Our View: Not the last word on the waterfront


In its less pristine days, Old Town Alexandria was home to a place called Heroin Alley. Brothels dotted the southeast quadrant. This is to say, the residential refuge and tourist attraction we know today has not always existed. In 1983 the waterfront gained the Torpedo Factory. Things progressed. Now, in 2011, City Hall is working on a new waterfront plan to further enhance the shoreline.
The plan is not perfect, nor detailed enough for public digestion, according to speakers at a public hearing held last Saturday. The meeting was a necessary outlet for many residents frustrated with Alexandrias new approach to its coastline. 
But some comments were misguided. By zoning for boutique hotels and restaurants, Alexandria is trying to be something it is not, residents said. Planners are trying to recreate National Harbor, they said. Alexandria is selling out its heritage for developers and tourism profits, they said.
Such sentiments, though based in compassion for the community, are unfair.  National Harbor is a manufactured plot of restaurants and mega-hotels, including the 2,000-room Gaylord hotel and convention center, that was nothing more than mud a little over 10 years ago. City Hall is considering three boutique hotels for Alexandrias shoreline, with 150 rooms or less.
The waterfront belongs to residents from Old Town to the West End. And, when tourists visit, it belongs to them, too. The current plan takes this into account by creating acres of additional public space parks and plots for cultural attractions for everyone. There will be more new public space than new commercial development, according to the plan. Unfortunately, this fact has gotten lost in the knee-jerk gasps from residents regarding business development as inherently bad.
Nothing is written in stone, even after the plan a simple concept is passed. The public process comes into play for each and every building proposed, so that residents can weigh in on each restaurant, museum or hotel built.
Perhaps three hotels are too many, and if so, residents will make that clear. What the waterfront does not need is additional residential development like Fords Landing. More housing cordons off the waterfront to the public, giving homeowners their own private slice of the Potomac while the rest of the city gazes at their opaque brick walls.
Further, commercial development creates a sense of vibrancy as do cultural destinations like museums and the Torpedo Factory. Residential development negates vibrancy.   
It is easy to deride the citys planning department as a taxpayer if you disagree with many of the plans attributes. It is your money, and therefore your right, to have a stake in the conversation. However, planners have lived and breathed the waterfronts redevelopment for more than two years with the help of residents and it is nave to think they have not considered the very alternatives residents and city council members have asked them to reexamine.
The waterfront plan, even if passed by council, is not the last word but rather the opening salvo in the ongoing quest for redevelopment.