What will it take to make the Alexandria waterfront a great public space?
Like many Alexandrians, I treasure the city’s waterfront and the Potomac for reasons that have little or nothing to do with commerce. Not surprisingly, however, the city’s $42 million draft plan for about three miles of waterfront emphasizes tax-generating commercial uses such as hotels and marinas over museums and parks.
On May 14, the City Council will decide whether to adopt zoning rules that would clear the way for this new vision for the waterfront. Many residents, however, are not convinced that it is the right plan for such a historic seaport. The Old Town Civic Association wants the process slowed down so that other, less commercial alternatives can be considered, and the Greater Alexandria Preservation Alliance is circulating a petition asking elected officials not to rezone the waterfront. At a recent hearing before the city’s planning commission, many residents denounced the current plan, while business groups, and planners, extolled it.
For most residents, and I think many tourists, too, the things that are most enjoyable about the waterfront are free. You can walk, jog or just sit quietly beside a beautiful tidal river and not spend a dime. Yet the city’s plan has lots to say about building marinas and piers that few want or think can be built, and little to say about launching a kayak — an activity most everyone can afford — or starting a maritime museum that tells the seaport history of the town and fits in well with Old Town’s appeal.
Hotels and restaurants are the centerpiece of the city’s commerce-heavy vision of the waterfront, which includes the proposed redevelopment of two large warehouses owned by The Washington Post Co. City officials claim that the rezoning will create a vibrant, world-class waterfront that will attract more tourists and provide sufficient tax dollars to pay for flood mitigation measures and other public amenities.
But to many residents, more large parks (and not just narrow promenades in front of development) and the maritime museum would be better anchors for a fully connected waterfront than hotels and restaurants, or even more townhouses. Why spend millions to prevent flooding that would otherwise be a nuisance and not much else? Parks can handle flooding naturally; expensive hotels cannot. Also, so much development would harm the Potomac, too, because the town is still connected to an old combined stormwater and sewer system that spills raw sewage into the river when it rains.
Planners, however, have offered no real alternatives to their preferred scenario and made no major changes to the concept, even after the two years of hearings. For inspiration, they need look no further than the large parks, rowing facility, public docks with boat tours and Torpedo Factory Art Center, which is housed in a old building Alexandria purchased in 1969. We owe this section of waterfront to activists such as the late Ellen Pickering, former delegate Marian Van Landingham and other residents who realized nearly 40 years ago that old factories could be transformed into great public spaces.
It’s now up to citizens, once again, to make sure that the waterfront is not a casualty of development.
The writer served on the Alexandria City Council from 2003 to 2007. He is a founder of Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan.