Waterfront plan offers community little to celebrate

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As a native Alexandrian, I have seen how efforts to cleanup the Potomac over the last 40 years have revitalized the towns historic waterfront and neighborhoods, indeed the entire town. Not surprisingly, the publics thirst for waterfront access has grown steadily over the same time period. Today, the waterfront is an even more precious public resource than it was in the 1970s when the National Park Service helped the city develop a land-use plan for this historic gateway to the nations capital. 

In November 1982, the city adopted its first waterfront master plan. From the beginning, the city thought the waterfront should be a mixture of residential, commercial and public uses. It expected the federal government which claims title to all lands east of the 1791 high-water mark to acquire all of the necessary land to create a continuous waterfront park system through litigation and settlement agreements with private landowners. This strategy resulted in the preservation of significant shoreline open space, but it also enabled private landowners like the Washington Post, which owns the Robinson Terminal Warehouse Corporation, to convert their sizeable waterfront holdings into future development sites. 

That future is now and there is talk of building hotels and restaurants on one or both of these historic waterfront points. By my calculation, The Post is required to preserve about 0.9 acres at the Oronoco Street warehouse site and 0.8 acres at the Strand site. For comparison, Point Lumley Park is about 0.4 acres. Townhomes, restaurants, and hotels can be built on the remaining 5 or so acres. Is this the direction we want to take in 2010? 

How will this plan increase public use and enjoyment of the waterfront and river? The planners and consultants who drafted this document, with some public input, think that hotels, unlike townhomes, can be active and welcoming to the public. (Are they kidding?)

They also beleive the waterfront needs more restaurants, including one that will loom over Waterfront Park, on land that is part of an earlier scenic easement. And parking should be improved, planners say. 

Permeable paving and native plants will not protect the Potomac alone. They will not offset the pollution that will be generated by new buildings, like hotels. They will have to be connected to Old Towns combined storm water and sewer system which discharges raw sewage into the river, in violation of state and federal environmental laws, every time it rains hard. Is it really cost effective or environmentally sound to build anything new on a floodplain?

Where is all the new open space in this plan? We should also be talking about purchasing, for more appropriate public uses, that part of the Robinson Terminal that can be developed. It would be an investment in our waterfront and in our quality of life, as important as funding public transportation. 

To its credit, the city bought several shoreline parcels along the Strand a few years back, but its anybodys guess at this point how they will be used.

Before we can move forward in the planning process, we must reconcile conflicting concepts and turn generic ideas into something more concrete and visionary. How do we intend to preserve the architectural remnants of Alexandrias seaport history, create museums, retain art venues and tell the history of the town and nation through the arts? How do hotels make the waterfront more attractive? And so on. 

The citys plan to hold one final open house and meeting on December 13, before releasing a draft small area plan in January 2011, is a recipe for failure. Citizens, art groups, and preservationists have tried to show how we might connect the waterfront to the rest of Alexandria. Lets give them a chance to do just that.

The writer is a lifelong Alexandrian and former vice mayor of the city.

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