The current waterfront planning process can seem overwhelming at times, with various currents of opinion and the range of subjects up for discussion. It is important to remember that a plan embodies the process as much as the final document. So, in order to make sense of the citys current undertaking, it might help to look at the sequence leading to Alexandrias first waterfront plan, all of which occurred 1977 to 1984 while I was planning director.
The state of the waterfront in 1977, when the planning process began, was horrendous.
Access to the shore was blocked by decaying industrial relics, such as the Texaco tank farm in what is now Oronoco Bay Park and the Ford Plant at Fords Landing. The Torpedo Factory had sat empty since the end of World War II, and arsenic was leaching out of the grounds occupied by a weed-killer factory. There was an obvious need to find solutions.
And so the plan began with the input of all the stakeholders. Ten general waterfront policies arose from the inputs of citizen groups, the National Park Service, land owners,= and environmental groups. These policies, including a continuous pedestrian promenade and the preservation of the existing shoreline, became the guides for subsequent design and policy efforts. Once these diverse stakeholders agreed on the 10 policies, Alexandrias planning department staff and the National Park Service each drafted three alternatives, which were eventually edited and whittled down to one.
Meanwhile, the city began acquiring land, mostly through donations and land swaps, for the plans eventual implementation. By laying the groundwork for eventual changes along the waterfront, the plan was given teeth, and a way to succeed. While the planning process was delving into the nitty-gritty late stages of design and policy-making, the more general parts of the plan were already being implemented. Therefore the planning process and its implementation were mutually reinforcing, as changes could be made to later parts of the plan based on the outcome of early actions.
What made this plan so successful was the will behind it. Stakeholders were invited into the process very early on, eventually directing it. It is what I call a consensus plan. This will for the plan to succeed was also shown in the steady implementation of the 10 principles, creating a vibrant waterfront. The before-and-after is stunning: From toxic industries to continuous parks and public access, the plan very quickly transformed Alexandria into a place enjoyable to its residents, but also an attraction for people from all over the D.C. metro area and beyond.
For the most part, the current planning effort is an embellishment of the 1982 plan, adding details where the plan has not yet been completely implemented. One major departure from the 1982 plan is the new piers and docking facilities in front of the foot of King Street and the Torpedo Factory. The current plan differs from the 1982 plan in terms of process. The 1982 plan was fully vetted with all stakeholders and was known to be implementable before the city council was asked to approve it.
The new plans capital improvements will be costly and will require inter-jurisdictional agreements and permits from various federal agencies, as well as an agreement with the Old Dominion Boat Club and other landowners. These agreements are far from being obtained: In many cases, only preliminary contacts with the relevant organizations have been made; in others, there is clear disagreement.
The current draft waterfront plan does not lack a vision, but rather a realistic implementation strategy. I hope that before the plan is presented for approval, an accompanying implementation strategy based on preliminary agreements with key stakeholders and a realistic financing plan will be developed and presented.
Without that commitment to implementation, the plan is unlikely to be more than a vision. This would be sad, as Alexandria has a truly beautiful waterfront, and it will be wonderful to see it further improved.