Editorial: Sprinting toward an arbitrary finish line on the waterfront

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It appears the end is in sight for the waterfront development plan. The question is, should it be?

After two years, countless city meetings, scores of letters to the editor, an alternative waterfront group boasting its own plan, a second group whose mission is to reconcile competing plans, more than $1.1 million — and counting — spent and a lot of ill will all around, could Alexandria really be nearing this marathon planning effort’s finish line?

The waterfront work group is expected to release its report later this month. Until that happens, and the public gets to see the proposed compromise, it would be hasty to draw a final conclusion. Some things, however, are clear right now:

• City officials view the proposal from the Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan as wildly unrealistic, as it would require millions of dollars to buy the privately owned Robinson terminals and includes no real revenue generators.

• CAAWP appears unlikely to support any plan with significant commercial development along the waterfront.

• Mayor Bill Euille and city council members seem in a big rush to vote on this issue in January, when there is no clear reason to rush to judgment.

While council members understandably are tired of arguing about the waterfront, that is no reason to make a final decision by an arbitrary January deadline. Again, why the haste? Who benefits from a quick decision? Would a delay jeopardize silent deals with developers?

No one wants to debate this issue forever. However, this will be the most important development decision made in Alexandria for years to come. It will determine the next generation of building along the jewel of Alexandria — its swath of Potomac shoreline. Given what happened with the BRAC debacle, the baby that the city signed off on but no one wants to claim, city leaders need to make sure they hit a home run with this plan. This is no time for arrogance or intractability.

What ultimately emerges needs to be economically sustainable, but not at the cost of residents’ quality of life. That virtually all those who oppose the plan live in Old Town while the city’s planning director hails from Maryland is unsurprising.

A compromise — and willingness to compromise — is needed. The city needs to downsize the scope of commercial development in its plan. Likewise, resident groups like CAAWP must get over their pie-in-the-sky wish for economically unsustainable parks and museums. Both sides need to seek consensus.

The revelation that the planning process has cost $1.1 million to date — not including staff overtime — is not surprising. Mounting costs, however, are not a justification to rush to judgment; only about $17,000 has been spent since the public outcry against the city’s plan.

If the right decision is reached — one that all sides, even if grudgingly, can support — it will have been worth the cost. And the wait.