Our View – History Repeats Itself

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In 1748 the Virginia legislature petitioned Captain Philip Alexander II for his property, bounded in part by Hunting Creek, so that a prosperous riverfront city could be established. Alexander opposed ceding his land, but cede it he did for the good of what would be called Alexandria, named after the stubborn but principled Captain.

Like the Alexander of old, the Alexandria of today made a tough but admirable decision based on its principles. The city denied IDIs proposal that would have meant high-rise buildings at Hunting Creek and possible affordable housing at Hunting Towers. Captain Alexander was no doubt angry to sell his land, but in doing so, he relieved many around him hoping to prosper. While the city has angered some particularly the residents of Hunting Towers it has made a decision that has pleased many. Even more will be pleased years down the road when Alexandrias colonial character is maintained and reflected by a strong tourism industry.

In this particular case, the possibility of affordable housing took a back seat to definitive historical ambiance. Its impossible to assert that the welfare of human beings is more important than maintaining a distinct look around town, but this is not what the city did; instead, it looked at the long-term what-ifs:

What if the current figures defining affordable housing change by 2012 when IDI finally buys the Hunting Towers property? What if renovation costs end up exceeding the proposed ones? What if theres a better place to build affordable housing more certainly perhaps not along highly desired waterfront property   to be determined by the Housing Master Plan?

The answer to all of these questions, if the Council had accepted the proposal, would have been Tough luck. Officials were right in saying that the commitment was too gargantuan for potentially miniscule or all together negative returns.

However, we see a slight hypocrisy in the argument for historical ambiance.

In Alexandria and across the country, our history tends to be remembered by notions of grandeur more often than the contention-crusted cobwebs of the past. The Braddock East Master Plan was also passed this week, and with it, some very old neighborhoods will cease to exist as we know them: the predominately minority and low-income neighborhoods of Samuel Madden, Andrew Adkins, Ramsey and James Bland. Instead, they will be shrunk and filled in by mixed-use dense development.

The Samuel Madden neighborhood is named after the first African American pastor of the renowned Alfred Street Baptist Church. He used to have a 100-unit public housing complex named after him as well, but at the beginning of this century, the city decided to cut that number in half in lieu of luxury town homes known as Chatham Square. The project was an award-winning one, but at the expense of history, displacement and relocation.

We know there is a task force to monitor the implementation of the Braddock East plan, but we want to know if the Board of Architectural Review, The Planning Commission and all of the history-oriented departments in Alexandria gave equal heed to these historical neighborhoods as it did to the Hunting Creek area. In one case, development seems to have won and in another, history has triumphed.

We hope that 100 years from now, when this century is considered history, such decisions will be looked upon as fondly as Captain Philip Alexanders decision is seen now.

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