Alexandria waterfront: Can harmony be restored?


This view reflects Alexandria’s current proposed plan for how to develop three miles of Potomac River waterfront, linking separate parks and allowing some commercial use along the river. (COURTESY OF CITY OF ALEXANDRIA PLANNING DEPARTMENT)

Alexandria’s waterfront, all parties agree, is a valuable but underused asset.

From downtown King Street, the Potomac is merely glimpsed through private space. Several parks dot the three-mile-long riverfront, linked by a bike trail but interrupted by warehouses, an industrial-age power plant, occasional condominium developments and several surface parking lots — a neglected front yard in this appearance-conscious city.

In the next few months, Alexandria may decide what the riverfront will be in the century ahead. Will hotels be allowed and, if so, how tall? Will landowners have to make room for a broad, public walkway between their buildings and the water? Can the city force the removal of an ugly but utilitarian parking lot on a key piece of land? Will the flooding that plagues Old Town ever end? Will a new waterfront reflect Alexandria as a historic working seaport?

An eight-member citizens group, appointed by Mayor William D. Euille (D) after the city’s proposal raised hackles in the spring, will finish its work next month and make recommendations to the City Council. The council is likely to hold public hearing in January.

Redeveloping the waterfront could cost from $51 million to $200 million, but it has already cost Alexandria social and political harmony.

Neighbors are divided between pro- and anti-waterfront plan groups, with accusations of inflammatory misinformation and secret deals. Some members of the mayor’s appointed committee, which is supposed to find areas of agreement, spend their time lobbing and fielding thinly veiled insults.

Powerful landowners such as a Washington Post Co. subsidiary and the Old Dominion Boat Club, both of which have been to court in recent years on land ownership and zoning issues, are engaged in negotiations with the city, mostly out of public view, which enrages some residents.

Given such discord, how can anyone find agreement?

“Everyone does want to strike a balance, respect property owners’ rights to redevelop and do what is best for neighbors and the city,” said Paul Smedberg, a three-term City Council member who is a nonvoting member of the mayor’s group.

Everyone also agrees on connecting the separated pieces of the waterfront and opening up vistas, he said. “We all want to bring some additional services and life to the waterfront, but in proportion. Nobody in the city wants to ‘National Harbor-ize’ the waterfront.”

Raising the alarm

Those well-lighted high-rises across the river serve as an object lesson for some Alexandrians. Never mind that the big convention hotels regularly send tour buses and water taxis full of shoppers over to King Street; the idea of so much density, traffic and height makes the residents of Old Town shudder.

That worry has been fed in part by Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan, which has organized the most opposition by raising the alarm that the city’s plan could open the door to huge new hotels and nightmare traffic scenarios.

“The same city leaders that allowed the BRAC 133 fiasco now aim to repeat the same planning and zoning mistakes on the waterfront,” its brochure says, referring to the U.S. Defense Department’s movement of 6,400 jobs into multistory buildings on Alexandria’s west side.

Public use, the group argues, should trump commercial development, and it opposes attempts to rezone waterfront property. Its 200-page alternative plan, which it will present at an event Sunday night in Alexandria’s Athenaeum, urges more parks and development in existing buildings.

Its strongest criticism says city officials never intended to listen to the public during the two-year planning process. A copy of the report, provided to The Washington Post under embargo, further alleges that the city was intent on getting more tax revenue from waterfront development and bargained away a 1992 rezoning that lowered density rules on land owned by The Washington Post Co. subsidiary. In effect, CAAWP says The Post’s subsidiary, Robinson Terminal Warehouse Corp., agreed to try to put hotels on its land when the properties are eventually redeveloped in exchange for more dense zoning.

The Washington Post Co. owns the Washington Post newspaper and web site, as well as several other businesses, including Robinson Terminal.

“We disagree with this characterization. There was no such deal with the city,” said David Miller, Robinson’s attorney. “At the city’s request, Robinson Terminal gave its input just as others did. While Robinson does not favor everything in the plan and has reserved its rights under the 1980s settlement, we believe we can continue to work constructively with the city and the community if the plan is adopted.”

Alexandria City Attorney James Banks, when read portions of the report’s critique Saturday night, said, “Absolutely no.”

“In negotiations, we tried to get close to the density [Robinson] sought and to get public access to the waterfront,” Banks said. “When you put all that together, it does look like the 1980s agreement. But it’s a recognition of our own settlement with the federal government as well.”

CAAWP’s full report will be posted at alternativealexandriawaterfrontplan.com, the group’s founder and former Alexandria vice mayor Andrew Macdonald said.

Not all Alexandria residents agree with CAAWP. Lauren Garcia, an Old Town resident and one of the founders of the rival Waterfront for All, pointed out that the city spent two years soliciting public input and incorporating it into its proposed plan.

“I personally felt like the city did a very good job of research and outreach. . . . Most people I’ve talked to are for the waterfront plan. But these people aren’t the ones to sit for five hours at a City Council meeting to testify,” she said. “The real area of disagreement is over the idea of change. Some people want things to stay just the way they are.”

Bert Ely, a member of the mayor’s waterfront plan work group and a member of the Old Dominion Boat Club, doesn’t find the notion of stasis so bad.

“The best outcome? The city should just leave us alone,” he said. “I don’t think a working waterfront or a parking lot is ugly. . . . Waterfronts are not always nice, park-like places.”

Apart from the colorful personalities, big money is at stake along the riverfront.

Robinson Terminal owns two huge warehouses used for newsprint transfer and storage. They both bookend and block the waterfront at the north and south end of the redevelopment area. Robinson executives told the city that they believe they settled the company’s rights to how much density should be allowed on the land in 1983, when legal action with the federal government was resolved. The city rezoned the land in 1992, reducing the allowed density and potentially making the property less valuable. In 2008, Robinson sued over that rezoning. After negotiations, the city returned density limits to the higher 1983 levels, and Robinson dropped the suit.

The higher density, city officials say, is necessary for the tax revenue that will help pay for the entire waterfront plan, including flood mitigation as well as park construction and maintenance. But economic conditions have changed, and Robinson attorneys recently resisted language that they thought limited the companyto developing its properties as hotels. The company preferred more expansive language that allowed it to turn its warehouses into townhouses or a school or other undefined uses, lawyers told the mayor’s waterfront committee.

Caught in the middle

The Old Dominion Boat Club is a more complicated matter geographically. The 131-year-old organization with 700 members owns its clubhouse, a 53-slip marina and a fenced and locked parking lot at the water’s edge. It claims ownership of a street with several other parking spots and the right of way through the nearby Wales Alley. The city maintains both the alley and the Strand, where the parking spaces are.

The city’s plan leaves the clubhouse alone, but it would create a new park where the parking lot sits at the foot of King Street.

The club’s members, who like the convenience of their lot, point to a U.S. Court of Appeals’ decision in January that settled 38 years of litigation by ruling that the club owns the lot and has a right to access through Wales Alley.

Caught in the middle has been the new Virtue Feed and Grain restaurant, which got city permission in the summer to use a slice of Wales Alley for outdoor seating.

Boat club members said the seating and planters would block their access; the restaurant promises to fold up its table and chairs and put its planters on casters, so it can move them if a vehicle needs extra room to pass.

There’s also the fear that the city will exercise eminent domain to take the boat club’s property for public use. After Banks, the city attorney, raised the prospect of that option in the summer, an outcry caused him to back off. Local weeklies still carry letters objecting to the idea.

A developer plans to turn a third warehouse, the Cummings-Turner properties, into a small hotel. The soon-to-close GenOn power plant is also in the redevelopment area, but any possible land use change is so distant and complex that the city excluded it in this plan, which also has brought reprovals from some in the public.

“The city has been talking about a waterfront plan for 20 years,” Smedberg said. “We, the city and residents, want to be in control of what is proposed down there. . . . The most recent version of the waterfront plan has changed quite a bit, and I certainly like to think it’s because of the conversation and debate we’ve had.”

CAAWP disagrees.

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