Opinion: Remove politics from waterfront equation, build consensus by delaying the plan

Opinion: Remove politics from waterfront equation, build consensus by delaying the plan
(File photo)

To the editor:

Last week’s editorial (“Sprinting toward an arbitrary finish line on the waterfront”) asks the proverbial $64 question (or more likely the $64 million question): Why exactly does city council have to approve a waterfront plan now? Why can’t it wait for consensus to develop?

Moreover, the local Democrat Party’s decision to hold a June primary means the city council will vote during the election season. In terms of accountability, this is good, but what happens if the city’s waterfront plan’s supporters are voted out in the June primary or November election. Will there be any meaningful opportunity to undo the plan if it’s approved next month?

If a consensus can’t be reached and city council approves its plan, either it should have an effective date 15 months hence to afford time for repeal if plan supporters are voted out of office or it should be set for contingent referendum in the June primary or November election. Otherwise, all the high-blown rhetoric in 2009 about moving the city election to November to make it “more democratic” was merely a subterfuge to buy enough time to do a sleazy deal on a controversial waterfront plan.

Maybe right now isn’t the right time to approve a plan? Maybe waiting will produce a consensus. Under Dolan v. Tigard, cities are not supposed to exact unrelated amenities in exchange for zoning waivers, so the city’s fear the property owners might win “by-right” development in court might mean losing less leverage than what city hall believes. Making property owners provide amenities in exchange for effectively repealing current zoning, if those property owners are right about the 1992 zoning being illegal, is tantamount to extortion. And if the property owners are wrong, why should we give up on the 1992 zoning when there is not a consensus to revise it?

Why not instead let the high-stakes game play out? Let the property owners pursue their court case and let the courts decide. Give Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan “intervener” status or find some other way to involve the CAAWP in the litigation. If the property owners prevail in court and win by-right development, an entire generation of civic leadership will stand discredited and will no longer be taken seriously.

When confronted with this prospect, they might agree to some compromise.  And if the property owners lose in court, they might have to voluntarily offer more amenities than otherwise, such as a river walk, maritime museum, boat-building or a secondary school as part of their boutique hotels.

– Dino Drudi