was dirty and dusty. I remember the huge inoperable heating boilers and the air bridge that crossed over the street to the other building that was part of the factory.

    I was always amazed at the different and very few Art Galleries that were in operation, in such a dilapidated atmosphere which included no heat or air conditioning.

    At the time, the factory was mostly paralleled by low income housing. As I would be waiting for my father to pick me up from volunteering, I would walk the old pier and dock system at night and witness young boys prying the copper capping off the poles. I assumed the capping would be sold to a scrap yard for a little bit of money.

    Those are great memories and great experiences to roam freely within that old, run down torpedo factory. And a few years later, watch itself turn into a updated and beautiful building.

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