Summer in Alexandria may be hot, but autumn promises to be just as heated politically as numerous contentious development issues go before the City Council and Planning Commission.
The city's Federation of Civic Associations, a coalition representing about three dozen groups, is revving its engines in preparation for a strong fight against many of the proposals. At a monthly meeting last week, coalition members began ticking off the issues.
First came Alan Rudd, warning of the massive size and side-effects of the proposed Patent and Trademark Office, which awaits all-but-guaranteed city approval before it moves from Arlington to the Carlyle site, west of Old Town along Duke Street.
"The two garages have the same square footage as the Ronald Reagan Federal Building downtown," grimaced Rudd, chairman of the Eisenhower Carlyle association. "1,500 cars per garage!"
A little later, Katy Cannady, of Rosemont, stepped forward in the City Hall meeting room to warn the troops, 28 strong, about the proposed residential development at Potomac Yard.
"They want 30 units per acre. In comparison to this, Cameron Station looks pastoral," she said, referring to a residential development on Duke Street.
Then it was Debbie Johnson's turn. Her topic: the ongoing fight against densely redeveloping the site of the Holiday Inn, on North Washington Street, in the neighborhood of the North Old Town Independent Citizens.
And that was only the first half of the meeting.
The busy docket echoes the booming economy. Citizen activism ebbs and flows in Alexandria, say longtime observers, and the end of this century is bringing a torrential flow.
The civic groups often join forces, but not since the early 1990s have they been so effective at doing so, say elected officials and developers. Watching their individual plates fill with issues--from Potomac Yard to the Wilson Bridge to a shelved proposal to build apartment buildings on the King Street Metro lot--the groups reunited for strength in numbers. And it seems to be working.
"I think they're more effective now," said City Council member David G. Speck (D), who attributes some of the change to easier communication through technology.
"We had common goals, and it just seemed that we could work in unity and be much more forceful," said Judy Miller, who co-chairs the federation and was instrumental in bringing it back together in December 1997.
The groups' strategy is to educate each other on issues and take positions as individual associations. The result, they hope, is a pile of well-informed letters to elected officials, rather than just one.
"It turns out we're more effective as individual bodies than as a federation," said Jack Sullivan, the federation's other co-chairman.
Duncan Blair, a lawyer who represented the would-be developer of the King Street lot, said the unity did have its intended effect at a public hearing last year.
"Given the fact that the project had a positive staff report and the fact that the local civic association supported it, it would appear that having 40-some other speakers from other civic associations [opposing it] does have an impact on the judgment of those city officials who are hearing the matter," he said.
There may be many speakers again in a month, when the council holds its first fall meeting on Sept. 8 and a public hearing on the Potomac Yard proposal. At issue is a proposal by Commonwealth Atlantic Properties to build 2,000 houses, a 625-room hotel and nearly 2 million square feet of office space in the old railroad yard, next to a new shopping center that occupies the northern portion of the site.
Other issues are not so imminent. The Patent and Trademark Office proposal is likely to be on the Planning Commission's docket sometime this year, and Old Colony Inn--the Holiday Inn redevelopment--may come before the City Council this fall as well. The council denied the developer a special-use permit in May to construct three new buildings on the site, and the developer--Parkway Center Parcel Owners--is likely to return this fall with a new proposal.
Looming longer term are the expansion of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which Alexandria officials actually have only a small role in, the redevelopment of some of Alexandria's public housing in Old Town and the proposed redevelopment of some of the city's waterfront.
Politics is likely to be a stronger undercurrent than usual to council decisions because all six council members and the mayor face reelection bids in May. And the federation's strength in politics is not underestimated, though some detractors say the group has a limited agenda.
"I think it's unfortunate that they only choose development issues," said Mayor Kerry J. Donley (D). "They could look at schools, at capital improvement programs or teen pregnancy, all of which are important issues to the fabric of the community."