In Old Town, planners look to the future with sensitivity to the past

November 18, 2011

Alexandria’s historic Potomac River waterfront has been an evolving work in progress since the 18th century. The city’s planners have drafted a conservative yet controversial waterfront plan for the 21st century. The plan makes functional, aesthetic, environmental and economic sense and, despite the controversy, should be adopted by the Alexandria City Council.

Practical adjustments and prudent interventions, not a radical makeover, are the essence of the plan. Along the waterfront, the quality, accessibility and interconnectivity of the public realm will be enhanced. East-west street views and connections to the river will be maintained and in some places extended. Pathways for pedestrians and bicycles will run continuously along the entire waterfront. Animated plaza and park spaces will be added, expanding the existing parkland to be preserved and improved.

The plan addresses key components within the public realm such as paving materials, street lighting, signage and landscaping. A new system to control flooding, a perennial problem along Alexandria’s waterfront, is envisioned. Green infrastructure — bioswales, rain gardens, pervious paving — will be introduced where appropriate to reduce pollutant runoff into the Potomac River. Shoreline stabilization and resource protection are on the planning menu.

Beyond enhancing the public realm, the draft plan envisions diversified uses with a reasonable balance between existing and new real estate, both commercial and residential. Historic buildings will remain and a few non-historic, obsolete structures would be demolished. Overall density will increase only marginally, about 160,000 square feet more than currently allowed by zoning, and it will be dispersed rather than concentrated in one area. To preserve the predominantly low scale of the waterfront’s architecture, building heights will not exceed the current height limit of 50 feet throughout most of the waterfront.

The plan proposes additional housing and retail space for shops, cafes and restaurants. One new waterfront land use, boutique hotels, would provide city visitors a desirable amenity currently unavailable next to the river. Not only would such hotels further activate the waterfront’s public realm, they also would create jobs and increase tax revenue without the need for more city services or parking. This reflects the plan’s sound fiscal strategy: financing public-sector infrastructure investment with tax revenue generated by private-sector investment.

Opponents, most of whom reportedly live in Old Town near the waterfront, view the plan quite differently and have actively fought against it. Many other city residents, most of whom do not live adjacent to the waterfront, evidently support the plan. As always, opponents have been more vocal and better organized than supporters and, early on, formed Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan. Proponents only recently organized and launched Waterfront for All.

The opposition has raised countless objections to the plan, often misconstruing or misstating the plan’s goals and content. Few of the objections hold up to objective scrutiny. Some naysayers have even cast aspersions on the motivations and competence of the plan’s authors and city officials.

I should disclose that I’m a member of Alexandria’s Design Review Board for the Carlyle and Eisenhower East sections of the city, well west of Old Town, but I have had no involvement with the waterfront or its planning. However, I have seen the city’s planners at work, and their professionalism and concern for the public interest have never been in doubt.

Much of the opposition to the waterfront plan seems to be voiced by citizens who like things just as they are. They no doubt feel anxious about change, no matter how logical and inevitable such change might be. Alexandria is not unique. Whenever a plan for change is proposed in any city or county, some people invariably voice similar fears about worsening traffic congestion, shortage of parking, lower property values, higher taxes, loss of neighborhood character.

The opposition’s anxiety is also attributable in part to feelings of territoriality. Residents naturally develop a sense of ownership of their street and neighborhood, even though streets and civic spaces are public property. It’s not surprising that some people living near the waterfront believe that they should have dominion over their segment of the city, that their interests should take precedence over the interests of others.

Yet more than any other neighborhood in Alexandria, the city’s historic Potomac River waterfront belongs to and must serve the whole city. Indeed, from a historic and geographic perspective, this unique waterfront belongs to not only all of Alexandria, but also the metropolitan Washington region, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the entire United States. Alexandria’s waterfront plan must work for all these constituencies, and not just for constituents living near the waterfront.

Because the waterfront plan is realistic, sensitively composed and successfully blends old and new, Alexandria’s City Council can adopt it with a high measure of confidence.

Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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