Editorial: On the waterfront, knee-jerk reactions are not solutions


The waterfront plan work group hadn’t yet released its long-awaited, 142-page dossier of recommendations for improving the city’s blueprint for the Potomac shoreline before critics were rallying, once more, against anything and everything connected to City Hall.

Led by former Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald, Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan upstaged what should have been a time of careful consideration — the least those eight brave souls who sacrificed hours of their lives tweaking the plan deserve — with political one-upmanship.

We respect CAAWP’s right to agitate against a proposal it feels strongly against, but the time for fiery rhetoric is at an end. We advised city officials in these pages against rushing toward adoption of the waterfront plan. Now we turn to residents: Get moving.
You’ve stopped a waterfront plan once seemingly destined for a quick city council vote. You’ve forced City Hall to consider alternatives. You’ve pitched homegrown ideas of your own. Well done.

If CAAWP is interested in preserving the waterfront — a noble goal, no argument there — it would have already begun pursuing pragmatic solutions. It’s easy to blame city officials for not bargaining with the Robinson Terminals Co. for its much sought-after waterfront property, either through sale or donation.

But what’s stopping you?

CAAWP released a competing waterfront plan emphasizing parks and cultural centers in October. No one disagrees with the document’s goals, but the oft-cited problem is the city, frankly, can’t afford it.

If City Hall will not, then you must. Form a nonprofit organization and contact the Robinson Terminals’ owner, The Washington Post Co., for negotiations. Find those wealthy donors and individual contributors and raise money for museums, parks and art centers.

Macdonald told the Times on Tuesday that CAAWP organizers are considering forming a Friends of the Waterfront group, but said they felt it was the city’s job to negotiate with riverside landowners. And so the multiyear waterfront debate is distilled into a simple question: What can City Hall do for us? The question should be: What could we do for ourselves?

CAAWP has proven its ability to organize, shape the debate, affect change and leverage the expertise of residents to draw up an alternate proposal. Now it’s time for CAAWP to move from knee-jerk reactions to proactive solutions. The clock is ticking.



  1. Do you really blame the CAAWP for their response? Personally, I have very little trust or faith in the City Council’s ability to do the right thing. The elections can’t come soon enough as far as I am concerned.

  2. Your comments are timely, and that may just be the point. The timing imposed by the City’s process, and as you noted earlier “rush to vote”, does put a practical constraint on transforming the situation via establishing a new independent nonprofit and funding it soon enough to make a tangible and relevant change to the current City plan.

    The City’s plan process has been a concerted march towards hotels on the waterfront. This was first made evident when the excellent, and “world class” development process managed by an outside consulting firm, was deliberately stripped by the City of a critical step. That key stage of the plan process would have brought forth a range of alternatives – including their economic impacts, which would have been presented to both City Hall and citizens, alike. It would have put options on the table for everyone to think about and evaluate. Without this crucial step the current plan was written as the only thing the City could do to affordably upgrade the waterfront. Without this mediating step, one which nearly always results in a better plan, a conflict situation was set up by the City.

    There are many positives in your suggestion, and I would recommend that the City form a nonoprofit City Foundation right now to begin to negotiate on this line of strategic thinking. They are in a unique position to succeed within any timeframe they choose to operate in. In fact, the Washington POST has repeatedly said they are in no hurry to settle their suit with the City; and the Cummings status is only a Purchase Agreement, possibly contingent on rezoning. The Turner property is on hold. In essence, by not rezoning the City buys time it can use to make a better plan, a better shared decision. Right now, we are like home buyers who are committed to purchasing the first house they see. We need to do some serious comparative shopping!

    While the Work Group was a good attempt at ironing out differences, it proceeded from the start with only the City’s plan before it. Managing visionary change at the level of bullet points, as any highly qualified business person or mediator will tell you, is a nonstarter. It is like offering a banquet with only knives and forks on the table. It is like expecting that Steve Jobs would have invented the iPod by examining the details of a steam engine. It is to the great credit of the Work Group that they produced anything of the substance and quality that they did.

    A grant from the EPA that could have produced alternatives was missed by the City, and when it was brought to their attention, it was dismissed as occurring at the wrong point in plan development. However, “world class” development plans do not wait to go the “implementation” stage. By doing so, the City once again skirts the issue of visionary change. It also moves the plan to a stage of development that completely misses a large body of important information – traffic, environment, density impact on infrastructure – while continuing to rely on a bank of antiquated decision-making tools.

    The impasse is not unbreachable, and your editorial suggestion is worth pursuing. Approaching the owner of the Washington POST must be done the Mayor – they are peers. This is a peer-to-peer conversation that must start from a position of wanting to achieve a winning solution for all of us. The business world knows this as “shared value”.

    Reaching out with more comprehensive and better information, using current management decision- making tools, and pursuing a win-win just might get us there. Also, asking that participating parties to recuse themselves for conflict of interest and agree to withhold pursuit of development contracts for up to five years after plan approval would make this a truly “world class” waterfront development process.

    I am hopeful an authentic, unique, beautiful and enlivened Old Town waterfront will emerge with a real push towards excellence and away from any hint of mediocrity.