After a year of fevered debate regarding Alexandria’s waterfront, it is time to embrace the basic framework approved by the planning commission. A recently released alternative proposal by Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront falls far short. The commission’s approach is the most economically feasible way to proceed. It also is the plan most likely to actually produce the attractive waterfront we deserve.
The alternative requires the city to borrow more than $100 million dollars to buy, through eminent domain or otherwise, private land to add more open space than the plan already provides. The budget forecast recently delivered to the city council anticipates years of slow economic growth. The reality is Alexandria can’t afford such outlandish spending.
In addition to increasing park space and a new museum, the proposal approved by the planning commission addresses flooding problems and allows for better pedestrian access — and does all of this within the current low-building heights and architectural care that characterize Old Town. And it uses a public-private financing approach that takes much of the economic burden off taxpayers.
There are ideas in the alternative concept meriting consideration. For example, council should evaluate the appropriate number of hotels allowed along the waterfront, as well as work to prevent privatization of the remaining waterfront with more town homes. Encouraging adaptive re-use of historic spaces is important. And the idea of a waterfront not-for-profit that raises funds to improve and maintain the waterfront is a good one.
But the sheer audacity of spending proposed in the alternative concept make this a budget issue.
In addition to land purchases, the alternative would use funds to build and operate a maritime museum, which would allegedly attract thousands of people a day paying up to five dollars per person. This idea fails any basic test of reasonableness, as evidenced by the failed maritime museum in New York, our fiscally challenged Carlyle House and Torpedo Factory and the reality that no city museum has been able to pay for itself with an admission charge.
Proponents of the alternative say their plan will attract people and tax dollars to Old Town. It likely would. But the Planning Commission proposal would as well. In fact, opponents once criticized the commission recommendation by saying more visitors to Old Town was a bad idea, raising concerns about traffic. They also once professed concerns about costs in the Planning Commission plan. Now they want to spend millions more and need a higher number of visitors to make up lost tax revenues and pay for their enormous borrowing binge. Their proposal contradicts their own arguments.
After five years of budget cuts, with our nation’s lackluster economy, city council must carefully manage city resources. The city manager recently asked departments to suggest up to 6 percent cuts in their budgets.
“Just borrow the money,” some say. But they fail to consider the significant new taxes required for the bond payments or the effect of borrowing on our city’s AAA credit rating — or the risk that new borrowing will undermine school and transportation needs.
We have a multi-year plan to add classrooms for our growing student population; it requires new funds each year. We likely will need even more to address continued crowding. Transportation and Metro costs continue to burden our city as state and federal funds vanish. Opponents of the planning commission’s waterfront plan should be clear about what they want to give up and who it will impact. There are no free lunches. Not even on the waterfront.
The writer is a member of the Alexandria City Council.