When the Robinson Landing Development Entities (RLDE) broke ground on 96 condos and townhomes in Alexandria, Va.'s Old Town Alexandria, they came prepared to handle the potential discovery of archaeologically significant artifacts on the Potomac riverfront site.

But neither the RLDE nor the city’s archaeologists expected the sheer size and scope of the historic artifacts to be found at Robinson Landing. According to EYA, a Bethesda, Md.-based developer with an affiliate in the RLDE, over 150 historic features were found on the site over the course of the 18-month survey, comprising over 100,000 individual artifacts.

The seaport at Old Town Alexandria was among the busiest in America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Under Alexandria’s Archaeological Protection Code, all real estate developers working in the city must have archaeologists on site to ensure that any historical features found during development are properly handled.

Before a project plan could be made, the entities were required to hire an archaeological consultant to do a historic survey of the property, to determine whether it might hold anything of historic significance. From there, the RLDE devised an investigation plan to submit to the City of Alexandria, and began its initial excavation after the plan was approved.

“Based on that initial investigation, if you do find anything, then you have to create a mitigation plan for what you find and open it up farther as you go. So we did the initial trenching, and found that there was more intact structures and features below the ground,” says Greg Griffin, senior director of EYA Multifamily Construction. “…I don’t think our archaeologist anticipated – clearly our development group didn’t, nor did the city anticipate that the substructure would have remained so intact.”

Working Together
Before the RLDE broke ground, the team had anticipated that the archaeological survey would take nine months. While it was in progress, they planned to complete demolition of the site’s existing warehouses and work through its construction documents, including building permits and design documents. Consequently, when the survey stretched on twice as long as anticipated, the entities were able to mitigate some of the delay, as no construction had been planned during that period. During this period, the developers and archaeologists worked together to ensure that their efforts would not interfere with one another.

“We coordinated [the foundation effort] with where the archaeologist wasn’t working and scheduled to get the archaeologist out just in time to allow that work to continue,” Griffin says. “For the last piece of it, we had to stop archaeology in a portion of the site, literally cover one of the features back up, allow construction to go around it, and then when the contractor moved back to the other side of the site and began mass excavation then we brought the archaeologist back in. We had this dance between the archaeological consultant and the general contractors to try and make sure we could mitigate as much of the delay as we possibly could.”

Because the project included a two-story underground garage, the removal of underground components on the site actually helped with the developer’s mass excavation. The riverfront location provided another advantage, allowing the team to remove excavated materials by barge rather than by truck.

Crews prepare to remove the remnants of an 18th century work ship, known as "Ship Two", from the Robinson Landing site. The ship was likely buried before 1798 as fill for new waterfront land.
EYA, LLC Crews prepare to remove the remnants of an 18th century work ship, known as "Ship Two", from the Robinson Landing site. The ship was likely buried before 1798 as fill for new waterfront land.

Old Town Unearthed
RLDE and their archaeological contractor, WSSI Thunderbird Archaeology, worked closely with Alexandria Archaeology to uncover the site’s historic features. They include:

  • The frames and remnants of three work ships, estimated to be from the mid-1700s, and buried before 1798. At the time, the town of Alexandria commonly used derelict boats as fill to create new land and expand the waterfront. A fourth ship from this era had been found in 2015 at an adjoining property.
  • Artifacts and building foundations from the 18th and 19th centuries. Foundations uncovered on the site include a 1783 warehouse constructed by Robert Townsend Hooe, a mayor of Alexandria, and the Pioneer Mills, a flour mill constructed in 1854. Portions of the mill’s foundations had been used to construct a bulkhead and other waterfront features.
  • Foreign coins. According to EYA, the presence of Irish, British, French, and Spanish coins demonstrates Alexandria’s historic importance in trade around the world.

“The combination of Revolutionary War-era ships, early building foundations, and thousands of other artifacts makes Robinson Landing one of the most archaeologically significant sites in Virginia,” Eleanor Breen, acting city archaeologist, stated following the discovery of the third ship in April 2018. “The discoveries at this site have gained international attention."

In response to interest in the project from the public and academics, RLDE coordinated a public viewing of the excavation in while it was in progress last April. All of the site’s artifacts have been donated to the city of Alexandria for study and eventual exhibition.

The New Robinson Landing

Robinson Landing is now open for sale and promoted as a community “268 years in the making.” Most of its 26 townhomes are occupied or ready for move-in. The condo component is currently in progress, with residential and retail occupancy expected by the spring of 2020. The condos’ ground floor retail will include two restaurants and a cafe operated by Alexandria Restaurant Partners, and a retail concept is also planned for an existing building that was preserved on the site.

The community is designed to fit the character of Old Town Alexandria, from the appearances of its buildings to its street and alley layouts. “The city is extremely sensitive about the character of the neighborhood and making sure that new developments fit into the historic fabric,” Griffin says. “So we were very sensitive to that from a design standpoint because we think place is part of what makes developments we are involved with so important.”

The site plan includes the re-creation of The Strand, a historic street that had been diverted during one of the site’s previous uses, and of east-west alleys that provide views of the water from the street. “When we were doing our archaeology about 15 to 20 feet down from where the current street level is right now, we were able to find the remains of the original Strand, which was stone with brick gutters,” Griffin says. “Our new internal street and sidewalks are going to follow that old historic map.”

For builders and developers in similar situations, Griffin’s strongest recommendation in the face of development on potential historic sites is to do as much research as possible up front. “You can never look under the ground when you’re looking at a potential site that might have buildings on it,” he says. “Just do as much due diligence in advance about the procedures that you’re going to have to go through, and understand that you’re not going to potentially know the answer.”