By Melissa Quinn
For Bert Ely, it all started at a home along Prince Street.
The house sat on the left side of the 900 block, and it had a big bay window in the front. Ely, after attending a meeting at the residence in the 1970s, knew he wanted to settle down in Alexandria.
He fell in love.
Now, after living in the Port City for more than 30 years, Ely has become a local legend of sorts. Some view him as a curmudgeon for his steadfast resistance to the waterfront redevelopment plan — he’s become the de facto face of the opposition movement — while others see him as a local treasure, hell-bent on keeping the city rooted in its history even as the world around it changes.
“Bert always has what he feels is the community’s best interest at heart,” said former Vice Mayor Kerry Donley. “He’s tenacious, there’s no doubt about that.
“There are a lot of people who don’t agree necessarily with what he would like to see on the waterfront, and we’d like to see more diversity of development and mixed used. While I certainly appreciate and laud him for his hard work and dedication, I don’t necessarily agree with him.”
A BANKER AT HEART
From a young age, Ely has always been a numbers guy — that and a concerned resident.
His brother-in-law likes to joke that when they played cowboys and Indians as children in Ohio, Ely always wanted to play the banker.
His interests included finance and economics, and going into banking seemed like a natural fit. Ely pursued degrees in economics and accounting from Case Western Reserve University in 1964 and then headed to Harvard Business School for his master’s in business administration, graduating in 1968.
From there, Ely worked his way through jobs in the banking industry, making his way up and down the East Coast. After his schooling in Cambridge, Mass., he headed to New York to work for what is now known as Deloitte.
Next, Ely came to Washington, D.C., before moving to western Virginia. He settled in Salem and later the Roanoke Valley before landing — permanently — inside the beltway.
But it was in Roanoke that his interest in community matters really took shape.
“I was up to my eyeballs,” he said.
Ely became immersed in Roanoke’s city government, politicking on behalf of city council candidates in the late 1970s before working on Ray Garland’s campaign when the businessman ran for the House of Delegates.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in local government,” Ely said.
He ran for office only once — unsuccessfully — in 1973, hoping to represent Roanoke in the General Assembly.
But as Ely became more of an expert in banking and finance, he grew increasingly well versed in the policy side of the industry, making frequent trips inside the beltway and setting his sights on Old Town.
FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT
After attending several meetings in Alexandria — including that fateful one on Prince Street — Ely decided to uproot his life and business.
He moved purposively to settle in the Port City in 1981, landing not long after residents fought to shield the town from urban renewal along King Street — a fight he considers the city’s last major battle.
“To me, the challenge is trying to protect what we have and enhance it further,” Ely said. “We want to have — for future generations — the charm, the uniqueness, the ‘walkability’ [and] historic character of Old Town.”
But, he said, after more than three decades in the town, he feels those things are under assault again.
Ely does not consider himself antidevelopment — though his critics might disagree — it’s that his expertise in finance and economics give him a perspective that allows him to explore the costs and benefits of development. He wants to preserve the very characteristics that drew him to Alexandria in the first place.
Ely has had a hand in his fair share of controversies that have arisen in the city. He was vehemently against the construction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, said former mayoral candidate Andrew Macdonald, an ally of Ely’s in the struggle against the city’s proposed waterfront redevelopment.
“He puts his time and energy and money toward issues that he feels affect the quality and character of the town,” Macdonald said. “We’re lucky to have someone like him in the community. I don’t think the city thinks that, but I certainly do.”
Ely has emerged as the leading — and most visible — opponent to City Hall’s designs on the Potomac shoreline. Along with resident Mark Mueller, he reinvented the Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan as the Friends of the Alexandria Waterfront in an effort to protect the riverside even after city council passed the controversial roadmap last year.
“Bert is certainly passionate about his feelings regarding the [waterfront] development, and in many cases we did compromise,” Donley said. “It never seemed to meet Bert’s satisfaction.”
Ely has enjoyed a few successes in the protracted legal and public relations battle. Resident-led lawsuits, which Ely helped organize, have kept zoning and density changes in limbo, prompting Mayor Bill Euille to call for a revote on the plan.
And while city council opted to readdress the issue, it is Ely’s steadfastness that has pushed the waterfront as a continuous matter.
“… although he may be occassionally wrong, he’s never in doubt. And that’s what I love about him,” said former City Councilor David Speck.
But Ely says he’s ready for the fight to be over. He’s tired — along with most of the community, he said — of harping on the issue. Fatigue, though, doesn’t mean he’ll give up.
“I still think [the plan] can be improved upon,” he said. “It ain’t over ’till it’s over.”
His resolve is not lost on those who disagree with him, Donley said.
“I think in this particular case, decisions had been made, and Bert and some of his allies don’t want to give up the fight,” the former vice mayor said. “But I do think it’s been a long and exhaustive process and has had a lot of community input. … It just becomes time where we need to make decisions and move forward.”
Even as he remains committed to staying in the waterfront fight, Ely looks forward to shifting focus back fully to his career. He frequently gives speeches around the country — more than 300 appearances so far — testifies on Capitol Hill and acts as an expert witness in court.
But Ely hopes Old Town will be passed on to future generations as it is now. He doesn’t want to repeat what happened on King Street in the late 1970s and early ’80s: Residents lost the battle against urban renewal then, Ely said, and he doesn’t want to lose again now.
“Once the concrete is poured, irreparable damage is done,” he said. “It’s too much of the wrong thing.”