The Alexandria waterfront plan and the public discourse that got us this plan are the stuff of myths. Just last week Mayor Bill Euille was quoted as saying that the two parties “the city and the public” are not very far apart when it comes to the basic framework for a “new” waterfront plan. Anyone following this fiasco would have to chuckle at this interpretation of the situation, if it wasn’t so outrageous, so far from the truth, so disrespectful to anyone who disagrees with the city and who has ideas that might make the plan better.
Then there is the blatant effort of the city’s planning department to garner public support for the waterfront plan in anticipation of contentious future public hearings. The message is clear: politics matter more than meaningful public discourse.
Another myth is that because the city has held lots of meetings, serious debate and real alternatives to key concepts like the future use of the two Robinson Terminal Warehouse sites has occurred. It has not. Talk is cheap. Valid public concerns have been ignored in order to push through zoning that will enable developers to create a more commercial waterfront, like a hotel at the foot of Oronoco Street for example.
But what about the recommendations of the history and art groups? Are they in the draft plan? Yes, in principle, and yes a lot of citizens worked hard on these concepts, but they might as well be afterthoughts. How will these ideas actually be implemented? Are they the economic foundation for the plan? Are we really going to build a seaport museum where the real historic life of this old port can be brought to life in imaginative. hands-on ways? No one knows.
Then there are all these new public amenities (like docks) that are supposed to be paid for by all the vibrant “mixed-use” development. What could possibly be so bad about townhomes and hotels and restaurants on the waterfront, say planners? I can think of many things, but that question has never been discussed in a serious way. Why not more parks, a museum and art venues in their place?
The plan’s supporters believe that so-called by-right development at these two paper warehouses would be worse, and that new, much denser uses that include hotels are the proper way forward. Anything else is too expensive, they say. Are we this unimaginative as a community? I don’t think so. There are other options if we take the time to look closely.
The present plan gives us the open space that we were promised in the 1980s, when the city decided to rezone the waterfront for mixed-use development. These earlier agreements require developers of the warehouses to set aside some open space along the water, but nothing more. The new zoning will allow hotels to be built on the waterfront and a restaurant to be erected in Waterfront Park. This development will put more raw sewage into the river and require expensive flood mitigation measures. Planners now say that hotels are welcoming, while townhouses sever us from the water. Another myth.
This plan does not have the support of the community. It’s the stuff of myths.
The writer is former vice mayor of Alexandria.