Old Town is a battlefield. The fight pits supporters of commercial development along the waterfront to increase Alexandrias vibrancy against those who believe that such growth will make our historic seaport a much less attractive place to live, work and visit.
Signs are appearing in windowpanes and in front yards all over Old Town with messages indicating that residents feel something authentic about Alexandria is endangered. These signs contain captions reminiscent of an earlier campaign: Dont let Alexandria become another Georgetown. One new sign is in the shape of a lovely star. It is being handed out by the Waterfront Alliance and says Keep Alexandria Authentic. Another, that carries the logo of the Greater Alexandria Preservation Alliance, reads Dont Rezone the Waterfront. (Preserve it for its other historic and cultural values.) Ive heard that someone is about to start handing out a bumper sticker that says Dont BRAC the Waterfront, in obvious reference to the planning fiasco that has West Enders up in arms.
The signs speak to a deeper question: what are the qualities that we want to preserve? Is it the memory of Alexandrias past that is preserved in the architecture of two historic districts? Is it less obvious things like the Aquia Creek sandstone the dinosaur-era volcanic sandstone that forms lintels and sometimes steps? Or is it other things like the relatively pedestrian and pet-friendly nature of Old Town, its historic ambiance and small town feel? Is it the ability to walk to a local restaurant or visit one of the many small shops that are part of the Boutique District, King Street and the waterfront?
I suspect it is all of these things, since they support a sense of place and sustain a particular quality of life. So, what are some of the threats?
Too many noisy and polluting tour buses, too many tourists and the push for projects that will increase the height and mass of new buildings like the proposed Harris Teeter grocery store on South Pitt Street, or the prospect of three 150-room hotels on the waterfront?
We should demand that elected officials and city planners, who work for the taxpayers, take into account all these factors before they leap on the revenue bandwagon. There is no reason, and indeed it is incredibly shortsighted, to say that waterfront development must pay for the supposed public improvements, if that development harms the waterfront and Alexandria generally.
Residents in the West End are engaged in an effort to protect their community from the impact of new development and the related transportation fixes that are often no more than a backdoor attempt to encourage yet more (bad) development. Old Town and Rosemont residents, as well as other citizens, are trying to come up with an alternative waterfront plan this summer because they cannot rely on the city council or the citys planning department to do what we have asked them to do.
Are these all signs that residents oppose any new development? No. But their appearance is an indication that many citizens are not pleased by what they see as a city council that often seems out of touch with its constituents.
The writer is co-chair of Citizens for An Alternative Waterfront Plan.