Acting against the recommendation of City Manager Douglas Harman, the Alexandria City Council voted last week to demolish one of the four main buildings that comprise the old torpedo factory.
Harman had recommended that the council initiate a bidding process that would encourage architects, builders and businessmen to generate ideas for the use of Building Number One, a massive, 190,000 square-foot structure currently being used as a parking garage for 150 vehicles.
Under the plan, proceeds from the sale of the building would be used for work on the other buildings in the complex.
The torpedo factory along the Alexandria waterfront was built by the federal government during World War I and expanded during World War II. The factory was designed as a reinforced concrete structure that could withstand accidental torpedo explosions, a feature that has created difficulties for any plan that involves demolition.
The factory was sold to the city in 1970 by the General Services Administration for $1.5 million, and Alexandria officials have been arguing ever since about how to develop the massive 4 3/4-acre complex. One of the buildings, with 102,000 square feet, has been converted into a popular if temporary studio for artists to paint and exhibit their works. The building known as the Torpedo Factory attracts large numbers of vistors, especially on weekends.
Harman said, in an interview, that the council, had it chosen to go along with his plan, would have been able to examine all the options presented to it "and would have been guaranteed that what would have been constructed would have been according to (the council's) specifications."
But on a motion by Councilwoman Ellen Pickering, a longtime proponent of developing as much open space along the waterfront as possible, the council voted to demolish the building and asked Harman to report later this month on how much the work will cost.
"That is prime property. That is a central, focal point of the waterfront, and it should be in the public domain," added Pickering. The councilwoman said that while she is not sure what should be done with the property once Building Number One is torn down, the possibilities include an ice-skating rink or an open plaza where artists could exhibit their work.
Pickering also disagrees with Harman's estimate that it would cost more than $800,000 to demolish the structure. She says she has spoken with three wrecking companies and that she has not been quoted a price above $400,000.
Councilwoman Beverly Beidler, who voted with Vice Mayor Nora O. Lamborne against demolition, fears that once the building is down, the city will be faced with another long and tedious process - similar to the battle over the design for the new courthouse - over what to build on the factory site.
Beidler said she thought it was a mistake for the council to decide to demolish the building before discussing ideas for its future use.
City Manager Harman says that the structure, which has an atrium and an unobstructed view of downtown Washington across the Potomac, could be converted, at least in part, to condominium apartments and perhaps shops.
Although he agrees that the buildings as it stands now presents an eyesore, harman adds: "I am convinced that from a visual standpoint you can make dramatic improvements which would make the building compatible with the surrounding area."