I realize that we have a responsibility as a city to accommodate some of the area's growth, but I think we need to do more to safeguard key historic sections of Alexandria. Let me take you on a brief historic tour beginning at the upper end of King Street near the Metro station and finishing up near the Potomac to show you what I mean.

The upper end of King Street sits at the boundary between a densely developed mass-transit corridor and a historic district established just after World War II. It's a vital tipping point between the flat, massive and mostly nondescript buildings that have been constructed along Eisenhower Avenue and Duke Street near the Metro and are now slowly inching their way east toward the river.

I learned recently that when the City Council adopted the "Charleston" historic ordinance in August 1946, the Chamber of Commerce opposed it. The organization's opposition fortunately failed, though it did manage to have the western boundary of the Old Town historic district moved five blocks farther east.

The Board of Architectural Review is reviewing a proposal from a developer to tear down or "encapsulate" several historic buildings (several were built about 100 years ago, some are a bit younger) in this largely unprotected zone, at the westernmost end of a fine historic retail corridor. It should be a wake-up call for us to look more closely at this preservation boundary and at the kind of new buildings that we allow to fill in unoccupied space.

Now let's head down King Street toward the waterfront. When you reach Washington Street, which is part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, turn south until you reach the Gunston Hall apartment complex. You'll recognize it because the buildings are not very tall. There is a lot of open space, and willow oaks tower above the apartments.

These garden apartments, which were constructed in the early 1930s, were designed to be compatible with the parkway, which connects Alexandria with the riverfront estate of George Washington, who maintained a townhouse in Alexandria and was a city trustee.

Gunston Hall is home to lots of young professionals, older Alexandrians on pensions and some folks who simply need financial assistance in order to live in town. What you may not know is that it can be legally torn down this November if we cannot find a developer willing to invest in its preservation.

This end of town, along South Washington Street, is in danger of losing its charm and historic character, in part because of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge. It's a vital place to take a stand on what constitutes good preservation along Washington Street, where the preservation movement in Alexandria really took hold in the late 1920s, initially with the support and encouragement of the Chamber of Commerce.

Finally, let's walk east toward the river, where Alexandria's early Scottish merchants worked and built beautiful colonial homes that we still treasure. At the corner of Franklin and South Fairfax streets, you'll find a small building that houses a deli and a dry cleaner. As a boy, I biked here -- to what was then called Connie's Carryout -- to buy those nutritious snacks that all kids like.

While it is a historic structure, its greatest attribute may be that it represents a time when neighborhood corner stores were common in Alexandria and in America. It's a living symbol of another of Alexandria's historic yet lesser-known mercantile trades. For obvious reasons, we haven't done such a good job preserving this unique cultural link to a time gone by. We need to try to do so.

I believe we need to take a new look at how we might strengthen our historic preservation efforts. Indeed, our historic ordinance has been amended some 33 times since 1946, according to Peter Smith of the Planning Department. I think it's clearly time to review a number of ideas, including enlarging the boundaries of the city's historic districts, safeguarding buildings that are younger than 100 years old and revising the architectural design guidelines for new buildings. I'd like to see the city's two historic commissions, historic foundation and city Office of Historic Alexandria hold a conference next fall to examine these and other preservation ideas. Historic preservation helps sustain our quality of life, our tax base and our sense of place. We should be concerned about more than just the market value of property.

Andrew H. Macdonald (D)


Alexandria City Council