Alexandria City Council votes to rezone waterfront, again

The Alexandria City Council voted 6 to 1 Saturday to reaffirm its year-old decision to rezone the Old Town waterfront and allow two small hotels, creating a more densely populated and publicly accessible front yard to the city.

The new vote was intended to try to provide relief sought by lawsuits soon to be heard by the Virginia Supreme Court and Circuit Court over whether the council needed a supermajority, or six members, to approve the redevelopment.

On Saturday, opponents reprised many of the same arguments that turned the issue into a divisive two-year-long controversy. But in the end, a supermajority approved the plan.

“I find it hard to see the horror some people see in this plan,” said council member Paul Smedberg (D), citing the benefits of new parks, an art walk, reduced flooding and improved sewers. “Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to come to a compromise on access to the waterfront where it’s most important, at the foot of King Street” where the Old Dominion Boat Club owns property.

The waterfront plan allows private developers to build hotels and other commercial enterprises along the city’s scenic but disjointed frontage. The Robinson Terminal Warehouse Corp., a subsidiary of The Washington Post Co., owns two of the warehouses along the river, and both block public access at the north and south end of the Old Town waterfront. Both warehouses are up for sale.

The landowner already has the right to build residences equal to the existing 522,000 square feet of the warehouses. Under the city’s plan to redevelop the waterfront, the hotels would be allowed to have almost 200,000 square feet in additional density.

Andrew Macdonald, former leader of a group that opposed the waterfront plan, called the vote “a giveaway to special interests like” The Post. Others said the city did not display enough independence in its dealings with The Post subsidiary and called for public disclosure of all meetings between city and Post attorneys.

Some residents warned that the council’s action Saturday would not prevent lawsuits but would trigger more. Barbara Corcoran called the action “deliberately evasive . . . it feels as if we’ve been railroaded.”

Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg attempted to cut the number of allowed hotels from two to one, but she mustered no support. She cast the lone dissenting vote against the city plan.

“The plan is much improved over time, but I still feel it is not visionary enough,” she said.

Supporters of the redevelopment said it was time to finalize the waterfront plan and move forward. Allowing hotels will provide the money to help create an active public space along the Potomac, they said.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the waterfront plan has been a giant compromise, a compromise extraordinaire,” said Skip McGinnis of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. “This controversy . . . has added to the perception that Alexandria is a difficult place to do anything, including doing business.”

Resident James Pelkowski added that the existing waterfront is “an embarrassment” because, viewed from the water, the shoreline appears neglected and abandoned at a time when other jurisdictions nearby are sprucing up.

The hearing Saturday was less acrimonious and far shorter than last year’s 14-hour public hearing. Only two dozen residents spoke, and the matter was settled in three hours.

In a separate, yet related, vote, the council also removed two words from its zoning law by the same 6 to 1 split. City officials said it was merely correcting a drafting error; opponents said the action amounted to an attack on their right to protest certain zoning changes.

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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