May 6, 2011

When Alexandria embarked on an effort to dramatically improve its waterfront two years ago, the overriding goal was to create something for everyone. We sought not just to maintain as much of the city’s unique waterfront history as possible but to enhance it, as well as to create parks and other public spaces that would attract and engage people from all walks of life. The primary themes would be history, art and boats, and all of it would be done in an economically sustainable way for a small city with big capital budget needs. The Waterfront Small Area Plan coming before the City Council this month fulfills all of these goals.

Critics of the plan cite a lack of desirable features that are, in fact, included in the plan. The focus is distinctly on public space and public activities. The plan includes new parks totaling nearly five acres; what is now parking lots, street ends, buildings and industrial piers would become world-class public spaces. These spaces would provide for exactly the sort of low-key activities the critics say they desire, including an arts walk, ice skating rink, play areas, fountains, a kayak launch and a forum for showing outdoor movies. The design invites strolling, picnicking and people-watching, and access to the water’s edge would be significantly expanded.

The Strand area, in particular, would focus on history — among the possibilities are a small maritime facility or relocated archaeology museum, shipbuilding activities, restored historic warehouses open to the public, and a historic ship anchored at a new city pier.

It is certainly true that new development is proposed for three aging warehouse sites (including two owned by a subsidiary of The Washington Post Co.). These sites can be legally redeveloped now, with no new plan. With a new plan, the city can require developers to contribute financially to the public waterfront improvements and impose design guidelines to keep building heights low and ensure architectural compatibility. To ensure that the individual and cumulative impacts of new businesses are fully addressed, it also includes a rigorous public review process for new hotels and restaurants. The plan does not propose condemning any of the warehouse sites for a museum or park, which would cost tens of millions of dollars, divert resources from other public improvements and, in the case of a large museum, add significant tour bus traffic to Old Town.

Notably, the proposal would address most of the flooding that occurs frequently along the waterfront. Flooding at the foot of King and Union streets has long been a significant nuisance, deterring visitors and resulting in thousands of dollars of unnecessary cleanup on both public and private lands. The plan’s solution is to install raised pedestrian and street paving and integrate low retaining walls into the landscape of the parks.

Most important, this vision for the waterfront is supported by many volunteer boards, representing varied interests across the city. The Waterfront Committee, the Parks and Recreation Commission, the Historic Alexandria Resources Commission, the Alexandria Archaeology Commission, the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association, and the Arts Commission have endorsed all or parts of this approach. The plan has also received considerable support from community members.

Alexandria does not want to be like anywhere else. It’s critical for our waterfront plan to improve what we have now without compromising our identity as a historic city. This plan has received a tremendous amount of public input over the past two years, and agreement has emerged on many elements. It’s time to make a decision that will complete the transformation, begun 40 years ago, of Alexandria’s waterfront from an obsolete industrial area to a world-class attraction for the entire community.

William D. Euille, Alexandria

The writer is mayor of Alexandria.