Bert Ely will toss a verbal bombshell if he thinks it’s the best way to get his point across. The voluble orator has spent the past 16 weeks immersed in the battle over the future of Alexandria’s waterfront.
A nationally known banking analyst and an Old Town Alexandria resident for 30 years, Ely, 70, drives opponents crazy. He has consistently objected to assumptions and compromises as a member of a citizens’ work group established by the city to weigh in on the waterfront, sometimes diving into minutiae, other times redirecting discussions into whether the city needs to make any changes at all along the Potomac.
“My problem isn’t with the work group,” he said. “My problem is with the city’s plan.”
Born a year ago after two years’ gestation, that plan envisions an Alexandria waterfront that would be significantly more lively than the existing mix of disconnected parks, industrial plants and offices. It suggested replacing the parking lot of the locally powerful Old Dominion Boat Club with a park and inviting developers to build hotels and restaurants where none are now allowed.
When the plan was first proposed, a group of residents strenuously objected and organized themselves as Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan. With petitions and demonstrations, they created such a large protest that the City Council deadlocked on the main issues.
Looking for a way out, the council created the working group of prominent residents — Ely among them — to find points of agreement and advise the council. Mayor William D. Euille (D) appointed seven members and asked for a report by autumn.
They will barely make that deadline Tuesday, two days before the official start of winter. Despite months of arguments, the members found several areas of agreement. The group “strongly discourages” the use of eminent domain to acquire land along the waterfront. Members agree that better traffic and parking management is needed immediately, and they are behind several ideas to highlight arts, culture and history on the waterfront.
But on the big-picture questions of whether existing zoning should be changed and density increased by allowing hotels along the river, the group has a “fundamental disagreement,” a leaked copy of the report said.
Front and center in the debate over zoning changes is The Washington Post Co., whose subsidiary — Robinson Terminal Warehouse — owns two giant newsprint warehouses on the north and south ends of the waterfront.
In 1992, as part of a citywide rezoning, the city had reduced the zoning on the Robinson land. Robinson sued. After talking with city planners, Robinson set the suit aside before the waterfront plan came out. The city’s plan then proposed allowing denser zoning for the Robinson land, which would allow the company to sell it more profitably or to build a hotel there.
Further complicating matters, Ely dropped one of his bombs last week when he said he planned to release his own “minority report” on what the city’s waterfront should look like and how it should work. His colleagues were stunned.
“I think that’s such a poor approach. You haven’t been able to persuade others, [and] it seems so counterproductive and noncollaborative,” said Elliot Rhodeside, a fellow committee member and principal in an urban planning and landscape design firm. “You’re disrespecting the work group.”
“This is not the Supreme Court,” said Mindy Lyle, a Cameron Station resident and business development and marketing executive, who has often disagreed with Ely. She and Rhodeside are among the majority who think the extended public process of scrutinizing the city plan has improved it, and who say now is the time for the city to move forward.
Ely retreated from his request to attach his document to the group’s report, but said he plans to have his say in writing after the holidays. Moreover, he said he doesn’t know why his announcement was such an issue.
The angry members of the Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan, meanwhile, haven’t gone away. They say they plan to preempt the working group’s thunder Tuesday morning with a news conference 45 minutes before the working group’s report is officially revealed.
They also wrote a 200-page alternative plan, which prompted a scorching rejection last month from the acting city manager. One of CAAWP’s founders threatened a lawsuit, then asked the city attorney for legal advice on how to invoke a super-majority on the council. Speculation swirls about whether and which of the CAAWP leaders will run for City Council next year.
There is yet another citizens’ group, Waterfront for All, which supports the city’s proposal but has a lower profile.
The City Council probably will find emotions further inflamed when it takes up the working group’s advice Jan. 10, before its Jan. 21 public hearing and vote.
Ely said he’ll be there, his opinion unchanged.
“My issue is no different than those I had six months ago,” Ely said Friday. “No, wait: I have gained a deeper appreciation of how flawed the city’s plan is.”