December 2, 2011

With its cobblestone streets, antique lampposts and historic architecture, Old Town Alexandria is a national treasure. Each year, millions of tourists savor the shops and restaurants and marvel at places where some of our Founding Fathers spent time. Robert E. Lee grew up here, and countless historic markers date to the 1800s or earlier. The American Planning Association recently named King Street one of our country’s “10 Great Streets.”

But Alexandria’s City Council, ever mindful of the need for new revenue, is considering a plan that would significantly change the city’s waterfront, and thus Old Town. Some aspects of the plan are well thought out, such as extending the path for walking and biking. But the large-scale development at the crux of the plan badly needs rethinking.

Originally, it called for the development of three large hotels with 625 rooms. After a swift outcry from residents, that was downsized somewhat to include three “boutique” hotels, with 150 rooms each. Whether 625 or 450 rooms, however, Old Town could not handle such an influx. Imagine the traffic and parking on those ancient streets.

A fierce battle is being fought. At a recent City Council event on this issue, the discussion was contentious. It was civilized, but I have rarely seen such acrimony here. The Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan presented petitions indicating strong grass-roots opposition to the city’s plan. The group also submitted its own plan to build a museum and keep existing open space. The city found the museum not to be feasible.

All this is happening, keep in mind, as many residents remain furious about the Defense Department’s construction of the gargantuan Mark Center far from the nearest Metro stop. Understandably, council members are a tad defensive, and those who oppose the city’s waterfront plan have lost faith in the council’s ability to make a wise decision. The rallying cry on signs and bumper stickers has been: “Don’t BRAC the Waterfront!”

So is there a compromise that could generate needed revenue while preserving what is special about Old Town?

An arts district, which would build upon what is already on the waterfront, would bring in revenue. The heart of this idea would be a band shell or small performing arts center on the north side of the waterfront. The shell could face south so patrons could sit on the existing lawn along the river and enjoy a picnic and music performance. Many cities, including Boston and Chicago, have such a venue.

In a further compromise that would need to respect existing height restrictions, Alexandria could allow one hotel with 100 rooms along the waterfront, north of the band shell or south of King Street. A few cafes with decks overlooking the water would also be a welcome addition.

What about the rest of the development? Fortunately, there is a ready location for the additional hotels and townhouses in the city’s plan. The closing of the GenOn coal-burning power plant has demonstrated city leadership. That land should be considered for the revenue-generating expansion the city seeks. This site is also on the waterfront, just a mile north of Old Town.

Alexandria has faced crises like this before. In the 1990s, Jack Kent Cooke, then the Redskins’ owner, wanted his new stadium to be located north of Old Town. Citizens and elected leadership stopped it. In the late 1960s, the council debated whether to tear down historic buildings to make room for development; by the early 1970s, 23 blocks in Old Town were slated for urban renewal, but this was stopped after the demolition of historic buildings on six blocks met public protest. Savannah and Charleston came close to similarly disastrous decisions. Today, they are successful because of their historic preservation.

There are those who believe Old Town must compete with National Harbor, but Old Town is not National Harbor. There are many National Harbors around the country; there is only one Old Town. We should stick to our knitting. This is our time to stand up so that, generations from now, there will still be an Old Town Alexandria.

The writer is chair of Alexandria’s Economic Opportunities Commission.

The writer is chair of Alexandria’s Economic Opportunities Commission.