Only now, after protests over the loss of affordable apartments in the West End of Alexandria have ended, lawsuits about the waterfront have been resolved and calls for her to be fired have quieted, can Alexandria Planning and Zoning Director Farol Hamer consider her successes.
Hers was a hands-on job in which she learned the names of individual residents as they protested or clamored for specific development projects. She once climbed to the roof of an apartment building to consider whether a proposed structure near the Braddock Road Metro station would ruin the view.
“It’s retail planning, it’s all about individuals,” said Hamer, 68, who is retiring Thursday after a seven-year career in Alexandria and nearly two decades as a government planner in the Maryland suburbs before that. “The activists here are consistent. They are engaged for years. They don’t just come and go with one project.”
Hamer’s biggest achievement was planning the redevelopment of Alexandria’s Old Town waterfront and seeing it through despite years of resistance from neighborhood residents.
She also helped complete the redevelopment of Potomac Yard on the site of an old railroad switching yard along Route 1 and oversaw the preservation of 800 affordable-housing units along Beauregard Street in the West End after developers sought to replace 2,500 affordable apartments with 5,000 upscale residences.
“We’re putting growth where we don’t have it,” Hamer said of the waterfront and other projects. “In or close to existing neighborhoods . . . there’s always more conflict, there’s always more opposition, but it is the right way for the region to grow.”
Hamer came to Alexandria in 2007 knowing that she would be tasked with reimagining what the cluttered, underused Potomac River shoreline in Old Town could become.
“Most planners would give their eyeteeth to do a waterfront plan,” she said at the time. “I love them.”
But residents fought back against the proposal she unveiled in 2011, saying that it would lure too much commercial development.
Opponents accused Hamer and other city officials of selling out to major landowners, including the former Washington Post Co., whose Robinson Terminal Warehouse subsidiary owned the two large warehouses that bookend the area.
The plan originally called for three hotels, a restaurant, a parking structure and condominiums plus new parks. Over the next seven months, the restaurant, parking structure and one of the hotels were removed from the plan.
A series of legal challenges filed by three Old Town residents known as the “Iron Ladies” ultimately were resolved in the city’s favor.
Hamer described that period of her career as difficult but said she eventually learned not to take the attacks personally.
“It’s just people expressing their rage,” she said. “I feel very lucky to have landed in Alexandria, where [City Council members] stuck to their guns. They did not backpedal when there was opposition, and not every political body has the guts to do that. They felt this was a vocal minority and . . . did not represent the community.”
It all added up to a lot of conflict and confrontation for Hamer, a onetime hippie who lived in a crash pad in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood during the 1967 Summer of Love, taught school in Los Angeles’s Watts neighborhood and worked as a caretaker at a New Mexico ranch.
She eventually headed east, drawn by a love of gardening to a career in landscape architecture. She worked for several developers before signing on as a planner with Prince George’s County in 1987.
In 2005, she was hired as interim planning director in Montgomery County, replacing an official who was forced out after findings of lax planning and oversight at the Clarksburg Town Center development.
She became Alexandria’s director of planning two years later, beating out 36 other candidates for the job.
When Hamer’s resignation was announced in June, City Manager Rashad M. Young called her position “one of hardest jobs in the city,” noting that the planning director becomes “the lightning rod for some of the city’s most important and controversial issues.”
The City Council gave her a standing ovation.
In retirement, Hamer said, she plans to travel with her artist husband, Jay Peterzell, “hiking, biking, scuba-diving, skiing . . . while I still can.”
Their only child, Ivan, 20, is a student at Catholic University, two Metrorail stops from their Takoma Park home.
Hamer remains enthusiastic about Alexandria’s waterfront redevelopment, particularly about plans for six acres of new parkland and the creation of a continuous waterfront path once the Old Dominion Boat Club is demolished.
“The sense of openness will be phenomenal,” Hamer said. “You’ll be able to see King Street from the marina. You’ll never have that feeling ‘I can’t go there, it’s private.’ It’s just going to be fantastic.”