Olin design studio readies its Alexandria waterfront vision for public review


Olin Studios’ rendering of the waterfront area of Old Town Alexandria includes a park, Fitzgerald Square, that would have a fountain that could become a reflective pool. (Olin Studios)

The drawings for a redeveloped Alexandria waterfront present a lovely spectacle: The Potomac is always an attractive shade of blue, the grass glistens emerald and the flowering trees frame the well-dressed visitors. A fountain burbles, kayakers prepare to launch and an oversize chess set attracts good-looking intellectuals.

Whether this vision comes to fruition will be determined in the next few weeks, as the city’s Planning Commission and City Council plan public hearings on the landscape and flood mitigation designs for the always-controversial stretch of Old Town’s waterfront.

“I’m extremely enthusiastic” about the design, said Faroll Hamer, the city’s director of planning and zoning. “The best thing about the design is it opens up the foot of King Street so you can see the river in a panoramic view.”

The latest design, called Alternative D by the Olin Studios design firm, became possible after the city and the Old Dominion Boat Club reached an agreement to remove the club’s clubhouse and parking lot from the key spot. It’s the fourth in a series of designs created with community input since October. A large public park, called Fitzgerald Square, would anchor the area, tying the green space to the south with the Torpedo Factory and city marina to the north.

“What really is exciting is this allows the fountain [at King Street and the river] to be centered, so when you look down King Street, it really feels like the water is coming up,” Hamer said. “We’ll also have an overlook at the corner of Fitzgerald Square so . . . every single person can climb up that structure and get a fantastic view, from the Capitol to the Wilson Bridge to the trees on the Maryland side. We’ll memorialize the old Ferry Building that used to be there. . . . It’s important to show off things that are individual to Alexandria, and make this about us.”

The 112-slide presentation that Olin partner Skip Graffam showed to about 100 residents last Thursday spelled out a series of outdoor “rooms” in the core area of the waterfront, from Duke to Queen streets. (The presentation can be viewed at http://alexandriava.gov/waterfront.) New piers would appear, both at the boat club’s new home, in the rebuilt Beachcombers building, and at King Street. A two-level walkway would allow strollers to traverse the Old Town waterfront from one end of the area to the other, removing the interruptions that now impede the walk.

The Strand, Alexandria’s waterfront street that was once the entrance to a series of wharves, would be the design’s organizing principle, Graffam said. The design studio studied old photos, maps and drawings of the area, dating to the late 1700s, and noticed there has always been walking space at the wharf edge, he said. Some history could be reflected in outdoor furniture, such as markers embedded in sidewalks and seating blocks, as Philadelphia and Boston have done. Art and sculpture could also be used to tell the city’s seafaring story.

The fountain envisioned for the center of Fitzgerald Square could change, offering dramatic displays of water at certain times, an interactive splash area at others, or a smooth sheet reflecting the sky. The fountain could be turned off when the space is needed for events, he said.

Some areas south of the square could be built as an outdoor “reading room” or a play space — “not a playground,” he emphasized. The design includes a plan for a nearly transparent civic structure where historic displays, art exhibits or meetings could be held.

The Alexandria waterfront redesign is a complex series of decisions that will bring new housing, hotels and commercial uses to the waterfront, as well as new parks and flood mitigation. The area was rezoned in 2012, and reaffirmed 14 months later, after a pitched civic battle.

The landscape and flood mitigation design project now goes to the waterfront commission Tuesday, to the planning commission for a public hearing June 3 and to the City Council for a public hearing June 14.

Patricia Sullivan covers government, politics and other regional issues in Arlington County and Alexandria. She worked in Illinois, Florida, Montana and California before joining the Post in November 2001.

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