Officials move forward with waterfront flood mitigation project

By Derrick Perkins (Image/City of Alexandria)

Would a six-foot bulwark along the city’s waterfront end Old Town’s embarrassing tradition of flooding with every major storm? City officials say yes, but not all residents are sold.

Part of the controversial waterfront redevelopment plan, the flood mitigation efforts — overshadowed by concerns about construction along the shoreline — largely escaped debate. But with redevelopment projects underway at the Robinson Terminals and along the 200 block of S. Union St., plans to staunch the flood tides and rework the series of waterfront parks have taken center stage.

Officials believe adding bulwarks, combined with other measures like raising the land elevation along the river’s edge and building pump stations, will stop much of the flooding that Old Town residents and business owners have long bemoaned. And that would eliminate one of the city’s most vexing reoccurring problems, said City Councilor Del Pepper when she and her colleagues took up the early designs at Saturday’s public hearing.

“I like what this is doing because at least it is going to address the day-to-day nuisance that we have, that is such an embarrassment with everybody running for their sandbags. It’s really been quite embarrassing,” she said. “And every time there is any kind of flooding … the reporters are right there with their cameras to show it to the entire Northern Virginia region and I’m sure it goes beyond.”

Though most agree the routine flooding must end, several residents remain skeptical of the city’s plan for addressing the decades-old problem. Bert Ely, co-chair of Friends of the Alexandria Waterfront, worried the bulwarks would trap floodwaters in the neighborhood.

“The flood mitigation plan is fundamentally flawed,” he told city councilors Saturday. “It proposes the construction of a flood wall that will effectively create a bathtub that will capture and hold flood waters during severe flood events.”

Officials, though, noted the two pump stations would begin draining the flooded area as soon as the river recedes. Together, they could clear the neighborhood of water in just a few hours, according to city documents.

Flooding was not the only topic of interest Saturday. The project coincides with efforts to redesign the parkland and public space along the river. Late last year, officials brought in OLIN, a well-known architectural firm, to oversee the undertaking.

Despite a plethora of public meetings in recent months, OLIN’s early designs for the waterfront have drawn a great deal of scrutiny. Even strong supporters of the waterfront plan expressed reservations about everything from a proposed kayak launch to public boat slips along the shoreline.

“[This plan] still lacks what I would call an Alexandria soul,” said resident Bob Wood. “I don’t believe there’s a feature that makes these spaces uniquely or even notionally Alexandria. … We have made a beautiful, generic space that would be right at home along any shoreline.”

That there is no cost estimate for either undertaking also worried residents. Officials said the March decision by the Old Dominion Boat Club to relocate its waterfront building — thus freeing up space at the foot of King Street for a public plaza — threw a wrench in their calculations. They expect to return to city council with a better idea of the cost in the fall.

Saturday’s hearing largely focused on just a small portion of the waterfront and, responding to criticism to the designs, Mayor Bill Euille noted of the project remained in the early planning stages. He called for residents to stay involved in the likely multiyear process.

“The [response] today certainly made clear … the importance of this,” he said, “but, yet again, we still have at least a minimum of two years … to continue to work together and solve this and we are committed to doing just that.”

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