Our View: A sea of change for Old Town

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Sometimes change comes so slowly it’s almost imperceptible.

Like beach erosion or the growth of a child, those who witness it daily don’t see the microscopic alterations. But over time, the small changes add up.

Other times, everything shifts all at once, sometimes in unforeseen ways and from unanticipated sources. When a swift transformation takes place, it’s often all we can do to keep from being thrown from the raft. Purposeful steering is not an option.

What Old Town is now experiencing is, confusingly, a mixture of the two. A dramatic change is taking place in Alexandria’s most historic neighborhood, yet it’s happened so quietly that many residents are unaware that the Old and Historic District is being transformed.

One year ago, Asana Partners owned no properties in Old Town. Twelve short months later, they possess 21. While Alexandria business leaders have expressed excitement about the potential improvement that extensive ownership by a deep-pocketed company may bring, no one knows for sure if this will be good or bad for the Port City.

With so many establishments controlled by Asana, one company suddenly has the power to significantly alter the look and feel of Old Town. Known for cobblestones, history, old homes and our artists’ colony in the Torpedo Factory, Old Town has traditionally attracted an older demographic, along with tourists.

During a panel discussion held Tuesday at the Chamber of Commerce annual meeting, Asana executives said they plan to open stores in their properties, which are largely concentrated on King Street, that will attract a younger, hipper millennial crowd to Old Town. Two immediate questions present themselves: First, can Old Town really compete with Georgetown, The Wharf, the Eastern Market and other areas in the District and Northern Virginia for millennials? Second, do we want to?

It wasn’t that long ago that the freely spoken slogan in Alexandria was “Don’t Georgetownize Old Town.” What this meant was, in general terms, “We don’t want to overdevelop and bring in a partying, brawling crowd that will ruin our neighborhood.” Has that sentiment changed? Because if it hasn’t, then Old Town residents are in for an unpleasant surprise.

Unlike city-driven proposals opposed by many Old Town residents, such as the now-abandoned Business Improvement District idea, Asana is a private company not beholden to voters.

Changes it may bring about will not be subjected to public hearings or resident input. Though the company has a good track record of working with the communities it moves into, it is not required to do so.

A revitalization of Old Town, through freshened storefronts and new retailers, brought about by a company intent on being a conscientious civic partner is almost certainly going to be more good than bad for Alexandria.

But change is most certainly coming – and change is something that many in Old Town don’t do very well.

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