Waterfront plan critics shift focus

By Derrick Perkins (File photo)

After a long and bitter struggle, even the staunchest opponents of the city’s waterfront redevelopment plan admit that they lost the battle to craft the blueprint of the shoreline’s future. But they’re not giving up the ship.

“The plan was just basically words on paper and pretty pictures,” said Bert Ely, a leading member of Friends of the Alexandria Waterfront, which formed out of efforts to first amend and later derail the redevelopment roadmap. “Now we’re really getting into the meat of things. If you will, the plan was preface. Now we’re into the book.”

The shift in strategy comes after a state Supreme Court decision last month that dismissed the most serious legal challenge to the plan. Hopes of nullifying the controversial blueprint died alongside the litigation, leaving critics no choice but to focus on waterfront redevelopment projects as they come forward.

“I think our job as opponents of the hotel developments — and using this model of developing in order to pay for things — is to keep the pressure on city council,” said Boyd Walker, another longtime critic of the plan. “So that this will result in a great waterfront and not just development.”

A HISTORY OF THE OPPOSITION

As city planners shopped around their vision of a revitalized waterfront more than three years ago, community opposition steadily mounted.

Plan proponents have long argued that the waterfront is more of an eyesore, littered with unsightly warehouses and largely unused by the public. After rounds of revisions, the blueprint — at its core — trades density and rezoning for public amenities, like parks and an outdoor amphitheater.

The early debate revolved largely around the scope and scale of the density but became particularly polarizing around the prospect of waterfront hotels. Opponents argued the plan would push Alexandria in the direction of National Harbor, a massive complex visible just across the Potomac.

In November 2011, Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan — the precursor of FAW — released a resident-generated vision of the shoreline. It emphasized creating park space and building museums on the waterfront.

Though the city weighed and later disposed of a similar plan, critics believe it was never given much consideration.

“I think when people look back on this, they will see that no alternatives were actually seriously considered,” said Walker, a leader of CAAWP before launching an unsuccessful bid for city council last year.

With the support of city council, Mayor Bill Euille delayed voting on the waterfront plan in mid-2011 and handpicked a task force to reconcile issues with the blueprint — a move that opponents recall as an early victory for their movement. But ultimately, few critics were happy with the workgroup’s outcome, which still allowed hotels.

As the amended plan again moved toward city council’s final approval early last year, opponents kept up the pressure. On the eve of the blueprint’s passage, they filed a protest petition to force a supermajority vote.

Though officials maintain the petition was invalid, the city’s rejection of the appeal and council’s subsequent 5-2 vote in favor of the plan — one short of a supermajority — set the stage for loads of litigation.

From then on, City Hall waged a bitter legal fight with opponents, one involving multiple cases and courts. Perhaps the most serious challenge stemmed from that initial vote. Critics hoped the state Supreme Court would nullify the plan and force City Hall to begin anew.

While city officials dismissed that idea, they moved ahead with another vote aimed at short-circuiting the legal battle: reapproving the zoning changes in the plan with a supermajority.

Opponents held out hope that the Virginia Supreme Court would hand them a major victory until they got the bad news last month. Because city council had gone ahead with the supermajority vote earlier this year, the issue was moot.

“The Supreme Court decision was clearly a defeat; there’s no question about that,” Ely said.

SHIFTING FOCUS

As opponents grappled with the high court’s ruling, redevelopment along the waterfront re-emerged to take center stage.

Nearly coinciding with the verdict last month was news that The Washington Post Co. had reached a deal to offload the Robinson Terminals, targeted for redevelopment in the waterfront blueprint. Property firms JBG and EYA bought the southern warehouse, while CityInterests purchased the northern property, where the company plans to build a hotel.

And even before the court’s ruling, city officials revealed that they were again in talks with the Old Dominion Boat Club regarding its waterfront parking lot, which is slated to become a public plaza in the plan. Club leadership said it’s weighing the city’s nine-point plan for future negotiations of the property’s sale.

Another hotel project by Washington-based Carr Hospitality for the Cummings and Turner block along South Union Street — already publicly known — remains in the early stages of the city approval process.

In a sign of the changing battleground, waterfront plan opponents packed the board of architectural review’s hearing last month for Carr’s project, pointing out potential problems and highlighting what they consider inconsistencies with city guidelines.

“In a way, the plan is moot. That battle is over and done with, and now we move into what’s actually getting proposed for development,” Ely said. “It’s not that people are just going to stand by idly and let them build what they want.”

Walker — who remains involved in Ely’s group but has taken a less public role — said the shift began as soon as CAAWP morphed into FAW. Their charge and challenge is staying involved in the planning process, he said.

“You obviously can’t stop progress and what the majority of city council wants,” Walker said. “But we certainly can have a lot of input and make sure these projects are done well and make sure the city lives up to its commitments to make improvements along the waterfront.”

LEGAL BATTLE WINDS DOWN

One waterfront lawsuit remains active, and that was a challenge stemming from city council’s second vote on the plan earlier this year. But the litigation focuses more on Alexandria’s byzantine zoning regulations and procedures than the redevelopment roadmap.

The same trio behind the case decided by the state Supreme Court is behind this challenge, which is working its way through circuit court. The lawsuit has its roots in yet another rejected attempt to stay city council’s vote.

“As the new hotels [come forward], it’s even more important now for us to know the process,” said attorney Roy Shannon, who represents the three Old Town women. “We’re going to keep on going through with this until we know what the process is.”

Ely sees that fight as equally important — if not more so — as his group’s efforts to stay on top of the individual development projects.

“Can the planning director, as a matter of practice, just ignore or refuse to accept protest petitions? It’s a process issue that ultimately has citywide effects,” he said. “While the waterfront plan is now established beyond terms of the vote on it, the issue has not gone away. And I have no doubt as development proposals go forward, that there will be a lot of public interaction there.”

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