Analysis: Report will dictate success or failure of waterfront work group

Analysis: Report will dictate success or failure of waterfront work group
Bert Ely, a member of both Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan and the city-created waterfront work group, speaks at a press conference Tuesday at City Hall. (Derrick Perkins)

The waterfront plan work group unveiled their long awaited report Tuesday, setting the stage for a city council vote on the controversial redevelopment plan, and the race to frame the process as a success or failure is fast under way.

Just minutes before work group members were set to publicly discuss their 142-page report, the result of a six-month effort, former Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald lambasted the years-long planning process during a press conference in Market Square.

“We feel once again the city created a process that was bound to fail,” Macdonald told reporters. “We keep getting bogged down in trying to promote a plan a lot of people think have some serious flaws.”

The report, commissioned by the city council in June, highlights and analyzes the longstanding arguments for and against the blueprint approved by the planning commission earlier this year.

Despite several marathon meetings the workgroup struggled to bridge disagreement regarding the three key sites slated for redevelopment — possibly with hotels — in the city’s proposal”: the Robinson Terminals and the Cummings/Turner properties.

But the workgroup harmonized on two major, if not binding ideas: nixing eminent domain as an option to obtain property and creating a group to oversee implantation — whenever it begins.

In the final report, the group fleshed out the arguments of those on either side of the hotel debate, but stopped short of finding a common path forward. During a press conference held inside City Hall, work group members Nate Macek and Bob Wood argued they had fulfilled their charge of identifying areas of agreement and disagreement.

“We clarified the issues and the choices,” Wood said. “I think we provided the appropriate context and clarity on what those choices might be.”

The mere mention of hotels on the waterfront, which require zoning changes allowing for increased density, served as a catalyst for Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan’s creation in the spring. Macdonald cofounded the opposition group with fellow resident Boyd Walker.

Escalating tensions between residents and city officials at the time compelled city council members to delay voting on the proposal. Instead, they created the work group, the members hand selected by Mayor Bill Euille from a pool of candidates chosen by the rest of city council.

The group was charged with, among other goals, identifying and narrowing areas of disagreement. Though they found places to agree — like panning eminent domain as a tool to secure shoreline property — the hot button issue of waterfront hotels remains unresolved.

Whether the group was even designed to reach a consensus is debatable. Member Bert Ely, who shook up proceedings a week ago by announcing plans to write a one-man minority report, said work group consensus was never the point.

“There should never have been any expectations of consensus,” said Ely, also a CAAWP member. “The fact is there are and continue to be some very sharp divisions of opinion about the waterfront plan within the city and that is reflected in the work group.”

But fellow member Elliot Rhodeside believes media reports about the level of disagreement within the group are vastly overstated. They found common ground on about 80 percent of the plan, he said, just not on a vision for the three key redevelopment sites.

After work group members held a press conference of their own Tuesday, outlining their key findings, Macdonald complimented the body for highlighting the sticking points.

But he believes city council would be mistaken to read the group’s report and quickly vote on the plan. It shouldn’t opportunity for the city’s elected officials to say they went the extra mile and wash their hands of it, he said.

“I think the community would be deeply upset if they … approve rezoning and take up the issues raised by [dissenting members] later,” Macdonald said.

City Councilman Paul Smedberg, who served as the work group’s liaison, offered a different narrative. If and when the plan is voted on, which could happen as early as a January 21 council meeting, residents will know officials pulled out all the stops to improve the plan. It’s evident in the months of meetings, community discussions and outreach, he said.

“We would not have gone through this exercise if we weren’t serious about [the waterfront],” Smedberg said. “I reject the notion that this is a failed effort.”

The vote, whether it comes in January or is further delayed, is expected to take place in an election year. Candidates already are lining up for the November showdown, though Macdonald passed on the opportunity to announce his expected candidacy Tuesday.

And while CAAWP will stay apolitical in the coming election, that doesn’t mean individual members won’t hold city council members accountable for their vote on the waterfront plan, Macdonald said.