Editorial: A plan for progress, not ruination

Editorial: A plan for progress, not ruination
(Cat VanVliet)

The waterfront debate will come to a boil when upward of 80 speakers convey their support or consternation for City Hall’s waterfront plan at a public hearing Saturday. At its end, elected officials likely will vote to pass, kill or defer the blueprint.

The Alexandria City Council should pass the draft waterfront plan and move the redevelopment of an underutilized shoreline forward. But we do not agree with every single element of the plan. In this sense, our view parallels that of every Alexandrian.

Three hotels, which the original draft called for, are too many. But the plan now calls only for the prospect of hotels. Compromises have been made with concerned residents and the draft plan now welcomes other uses. Taxpayers do not own the valuable parcels primed for development so the idea they have command over what happens there is wishful thinking. But residents can — and must — influence each development individually through the public process.

The parking issue must be reconciled. City Hall says Old Town’s parking spaces are not used to capacity, but by what standards? Try telling that to Old Town residents and visitors who circle like hawks looking for prey just to park near their home or ditch their cars and enjoy the waterfront. A more vibrant, attractive shoreline will only increase parking space demand. City Hall has a Union Street congestion study planned during the implementation process. This study must be done before developers submit their plans to trasform the waterfront, not during or after it.

Congestion is another unsolved mystery on the waterfront. It is of the utmost importance the Union Street study influences what is built. If it finds a hotel at Robinson Terminal South, for instance, cannot sustain free-flowing traffic, then it cannot be built. It’s as simple as that.

Yet we support the plan. It is a blueprint for progress, not a blueprint for developers to have free reign over the city’s shoreline. The allowable density and height limits have been boosted, but in exchange Alexandrians get developer contributions like open space, public art and historic preservation — as well as tax dollars to pay for enhancements like flood mitigation in Old Town and other projects citywide. And with mixed-use development, residents get a sense of place and vibrancy along the Potomac that’s been lacking for years rather than a grungy food court on the marina.

The waterfront plan puts preservation on a neccessary pedestal. It’s ironic: The commercial development that scares preservationists is the same development that will help pay for historic preservation and learning centers promoting Alexandria’s heritage. The owners of the Cummings/Turners parcels already have submitted plans to the city for restoration of their historic properties.

Finally, by taking eminent domain off the table when it comes to the Old Dominion Boat Club, the waterfront plan treats private land as private land, not an exercise in manifest destiny.

Not everyone will agree on how to balance a hotel, restaurants, increased park/green space, kayak launches, amphitheaters, boutiques, museums, public art, historic ships, piers and, most importantly, an uninterrupted public promenade along the length of the waterfront. But that’s OK because complete harmony is not necessary — a broad outline for the waterfront’s future is. And that’s what Alexandria’s residents will get with the current draft of the shoreline’s future.

Each Alexandrian galvanized by their fierce opposition to the waterfront plan must speak out just as loud when specific development sites go up for debate. Their hard work and loud voices helped shape the waterfront blueprint. Likewise, as the plan moves forward, it will be up to vocal, civically engaged residents and open-eared elected officials to shape specifics with developers through a very involved public process.