Duo sees land swap as possible waterfront compromise

By Derrick Perkins (File Photo)

Could solving the longstanding dispute over the Old Dominion Boat Club’s waterfront parking lot be as simple as a land swap? Christine Bernstein and Jody Manor think so.

The pair’s plan would see City Hall trade the weatherworn Beachcomber building for the entirety of the boat club’s property at the foot of King Street. The deal would let officials transform an area they describe as the crown jewel of a redeveloped waterfront.

At the same time, the private group would have the opportunity to build a new riverside clubhouse just a few blocks away.

“We were trying to think of a compromise, so we didn’t have so much civic acrimony,” said Bernstein, who serves alongside Manor on the city’s waterfront commission. “We felt that there had to be a better solution.”

A better solution than eminent domain, that is. The continual negotiations for the group’s parking lot — and a portion of its nearby property — are ramping up again after Mayor Bill Euille used the prospect of seizing the land to bring club officials back to the table.

Under the controversial waterfront redevelopment plan, the parking lot would become a public plaza known as Fitzgerald Square. Creating the space would realize City Hall’s goal of a continuous public walkway along the Potomac.

Though city officials previously referred to eminent domain as a tool of last resort to secure the land, Euille changed course in October, telling reporters that the time had come to settle the issue. Before that, in June, the mayor sent a nine-point plan for ending the conflict to club leadership; he waited months without an answer before raising the prospect of eminent domain.

Officials turned the question over to the public last month. Bernstein and Manor pitched their proposal at a November 19 hearing dedicated solely to the issue.

“We’re here tonight to talk about options,” Manor told city councilors. “We feel strongly about avoiding the time and expense of the endless litigation that the use of eminent domain would cause — but, more importantly, the damage to our community.”

AN OLD IDEA RESURFACES

Though innovative, Manor and Bernstein’s compromise plan has been floated in the past as a possible overarching solution to the friction between City Hall and the boat club.

“Been there, done that,” Euille told the pair after their time at the speaker’s podium was up last month. “That’s been on the table. We’ve looked at a lot of global solutions. … We think we’ve exhausted a lot of options, but there’s still room and opportunity to talk.”

Manor and Bernstein do not pretend that the concept of a land swap began with them. Boat club members have kicked it around for years, Manor said.

The two argue that the proposal deserves a second look, especially given the expense — and expected protracted legal battle — if City Hall invokes eminent domain.

“The cost of not only time but money to go through the litigation that will result from eminent domain is tremendous,” said Bernstein. “It’s not a very efficient process nor do we think the outcome would be positive for the city.”

Frank Fannon, a boat club member and former city councilor, recalls in-depth talks about a possible land swap years ago.

“I’m speaking as an individual, but I don’t see a major reason why boat club membership would be opposed to a new building at the foot of Prince Street,” Fannon said, referring to the city-owned Beachcomber property. “I don’t see too many people who would be too upset with having a new, state-of-the-art clubhouse on the Alexandria waterfront.”

TICKING CLOCK

After nearly four hours of testimony last month, the Alexandria City Council opted to extend negotiations with the boat club for another 90 days before revisiting eminent domain.

But that’s not the only deadline hanging over Bernstein and Manor’s heads: Officials are reviewing proposals for rehabilitating the Beachcomber.

Last year, city councilors turned the question of what to do with the ramshackle waterfront building over to the private sector. Bringing back its glory days as a restaurant was at the top of the list.

More than a year later, officials are evaluating at least three concepts for the building. If the city signs off on any of the proposals, it would mean an early end to Bernstein and Manor’s compromise.

While details of the proposals remain under wraps, Manor believes a restaurant is a bad fit for the Beachcomber, especially compared to the land swap plan. He pointed to the building’s location and condition as reasons for his pessimistic outlook.

“I’m not the only person in the restaurant business, but let’s be honest: People line up to lose their money in this industry,” said Manor, who owns Bittersweet and the recently launched Waterfront Market, which is adjacent to the boat club. “That building seems to need a lot of repairs. … It just doesn’t seem to make good economic sense.”

It’s an opinion not shared by experts with the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, which is working with City Hall to evaluate the proposed business plans for the site. While Val Hawkins, head of the partnership, would not go into details about any of the proposals, he said a restaurant remains a viable option.

“The right one, the right restaurant with the right food and the right prices [would work],” he said. “If it’s done well, absolutely [it will work]. It’s a great location. But then again, our analysis of the economics of things will tell us more.”
Hawkins admitted that there are differing views on what should — and could — happen at the Beachcomber. But city officials have final say, he said.

And that’s whom Bernstein and Manor are turning to, asking that they put plans for the Beachcomber on hold until negotiations with the boat club finish.

“We would like to see a delay, because [making a decision on the Beachcomber] would just complicate matters,” Bernstein said.

THE TIME IS NOW

After years of debate and legal wrangling over the waterfront redevelopment plan, the proposal is undeniably in the implementation phase.

At least one hotel project is in the works: Carr Hospitality has a bid to turn a portion of the 200 block of S. Union St. into a boutique lodging house. And the Graham Holdings Co. — then known as the Washington Post Co. — reached a deal to sell the Robinson Terminals to developers in September.

In October, residents met famed architect Laurie Olin, the man charged with transforming the public land along the river. With Olin’s firm busy shaping ideas for the future waterfront, Bernstein and Manor believe the timing is perfect to reach a deal for the entirety of the boat club’s property.
Perhaps as importantly, the two saw the hard feelings of the waterfront redevelopment plan fight begin to abate with Olin’s arrival. The city must capitalize on the détente, the two argue.

Eminent domain threatens to reignite the old feud, Bernstein said.

“I think part of what [drives] us, we really were front and center on the civic discord,” she said, referencing their time on the waterfront commission. “We don’t want to revisit that when people are starting to get excited about these ideas [for the waterfront].”

Though the pair’s proposal got a lukewarm reception at City Hall last month, they are not giving up the ship. Bernstein and Manor plan to continue talking about their plan for a compromise to city officials and boat club members as negotiations between the two begin again.

“We were hoping that this would stir the pot and see if disparate voices could come together on a solution,” Bernstein said.

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