Keeping the big stick of eminent domain at the ready, the Alexandria City Council Tuesday night voted to resume negotiations with the Old Dominion Boat Club over the club’s riverfront parking lot and boatyard that the city wants for a public park.
The city manager has 90 days to reach an agreement with the 133-year-old private club, employing a mediator if both sides agree, the council said. But if the talks end without an agreement, council members said that they will take the half-acre lot and turn it into “the crown jewel” of the city’s controversial waterfront redevelopment plan.
The 6-1 council vote, with vice mayor Allison Silberberg dissenting, came after a three-and-a-half hour public hearing advertised as an opportunity for residents to express their opinions on the issue. Nearly 70 speakers, primarily boat club members and supporters, argued that the two parties were too close to agreement to take the draconian step of eminent domain.
“We’ll give you walkways along the waterfront. We’ll give you a broader sidewalk along the Strand,” said boat club president Miles Holtzman. “We’ll take down the city fence. We’ll work with you on flood mitigation. So why are we talking about eminent domain?”
City officials, who outlined years of unsuccessful private discussions, were skeptical.
“I have been very forthright,” said Mayor William D. Euille (D) at the start of the public hearing. “It gets to a point when your patience runs out and you use the tools available to you. Believe me, I don’t want to use eminent domain, but it’s a tool that lets us get to where we need to go.”
Deputy city manager Mark Jinks, who has negotiated many scores of deals with businesses, governments and private entities on behalf of the city, said “I know of no set of city negotiations that have been as prolonged and intractable as the ODBC parking lot talks.”
The parking lot, which sits almost exactly at the foot of tourist-friendly King Street, is “the only remaining barrier to continuous access” to the Potomac River in the eight-block Old Town area, city staffers said. That’s not exactly right; the boat club’s clubhouse itself blocks waterfront access as well, but city officials insist they have no plans or intentions to seize the 1930s-era building or its docks.
But as the city begins work on its two-year-old waterfront redevelopment plan, the lack of a central focus point to the new pedestrian-oriented front yard irked planners. When they first proposed a “Fitzgerald Park” at the site more than two years ago, public outcry forced them to drop it. Now that the plan passed the council, and passed muster with the courts after several legal challenges, the concept of a public park or square there returned.
The city, which had been quietly negotiating with the club over its parking lot since March, declared in August that its attempts to settle the matter had come to naught. In early October, city leaders declared that they were considering taking the land by eminent domain, in a state where voters had made that process more difficult.
Boat club officers responded with an offer to provide public access to the river at the front and back of their lot, and argued before a city panel earlier this month that it was willing to continue negotiations.
If the city’s threat to use eminent domain was simply a ploy to inject a sense of urgency into negotiations, it seems to have worked. Euille admitted as much after the meeting, but said the threat was and remains real. Council member Justin Wilson likened eminent domain to “a local government’s use of force. It’s absolutely a last resort.”
Wilson and Euille also said the council wanted to get the long-running negotiations “out of the back room” and into the public. Council members, during last year’s election campaign said they regretted that they did not make public some of bargaining in 2008 over another local controversy, the negotiations over where the Defense Department would move 6,000 workers. When the city’s preferred location was snubbed in favor of the Mark Center in west Alexandria, public reaction was furious.
The speakers at Tuesday’s public hearing ranged from furious to conciliatory, but the vast majority urged compromise. When it became clear that the council was going to retain the possibility of using eminent domain if the latest talks don’t work out, many residents who stayed through the long hearing walked out, loudly complaining that the vote was a “set up” or “a dog-and-pony show.”