A new waterfront plan is being prepared for Alexandria’s portion of the Nation’s River. The changes that are being considered are potentially as significant as those that occurred in the 1970s and ’80s when old industrial enterprises were replaced with public parks and art centers, private homes and commercial office buildings.
Before anything happens, however, the city must first adopt a new plan for the entire Potomac River shoreline, from Daingerfield Island to Jones Point. Any redevelopment along this shoreline waterfront must reconcile and rank the views of small business owners, residents, city officials, preservationists and environmentalists, and to some degree the National Park Service, too.
Preservationists want to see all the older buildings protected and reused and the town’s 13,000-year archeological and cultural history showcased in innovative ways wherever possible.Environmentalists, like the late Councilwoman Ellen Pickering, want more park land and trails to be established and the sewers that dump raw sewage into the tidal river when it rains to be disconnected from the storm-water lines.
Residents of Old Town generally prefer a waterfront that has lots of open green spaces along its banks, good views of the river and a tourism and retail industry that does not degrade the quality of life (and property values) or the historic integrity of their low-rise neighborhoods. Business owners want more and better parking for employees and patrons, including those that arrive by water and bus.
These issues have been on the table for a long time but the city’s recent purchase of properties south of Waterfront Park and the growing possibility that one or both of the Robinson Terminal warehouses will be sold in the near future means that we must get ahead of these zoning and land use issues before developers take control of the process. In the end, the city may have to buy more property to prevent certain types of development, increase park land and keep a pier that big ships can tie up to.I’d like to see the wharf at the base of Oronoco Street at historic West’s Point preserved and the land added to the Alexandria Old and Historic District.
The waterfront, first and foremost, should be a public space as far inland as possible, linked by bike and walking trails and accessible by kayak. Hotels, homes, private marinas like those at Harborside and Ford’s Landing and faux-Dutch office complexes like Canal Center should be kept off the waterfront. The footprint of commercial activities like river tours, dinner cruises, and marinas should be kept as small as possible, and not be allowed to encroach upon existing or planned parks. In short, keep these intensive uses where they are and improve them.
The oldest structures can be used again in ways that will fit well with the river and town a maritime museum and education center, and more space for the arts, for example.
As for parking, there will never be enough along the water where it shouldn’t be anyway so we need a plan that effectively fuses together the town’s existing lots and expand the use of electric trolleys before we consider whether to add another garage somewhere else.
We should not try to turn the waterfront into a purely commercial strip in order to increase the tax base, attract tourists and pay for dredging and marina upkeep. On the other hand, if properly developed, it will help our small retail shops survive. Property taxes are not likely going to go down because of these changes, but property values will almost certainly decline if we don’t make the right decisions.
Together with the Potomac, which is a recreational and ecological jewel, the waterfront is one of Alexandria’s most precious historic assets. Now is the time to participate in the planning process if you aren’t already involved, to ensure that your voice is heard too.
Andrew H. Macdonald is a former vice mayor of Alexandria.