The $550 million riverfront "Bay of the Americas" project, proposed for a site just south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Prince George's County, is getting mixed reviews on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.
Some longtime river watchers, such as Noman Cole, former chairman of Virginia's Water Contol Board, say the luxury residential, recreational and commercial development will benefit the Potomac by generating new interest in keeping it clean.
"In all honesty, if it's done right it'll go toward helping the river by creating a river constituency," Cole said last week.
But some Alexandria officials say they are worried that the project, which backers say will be 10 times the size of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, will bring caravans of Washington-bound commuters from Prince George's across the Wilson Bridge through Alexandria.
They also say they are worried that building pavilions out over the Potomac's Smoot Bay could destroy some of the river's natural water storage area, causing flooding problems for Virginia.
And no one is sure what impact the Bay of the Americas' boutiques, hotels and marinas will have on the economy of Alexandria's waterfront.
Mayor Charles Beatley said he is not worried about the competition. If the project draws large numbers of affluent visitors, he said, some of those crowds will spill over to Alexandria's waterfront just over the bridge. But he added he is not convinced the Bay of the Americas really will be a breakthrough in quality development for Prince George's County.
"P.G. County may get greedy," he said. "They may encourage the developers to turn it into a theme park or whatever. Our waterfront will always be a classy waterfront. It's no Coney Island."
Bay of the Americas developer James Burch is amused by Beatley's skepticism.
"They do have a classy waterfront, but they're not uniquely able to do that," he said. Burch predicted the two waterfronts will help each other and there will be boat traffic back and forth.
Beatley and City Council member Donald Casey said they are most concerned about rush-hour traffic from the development.
Said Casey: "We've about had all the north-south traffic through the city we can handle. As it increases, we're going to pinch it off," possibly by timing traffic lights to favor east-west traffic "to the point where it would take P.G. commuters too long to get through the city." And he added: "The answer is to restrict access--force them to stay on the Maryland side of the river."
But Beatley does not believe the solution will be that simple. He said Casey's plan also would slow Virginia commuters.
Burch said his project will not add significantly to Virginia's rush-hour traffic problems. The first phase of the development will include fewer than 100 luxury town houses, he said, and there will be only 980 when the project is completed in 10 years. He said people who will be able to afford to live there probably will not join the rush-hour crush--they probably will be retired or in positions where they can set their own hours.
"This development is less prone to incite traffic than any other development you can imagine," he said.
He also dismissed claims by Dayton Cook, Alexandria's chief of environmental services, that building on pilings in Smoot Bay will displace enough water to cause flooding in Alexandria during heavy rain. "That's about as harebrained as you can imagine," Burch said "It's illogical."
He said what water the pilings displace will be distributed down the length of the river and will not cause the level to rise significantly.
The traffic and flooding issues are among many that will be considered by numerous federal and state agencies that must approve the project before construction can begin along the shoreline. So far, Burch has gotten the Prince George's County Council to approve rezoning of his 440-acre tract, but development plans still must be approved by the county, and federal park land must be acquired for an access road.
In addition, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources will evaluate the project's impact on the river and the environment. Either agency could require the developer to provide an environmental impact statement, which officials say could take a year or more to prepare.
Burch said he hopes to begin construction on part of the property this fall but does not expect to have the necessary permits to build anything on the shoreline before next spring.
Something that no one may be able to regulate is the view the project presents to people on the Virginia side of the river. Bay of the Americas would be tucked into an inlet on the opposite side of the river from Old Town and Mount Vernon and is not expected to be visible from either point. But it would replace the natural vistas enjoyed by residents of Belle Haven and Hunting Towers.
That, Cole noted, is something Virginians are powerless to prevent. Said Cole: "The only way I know to keep the view is to go buy it. I just hope it's a class development."