It was like Christmas in June. Dozens of Alexandrians appeared at two special meetings to tell city and federal officials what presents they wanted when the latest plans for the city's waterfront come down the chimney.
Nationally known conservationist Michael Frome spoke in favor of a federal plan to turn most of the 39 1/2-acre waterfront into a federally managed park. Ole Town resident Lenore Van Swearingen painted a vision of an area dotted with recreated 18th century tobacco shops and woodcarvers' studios, with sailboats available for rent.
Theater buff Clova Demaine said she thought it would be "wonderful" if a theater were built along the water's edge.
Business representatives said the city tax base would be strengthened if there were some commercial development along with the parks.
"This culminates 15 years of emotions," said Alexandria Mayor Charles E. Beatley Jr. last week, in the first of two public hearings sponsored jointly by the city and the National Park Service.
During that decade and a half, Beatley reminded his audience, the waterfront has been slated for high-rise development, held captive by a still-pending federal title claim, subjected to deterioration and discussed at innumberable public hearings and debates.
Now, however, instead of various agencies firing plans back and forth at each other, city and federal planners would be listening to members of the general public before drawing up a consolidated proposal.
That plan, if it comes off, would represent the first time city and federal officials have agreed on development of the waterfront in one common and specific proposal.
At issue in the two days of hearings were three plans for the area -- one from the city and two from the National Park Service, which is a branch of the Interior Department. The city plan, which is similar to one Park Service proposal, calls for some commercial and residential uses with 26 acres of parkland. One Park Service plan would set aside about 25 acres of parkland, allow six acres for "mixed uses" such as shops and stores, and leave about five acres for current industrial uses. The other Park Service plan calls for 33 acres of parkland with five acres for current industrial use and 1 1/2 acres for mixed uses.
Another subject of equal importance was who would manage the waterfront once the city and federal government agree on a plan for the area.
It is here that Santa Claus was replaced, at least in the public mind, by Scrooge. Interior officials took pains to say that they, as much as the city, wanted to see the waterfront developed in a manner acceptable to city residents. The officials, however, found themselves trying to explain why another branch of the federal government -- the Justice Department -- was contending that the federal government, not the city, owns much of the waterfront.
Interior official John Parson said "the Department of Justice is not speaking with a forked tongue" when it says it will coordinate its response to the city based, in part, on the Interior plan.
The Justice Department effectively killed high-rise development along the waterfront in 1973, when it claimed title to the area. Federal officials have contended that the title suit was the only way to prevent the kind of shoulder-to-shoulder high-rise development now characteristic of Rosslyn and Crystal City.
The federal suit is still pending.
Attorney Yvonne Weight, who represents a company that owns waterfront land, warned the audience that there was no proof that the Justice Department would follow Interior's advice in seeking a settlement. Parsons, however, assumed the audience otherwise.
Madelyn Anderson, who said she had lived in Old Town 23 years, said there was "something wonderful and good" about the way the National Park Service manages land, and urged that the Park Service manage the area once a plan is worked out.
One major difference between the city and Park Service plans has to do with maximum building heights. The city has proposed a 50-foot limit, identical to the limit in parts of nearby Old Town. The Park Service has proposed a 30-foot limit east of Union Street and a 50-foot limit running to the northern edge of the city, nearly to the Pepco power plant.
Most of the speakers supported the Park Service plan for 33 acres of park land, but city planners recommended that only 26 acres be used as parkland because they wanted to develop attractions, such as shops and restaurants, to bring visitors to the area.
Such a plan would increase city revenues, they added, through sales and business taxes, and would help ease the financial burden of homeowners in the city, where property taxes have increased more than the rate of inflation in recent years.
Ann Satterthwaite, vice president of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, urged planners to allow only "water-dependent" activities, such as boat docks, rather than "water-related" activities, such as hotels, which could be built several blocks away.
City planner Engin Artemel said after the second meeting that unless city and federal planners reach an agreement on the water-front, the 1974 master plan for the area, which permits intensive commercial and residential development, could be enacted if and when the federal title claim is settled. He said the current discussions were begun in an effort to change city policy to reflect the new interests of the City Council and Alexandria residents.
In several months, a joint city and federal proposal, based on last week's hearings, is exptected to be issued. Then, the entire process of finding out what the people think, and how to make changes to please most of the people, will start again.