A subsidiary of The Washington Post Co. is caught up in a controversy over development of the Alexandria waterfront. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For The Washington Post ) (Jeffrey MacMillan/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
June 3, 2011

The paths and small parks that dot the Old Town Alexandria waterfront make a beautiful walk on a breezy and cool summer morning. Joggers, walkers and moms with strollers smile and greet each other as the Potomac River eddies and ripples just a few feet away. Views upriver toward Washington and downriver toward Mount Vernon are spectacular, and in the background, airplanes gently descend toward Reagan National Airport.

But whether these exercisers head north or south from King Street, in about four blocks they soon run smack into two windowless fortresses and their adjacent, rusting, chain-link fences and forbidding “No Trespassing” signs.

These are the Robinson Terminal Warehouses, owned by a subsidiary of The Washington Post Co. They block views and access to the water, and strollers have to detour around them on city streets before they get back to the green spaces that Alexandria has long wanted to make continuous along its shoreline.

Small wonder, then, that the city has proposed a multiyear, $50.5 million redevelopment plan that it hopes will make the waterfront an uninterrupted public space with hotels, restaurants, parks and museums that together will reinforce Old Town as one of the region’s major tourist attractions.

Alexandria activists who by and large oppose this plan called me recently and complained that The Post hasn’t covered the process adequately. The Alexandria City Council’s May 14 public hearing on the plan was a boisterous, crowded affair that even led to calls to stop buying The Post. A Metro reporter wrote live Tweets from the council meeting, but no story appeared online or in the paper.

In particular, the activists said, The Post has not reported the full nature of its parent company’s interest and involvement in the redevelopment process — the hotels that the city envisions for the redevelopment, for example, would be built on what is now Post Co. land.

I agree with the activists; The Post’s coverage has missed the boat on the waterfront plan.

The Post Co. warehouses are the bookends that complete this eight-block-long redevelopment plan. The city can’t make the plan work and get the tax revenue needed to make it work, unless The Post Co. sells the warehouses for redevelopment. The two properties, a total of 8.3 acres, are assessed under current zoning at $31.8 million. If the redevelopment plan passes, that value is likely to go up significantly, and The Post Co. will get a tidy sum. Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D) said in an interview that the Post Co. properties “are key.”

Post reporters have been dutiful in mentioning in their stories that the Post Co., through its Robinson Terminal Warehouse Corp., owns the two properties. But that isn’t enough. The city and The Post Co., along with the National Park Service, which has some say over the waterfront, entered a settlement over property and development rights in federal court in the early 1980s.

Robinson Terminal sued Alexandria in 2008 because it feared that a zoning revision enacted by the city in the 1990s would limit the density of redevelopment allowed on the warehouse properties. The lawsuit was put aside after the city invited The Post Co. to participate in the planning workshops that led to the current redevelopment plan. The Post Co.’s input into the plan has been extensive, and it still could sue the city if it feels its development rights are not protected. But you wouldn’t know that by reading the newspaper.

This is not a case of conspiracies or shenanigans by The Post Co. or the city. Post Co. and city officials have been open with me in recent days about their close cooperation. It’s clear that if this redevelopment plan passes, as is likely, and the right developer comes along with the right offer, The Post Co. will sell the warehouses, and in their place will rise a mix of boutique hotels, residences, stores and parkland on the Robinson Terminal land. The newsprint The Post uses no longer comes into the terminals by boat; it comes by rail and truck, so the company doesn’t need the Robinson docks anymore.

In going back almost four years in internal Post archives and on Nexis.com, I couldn’t find one mention in The Post of the 2008 lawsuit, the assessed value of the Robinson Terminal properties, their exact size or their potential value to a redeveloped waterfront. Local Editor Vernon Loeb, in his job less than six months, said the waterfront story is an important one that will get additional coverage in coming days and months. “We should cover The Post Co. as we cover any other company,” he said.

This is not a failure of one reporter or one editor; it’s a failure of mission. One of the marks of a great publication is that it takes on the hard subjects — even ones that may affect the interests of the newspaper itself. Another hallmark is going deep enough on a story, and with enough context, to fully illuminate a public issue for readers.

In this age of tweets, the Web and diminishing newsroom resources, this is harder to do. But it is no less important.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the omblog at voices.washingtonpost.
com/ombudsman-blog/
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