In the chilly November wind, the wood boat chugged along the Alexandria waterfront, past the Old Dominion Boat Club and its parking lot, a gun shop, another parking lot, a marine repair shop and patches of parkland. Boats bobbed in their slips. Cormorants spun off old pilings set in the Potomac River -- remnants of the city's storied past as a seaport -- and into the blue sky.
"From the river, you can see what it used to be and get a sense of what the river offers, all these opportunities for fishing, boating, kayaking," Alexandria City Council member Andrew H. Macdonald (D) said as he piloted the boat along the shoreline. "In a way, it is our biggest park."
On Nov. 9, the City Council took a major step toward preserving a large portion of the city's land fronting the river, authorizing discussions with the owners of seven parcels south of King Street on purchasing the land for a public park. Macdonald and other council members see the pricey effort -- estimated at $10 million to $15 million "or possibly more" -- as a historic moment for the city.
"It's not the opportunity of a lifetime, it's the opportunity of two lifetimes to do something really wonderful," said Judy Guse-Noritake, co-chairman of the city's open space committee.
Vice Mayor Redella S. "Del" Pepper (D) agreed.
"It really has come to a kind of turning point," Pepper said. "It's our chance to get serious about acquiring land and improving what we have."
The City Council hopes its initiative will finally end decades of hand-wringing, legal battles, proposals and counter-proposals over the waterfront, which has grown piecemeal over the past 50 years from a rat-infested port to a major tourist attraction with the thriving Torpedo Factory Art Center, food court, restaurants and tour boats. The city hopes to have a comprehensive waterfront plan in place by 2006.
Yet critics say the park plan would be too expensive and unrealistic. They note that the waterfront issue has plagued the city for decades and given rise to a host of concept drawings and misbegotten ideas -- long since shot down -- such as a four-building Watergate complex in Founders Park and a floating hotel on a boat, known as the "boat-el."
And hanging over everything, critics note, is the federal government's claim to the 2.1 acres the city wants to purchase, a title dispute that has languished in U.S. District Court in the District since 1973.
"It's just a bunch of hogwash," said former Alexandria mayor Frank Mann, who owns one of the properties the city is targeting for purchase. "It is insulting to the taxpayers to try and get them to swallow this. . . . [The city] has no idea what to do about the schools, traffic problems or terrorist problems. It seems to me that their plate is full already without going after dubious properties on the waterfront."
The strongest opposition has come from the Old Dominion Boat Club, a 700-member private club that has been based off the old ferry landing at the foot of King Street since 1923. The city is considering a purchase of the boat club's expansive parking lot and boat launch, which sits at a prime location, behind a gate and a fence covered in concertina wire.
Members of the boat club, who have turned out en masse to public meetings with "Save ODBC" buttons, say the club won't survive without its parking lot. They fear the city will use eminent domain to purchase the property if they decide not to sell.
"We don't want to move. . . . If you look around, we've got everything we could possibly want," said Gerald "Harry" Harrington, 72, a Falls Church resident and former board president of the club. "Would you like someone coming into your home and telling you you have to move?"
Mann said the city has undervalued the land in its estimates, noting that he has been offered more than $3 million for his one-third share of the parking lot on Strand Street -- about what the city estimates the entire lot is worth.
"It's silly. They're not doing their homework," Mann said.
Mann and two others own the parking lot that covers 200, 204 and 208 Strand St. The city is also interested in a marine repair shop at 210 Strand, the gun shop at 0 Prince St. and the boat club parking lot at 2 King St. Plans to acquire the boat club building at 1 King St. are on hold.
To complicate matters further, the title to the properties remains in dispute because of the federal government claim. For decades, the federal government has contended that it owns the land along the Potomac in Alexandria because of a land swap dating to 1791 and the creation of the federal city. The U.S. Park Service seeks to retain the title to the land so it can maintain a degree of control over how it is developed.
The city believes it will be able to work out a resolution with the Park Service if it is able to purchase the land from the property owners.
But "it's not for sale!" Mann said firmly. "Over our dead bodies!"
Mayor William D. Euille and other officials have said they hope to reach an equitable resolution with property owners without resorting to seizing the land through eminent domain.
It is unclear what the new waterfront would look like, but Kimberly Fogle, the city's chief of neighborhood planning and community development, said the city will hold community "visioning" sessions early next year.
"I think the direction the city is going to be headed is to have a major public open space," Fogle said.
The city wants bikers, joggers and pedestrians to be able to move freely along the waterfront on the Mount Vernon Trail from Daingerfield Island through Old Town and south to Jones Point Park. The Mount Vernon Trail now diverts to Union Street in Old Town, more than a block from the river.
"I think having a waterfront where people can walk and bike from end to end, stroll with their kids, have this continuous feeling of openness, would be an incredibly powerful thing for Old Town," council member Rob Krupicka (D) said.
But even if the city succeeds in buying the parcels directly along the Potomac, its dream of a continuous waterfront promenade will still be complicated by two large newsprint storage and distribution buildings on Union and Duke streets that are owned by the Robinson Terminal Warehouse Corp., a subsidiary of The Washington Post Co. Neither is targeted for purchase by the city.
The company does not plan to leave Alexandria. Even though newsprint is not currently being delivered to the warehouses by water, having access to the river would increase the number of potential newsprint suppliers, an official said.
"Robinson Terminal is in Alexandria because we need to have the ability to bring in newsprint by water for our customers," said Kent Barnekov, president of Robinson Terminal Warehouse Corp.
But the land that can be preserved now needs to be acquired, Macdonald said, and soon.
As the wood boat sped past the Robinson south terminal -- and some of the million-dollar townhouse complexes that skirt it -- Macdonald recalled his long interest in the waterfront, dating from his childhood growing up on South Lee Street, where his days were filled with fishing off the tip of Jones Point Park and watching barges dock.
"I think we're trying to finish off an effort that has been done in fits and starts," he said.
"It's critical to do these last pieces very carefully. This is our last chance, and we've got to do this right."