Alexandria is a city distinct unto itself and different from the District in many ways. Attempting to suppress density and architectural diversity will only result in the city losing this unique identity, and instead it will become merely a bedroom community and novel tourist attraction subservient to the District.
Is the goal of historic preservation to preserve all structures, regardless of their original quality, built before a certain date? This seems like a job for a curator rather than for architects and planners. Are we ready to declare Alexandria a dead city, with no vitality? Is Alexandria to be only a monument to some arbitrarily designated past era like Williamsburg, complete with horse-drawn carriages and costumed actors?
The architecture of Alexandria is actually widely diverse. Within a small area of the city you can see architectural stock of both the original colonial buildings and art deco buildings from the 1920s side by side. The east end of King Street is the older section and accordingly has the more classic colonial buildings. As you move west along King Street the buildings become newer and take on a different look as we begin to see metal storefronts and a variety of architectural styles. This architectural diversity in such close proximity is something that makes the city interesting. Why should we declare an end to this diversity?
There are many ways to honor and preserve the unique character of a historic area while still encouraging new and innovative types of architecture. A building that is sensitive to the scale and proportion of its surroundings and utilizes time tested, quality materials inspired by the historic buildings can be very modern in appearance and yet feel very appropriate.
The worst thing that can be done in a historic area is to create new buildings that attempt to copy the existing ones but due to economic limitations and modern construction methods appear only as poor reproductions. This leads to a banal physical environment and reduces the value of the truly historic buildings. A more sensitive approach is to be respectful of the existing buildings, not simply reproduce them.
Buildings are a product of the time in which they are built. The very construction methods that are used to build a building have a profound impact on the building's appearance. Historic buildings look the way that they do partly because of the way that they were built at the time. We no longer build load bearing masonry walls, the masonry walls of today are only a veneer. It would be as inappropriate to build a new building that looks like a colonial building as it would be to build a new car that looks like a horse-drawn carriage.
Buildings should also reflect the values and concerns of the era in which they are built. What would be more environmentally sound than to build a dense community, using all of the latest green technologies, close to mass transit? This both preserves existing, limited open space and encourages the reduction of fossil fuel consumption.
Rather than focusing on the value of individual structures, the city should develop an overriding vision of what Alexandria should be. The city should do all that it can to attract and encourage the area's best planners and designers. Any new building in the city should be viewed as a valuable opportunity and be held to the highest level of design excellence.
The City of Alexandria needs to decide where its future will lie. Is it going to be a perfectly preserved tourist attraction or a vibrant, living city? We are hoping that the city's leadership will choose the latter.
William Conkey, AIA
Karen Conkey, AIA
The garden apartments and high rises converting to condos add to the affordable-housing problem in Arlington County. The senior citizens, retirees, teachers, police officers and firefighters who reside in these units have a tenure of at least 10 or 15 years. This seniority keeps their rents somewhat affordable.
The buildings that haven't been converted but are considering doing so should be purchased from developers by the county and consigned to management companies to manage and keep the rent and upkeep the same.
Richard E. Miller