Almost two years after the waterfront planning process began, the city council, if not the planning department, finally recognized that the draft plan has some serious flaws that need some careful analysis. Not everyone opposes this plan business leaders do not but residents by and large are skeptical of its benefits and are very concerned about how so much new development will affect their quality of life or improve the waterfront.
The message most residents sent to council at the May 14 public hearing on the waterfront plan was on one hand very simple, and on another very complex.
We want a different waterfront plan, one that looks nothing like National Harbor and more like a historic seaport, albeit a modern one, the speakers said. We want to better understand the impact that development will have on the community. We want more alternatives, which might include no hotels, very small hotels, fewer restaurants, much more parkland, and space for other public uses like the Art League, a maritime museum and the Seaport Foundations program for at-risk kids. We want to better understand the pros and cons of all these redevelopment options, not just the single one that the plan offers up, they said.
There was a consensus of sorts, I think, among opponents of the plan that it makes little sense to expect waterfront development to pay for all of the public benefits we might want here, especially if that plan harms the community and the waterfront it is supposed to be saving.
But when the primary goal appears to be to maximize the revenue that will be generated by private development projects like hotels, the balance between a private and a public waterfront that is affordable, environmentally sustainable, open and has a historic foundation, can easily be lost.
Council members instructed the planning staff to look into a number of issues, which if properly studied have the potential to greatly improve the waterfront plan.
Vice Mayor Kerry Donley wants to see the financial impact of all the options laid out clearly. The flood mitigation plan was another of his issues. No one is sure what is being proposed and if it makes sense.
Councilman Paul Smedberg asked for more information about the impact of current and proposed zoning on the community. Traffic and parking are big issues and may limit development or at least show why some commercial development options such as hotels are better or worse than townhomes, or offices.
Councilwoman Alicia Hughes wants to see all these other alternatives discussed, as residents most clearly do.
Councilman Frank Fannon thinks that the current traffic situation on Union Street is a fiasco today, and that we need more information about history in the plan. He also likes more passive-use parks.
Councilman Rob Krupicka wants to know more about the tradeoffs that will have to be made if we have less development and more parks, etc.
Its a shame that it has taken the city council so long to realize that this plan has so many unanswered questions and seems so focused on promoting new commercial development along a shoreline that has great public value. The hearing showed, however, that residents expect city leaders to look at the plan more closely and, most importantly, give residents time to review the new data.
But will they instead rush to make a decision before that can happen? For the sake of Alexandria, we must hold them to their promise not to do so.
The writer is former vice mayor of Alexandria and a member of Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan.