Waterfront plan approved: Live blogging Saturday’s public hearing

Waterfront plan approved: Live blogging Saturday’s public hearing

9:01 a.m.

The public’s last chance – potentially – to weigh in on the controversial waterfront plan is set to get underway soon and we’ll be live blogging throughout the day. If you couldn’t get a seat in City Hall or planned on spending a cold, grey Saturday doing something else, check back periodically for our updates.

9:07 a.m.

A little background for those of you coming new to the debate (Times’ reporter Derrick Perkins met at least one resident trying to get caught up outside City Hall this morning). This is likely not the first nor the last time city leaders have debated the future of the waterfront. The work that’s gone into the most recent vision for the Potomac shoreline began in earnest about two years ago. After months of community meetings, debate and brainstorming, planning department staff unveiled the rough draft plan in February of 2010.

Without getting lost in the weeds (and boy, are there some weeds on this one), the plan leverages developer interest for public amenities. In return for increased density at the Cummings/Turner properties as well as Robinson Terminal North and Robinson Terminal South, officials hope to expand parkland, add a continuous walkway along the river and actually you should just check this nifty graphic to figure it out.

Now what’s angered plan opponents is the city’s apparent interest in luring hotels to one or more of the above mentioned sites. That’s not the only issue they take with the plan, but it’s the big one.

To get back to our narrative, after a little more editing, the city’s blueprint went before the planning commission shortly before the start of summer. Commission members approved it, setting the stage for a city council vote. About this time opponents got organized and founded Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan (CAAWP), led by former Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald and community activist Boyd Walker.

With tensions heating up, city council unexpectedly shelved the plan in June. Instead of voting on the proposal, they moved to form a waterfront plan work group comprised of residents handpicked by Mayor Bill Euille. The group worked from August until December with the goal highlighting areas of disagreement or agreement and narrowing differences where possible.

To further muddy the water, CAAWP released a dueling plan in late October, calling for the city to – and we’re being general here – craft a parks and museums-type proposal.

Though the city’s waterfront work group released a 142-page report, flush with many recommendations, not long ago they largely punted on the density question (see: Robinson Terminals). Still, the group suggested the city put less emphasis on hotels at those sites.

And that’s how we got to where we are today.

9:30 a.m.

Before we get started, remember to follow @DerrickTPerkins on Twitter for updates. Feel free to pitch questions to him or leave them in the comment section. We’ll get around to answering them if possible.

9:37 a.m.

For more background reading on the waterfront debate click here. You can check out CAAWP’s plan here. Want a little history on the waterfront? Get it here. If you’re looking for the city’s proposal head here. We’ll post the important documents on our site when time avails itself in the day.

10:02 a.m.

“We want to have an Alexandria discussion in the Alexandria way… this your opportunity and we’re ready to listen to you.” – Mayor Bill Euille to officially open the waterfront portion of today’s agenda. He also indicated city council is ready to “take action” on the plan.

The mayor went on to express his disappointment in the “discourse.” It’s not the first time city officials have leveled that charge at plan opponents. Back in June, Vice Mayor Kerry Donley and City Councilman Paul Smedberg both decried what they saw as vitriol in the debate.

“We’ve made some very tough decisions, but this is one that has probably had the, well, the discourse hasn’t been appropriate and that’s just not right, particularly how the facts have been presented,” Euille said. “The time has come for us to make a decision and the decision that will be made will not please every single person in this city.”

10:14 a.m.

A protest petition filed by waterfront plan opponents does not apply to the proposed density changes and is therefore not valid, said Farol Hamer, the city’s planning director.

CAAWP presented their petition to city officials on Thursday. By their logic, the petition forces a city council supermajority vote on the plan for approval.

We’re not going to get into the nitty-gritty legal aspects of this, but the “waterfront plan” is actually two separate proposals: a map amendment and a text amendment. The text amendment, not the map amendment, covers the density changes. According to City Attorney Jim Banks, CAAWP used a mechanism by which residents can challenge “map amendments” to instead challenge a “text amendment.”

There is no way by which residents can force a supermajority vote for a text amendment, he told the Times on Thursday.

10:32 a.m.

City staff recommends against holding up the waterfront plan for the GenOn site, said Farol Hamer, planning director.

The GenOn site has become another flashpoint in the waterfront debate. Residents have agitated against the polluting power plant for years – a completely separate issue from the waterfront discussion until GenOn announced plans to close the facility by October 2012 in the fall.

Waterfront plan critics say it’s foolish to try and craft a comprehensive vision for the Potomac shoreline and leave out the parcel, even though no one – except maybe GenOn – knew the plant would close when the process began. The Old Town Civic Association weighed in earlier in January, calling on city council to include the site, nestled along the banks of the Potomac, in the plan.

Hamer told city council the GenOn site will be planned out in a separate process and involve significant community input, specifically from neighbors and nearby civic associations.

10:55 a.m.

“What you’re proposing is a far, far cry from what exists across the river at National Harbor.” – Vice Mayor Kerry Donley.

The vice mayor made the remark as city staff continue to brief the council on the waterfront proposal. It’s not the first time Donley has made the point. Indeed, it’s one city staff has made for months now, albeit less directly. The gleaming hotel, convention center and residential complex across the Potomac from Alexandria has loomed large over the waterfront debate.

When plan opponents aren’t comparing the city’s waterfront proposal to BRAC-133 (the Washington Headquarters Services buildings in Mark Center), they’re drawing comparisons to the Gaylord creation in Maryland. It’s important to note that while the city’s most recent reiteration of the waterfront plan allows hotels at the three sites slated for redevelopment, they would be capped at 150 rooms each.

And at least one site, the Cummings/Turner property, doesn’t appear to be headed that way anyway.

11:15 a.m.

The first several speakers, as the public hearing portion of the day gets under way, have come out against the waterfront proposal. Of course, the first three speakers were Townsend Van Fleet, CAAWP co-founder Andrew Macdonald and CAAWP member Bert Ely, all noted plan opponents.

Macdonald blasted city staff for making revenue a priority in the plan. The focus should have been on what’s best for Alexandria, not what’s most economical, he said.

It’s not the first time he or other plan opponents have made that case. One of the key selling points – or at least that’s what city staff seemed to think at the time – was that the proposed amenities would be paid for with increased tax revenue and developer dollars. The plan would pay for itself over time, officials said.

“There is a place for money in this vision, but it’s not the starting point and it should never have been the starting point,” Macdonald told city council.

11:36 a.m.

We have our first waterfront supporter speaking, though as with the opponents, it’s no surprise. Val Hawkins, of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership and a 35 year resident of Old Town, threw his weight behind the plan.

“Since April 2009, the waterfront plan has been exhaustively studied, debated and commented on,” he said. “In my view, this plan will not change the historic nature of the waterfront – if done right.”

He’s previously spoken in favor of the city’s proposal at other public venues.

11:45 a.m.

A quick, dirty and blatantly unscientific poll taken on Twitter (follow us at @AlexTimesNews) shows residents currently not sitting in the pews inside city council chambers are looking for some kind of closure.

@KaySellsVA says: “Just DO something! This is wearing me out”

Other’s simply wrote “yes.” But reader @Knerq had an interesting take: “[W]ith so much contention, would voting now represent the will of the people or just those in power??

Got a different opinion? Let us know in the comments section or on twitter. You can bug our “waterfront” reporter Derrick Perkins directly at @DerrickTPerkins.

12:14 p.m.

Mayor Bill Euille reminded the packed chamber audience to be respectful after shouts and applause followed the words of resident Bill Reagan, who took the day’s first real shots at CAAWP. He described them as using tactics directly out of the “Michele Bachmann playbook.”

“They’ve run a brilliant propaganda campaign,” he said. “Just keep looking for any facts you can discredit and distort to ruin your opponents.”

Again, this is something that’s been said before, though much, much, much less bombastically. It clearly struck a nerve with some residents.

Reagan is, of course, in favor of the plan. The current waterfront is an ” embarrassment,” he said.

12:31 p.m.

Boyd Walker, previously mentioned in this live blog as one of CAAWP’s founders, made the case to city council that Alexandria’s waterfront is at a crucial turning point.

“If you vote today you will double the price of Robinson Terminal North and put any other option out of reach,” he said.

By “any other option” Walker means a museum. He’s pushed for a museum or two on the waterfront since the spring and believes the Robinson Terminal sites would make perfect homes for such an endeavor. City officials, on the other hand, point out museums are expensive and cost taxpayer dollars.

Under CAAWP’s plan, the city would buy one or more of the three sites (except Cummings/Turner, since that’s now off the table) and convert them into parkland and a museum. The idea isn’t the problem, no, the difficulty is how to pay for it. CAAWP members say a mix of tax dollars, municipal bonds (taking on debt, essentially), donations and state or federal grants will cover the cost.

City staff point to the economy and Alexandria’s outstanding debt and say, “we don’t think so.”

12:47 p.m.

“[The waterfront plan] is not ready for the prime time,” said former state Sen. Patsy Ticer, to applause, just a few minutes ago.

The former mayor and longtime member of the General Assembly, Ticer shared concerns about what plan implementation would do to parking, congestion and the quality of life in Old Town. City officials should step back and take more time to consider the implications, she said.

Ticer had not previously spoken on the topic.

1:22 p.m.

As we head into city council’s lunch break, let’s take a look at the days developments thus far. Perhaps most importantly, if expected, Alexandria Planning Director Farol Hamer tossed out CAAWP’s protest petition. Had she validated it, the petition would have forced a supermajority city council vote to approve the plan.

The mayor has indicated he expects city council to make a decision, one way or the other, at the day’s end. We’ve gone through this once before and that time city council delayed the vote by more than six months. However, it’s not possible to say with 100 percent confidence the plan will come to a vote. Mayor Bill Euille has previously thrown out the option of holding off until council’s next legislative meeting, though he has not raised the idea today.

With the exception of former state Sen. Patsy Ticer (D), we haven’t seen too many new faces at the speaker’s podiums. Andrew Macdonald, Boyd Walker, Bert Ely, et al oppose the plan while Val Hawkins, ‘Mango’ Mike Anderson and the chamber of commerce support it.

2:11 p.m.

And we’re back in session. About 100 speakers left on the day.

2:17 p.m.

David Olinger, a former member of the now defunct waterfront plan work group, comes out against the proposal in its current form before city council.

“My concerns are two-fold: The impact on the surrounding neighborhood… and the quality of the plan, which in fact isn’t much of a plan at all, but merely a bunch of loosely stitched together concepts and ideas,” he said.

On one hand, his opposition is surprising. Olinger was one of seven residents on the mayor’s work group with the job of reconciling some of the problems within the blueprint and some of the WPWG’s recommended changes now written into the plan undoubtably come from him.

And on the other hand, Olinger was appointed to the group as a representative of the Old Town Civic Association, which has come out against the waterfront plan. He’s not the first member of the group to turn a back on the blueprint. Member Bert Ely, who has also spoken out against the proposal today, wrote a minority report skewering the zoning and density changes.

“What is it about this plan that will make the waterfront an attractive, exciting and different place?” Olinger asked. “We talk about a vibrant waterfront, but do we really believe it will be achieved by giving developers the maximum flexibility?”

2:50 p.m.

Christopher Ballard, another member of the defunct waterfront plan work group, has urged Alexandria City Council to adopt the blueprint.

But more interestingly, he speculated that many plan opponents aren’t against public amenities, but would prefer to see residential, rather than commercial, development. Early on in this process, city staff – ostensibly at the behest of resident suggestions – decided to steer toward a more active, vibrant waterfront. Private residences, like Ford’s Landing, won’t translate into that kind of an atmosphere, city officials have argued throughout the debate.

Ballard suggested many critics of the plan disagree with that fundamental decision.

“This plan is really making a decision on [commercial rather than residential development] in my mind,” he said.

He also took a moment to wag a finger at CAAWP’s claims residents were left out the planning process: “I think there is a difference from citizen input and getting what you want,” he said. “There has been plenty of citizen input.”

3:01 p.m.

In what must be some welcome news to the folks crammed into City Hall, Mayor Bill Euille said he was “reprimanded” during city council’s lunch break for letting speakers run on after their three alloted minutes. He pledged to be much stricter about the time limit going forward.

In practical terms, even if every speaker kept to their three minute window, this debate would be headed into the evening hours anyway.

Both his colleagues and several residents admonished him, Euille said.

3:11 p.m.

We’re getting some Twitter reactions to the still ongoing waterfront public hearing at City Hall.

@SatirclAlx says: “I predict 4 of 6 vote yes. Hughes & Pepper go down in Nov.”

@KaySellsVA says: “Sadly, too often human nature shows a knee-jerk tendency to reject progress due to wariness of the unknown.”

And then we have @PatPend, who is pushing for adoption sometime before midnight: “Hope they pass it. I was convinced by lunch break.”

That last comment is particularly interesting, from our perspective, because @PatPend had called for city council to delay their vote earlier in the day. Some of the arguments being made are apparently changing minds.

Want to weigh in? Let us know. We’ll give you more than three minutes.

3:42 p.m.

Short update here folks, Lt. Gen. Bob Wood (Ret.), another member of the waterfront plan work group, has come out against the version before city council.

Mayor Bill Euille, riffing on accusations he and other members of city council have conflicts of interest in the plan, jokingly accused Wood of having a conflict of interest of his own: “You went to high school with me,” the mayor said.

4:22 p.m.

If you’re reading this live blog then you’re probably not inside City Council chambers at City Hall right now. We stopped by briefly to grab a couple of snapshots to let the rest of the city know what it looks like several hours into what has become a marathon public hearing.

Residents look on as speakers debate the much maligned waterfront plan Saturday. (Derrick Perkins)
City Councilman Paul Smedberg, left, and Vice Mayor Kerry Donley listen as residents opine on the waterfront plan. (Derrick Perkins)
Residents and onlookers packed City Hall Saturday for a public hearing on the city's waterfront plan. (Derrick Perkins)
A display of protest signs greet residents as they approach city council chambers. (Derrick Perkins)
Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan provided the hot chocolate. (Derrick Perkins)

4:47 p.m.

Interesting exchange between a speaker, city council and the city attorney on the protest petition city Planning Director Farol Hamer tossed out earlier in the day. A quick refresher, plan opponents filed a petition Thursday in hopes of forcing a supermajority vote to approve the plan. If you’ll recall, they used a mechanism available to residents trying to challenge a “map amendment” but applied it toward a “text amendment,” which is where the zoning and density changes in the waterfront plan are located. There is no way to force a supermajority vote regarding atext amendment.

The sticking point seems to be a line in the ordinance referring to map amendments that includes the words “text amendment.” Continued confusion seems to have convinced the mayor to ask Jim Banks, city attorney, for clarification.

After explaining the aforementioned logic, Banks went on to outline the path ahead for waterfront plan critics. If city council votes to approve the plan, then opponents can move to file with the board of zoning appeals, Banks said. If the BZA ruling doesn’t satisfy them, they can go to circuit court.

As for that pesky “text amendment” mention, it refers to text in a map amendment, Banks said.

“It’s not even a close call,” he said.

But City Councilwoman Alicia Hughes questioned Banks’s interpretation.

“The strict letter of the law is one thing, the intent, spirit behind the law may be something different,” she said.

5:30 p.m.

To piggyback off of that last post, several readers have questioned City Attorney Jim Banks’s reading of the ordinance that refers to map amendments and how residents might go about requiring a supermajority vote.

@DukeBlu85 tweets: “Banks is wrong. The code says “map or text.” Good luck in court explaining that one away”

And that’s pretty close to the truth. What we’re looking at, if you want to do your own research, is 11-808 “Protest of zoning map amendment by landowners.” Head on down to clause ‘D’ “Effect of protest.”

“If a protest to a proposed text or map amendment is filed, the city council may not approve the proposed amendment except by an affirmative vote of three-fourths [a supermajority] of its members.”

Banks’s logic is that since the overall code refers to map amendments, then that clause is limited to protesting map amendments. “General to specific” is how he put it. How a judge might see it, we don’t know. There certainly seems to be room for a debate and if that clause were amended to be more specific in the coming weeks and months, it wouldn’t come as a surprise.

A caveat though: It would be hard to understand why City Hall would throw out the protest petition unless they were 99.9 percent sure a court would see it the same way. It seems like an awfully high risk to run given the plan’s importance.

Agree, disagree? Let us know on Twitter (@AlexTimesNews or @DerrickTPerkins) or in the comments section below.

5:47 p.m.

Something we didn’t get into when it happened (ended up blogging about the map amendment ordinance instead) was local restauranteur Cathal Armstrong speaking out in favor of the plan.

His presence is noteworthy for several reasons. The foremost is that his newest restaurant, Virtue Feed and Grain, has been sucked into the middle of the waterfront plan debate. When plan opponents called on Vice Mayor Kerry Donley to recuse himself from voting, it was because he works for the bank that backed Armstrong’s restaurant. It’s an obvious conflict of interest, critics said.

(Virginia law, however, disagrees)

And the restaurant is involved in a dispute involving City Hall and the Old Dominion Boat Club over ownership and control of Wales Alley, which is headed before the state supreme court.

That Armstrong is in support of the waterfront plan is unsurprising. His restaurant – one of many around Old Town – hosted a Waterfront For All public meeting earlier this month.

We should note that while the Wales Alley disagreement is connected to the waterfront plan – it involves the flood mitigation proposal – the restaurant and the property it sits on are not discussed in the blueprint. It’s clear Virtue would benefit from a vibrant, active and commercialized waterfront, but it’s a very distant link.

6:20 p.m.

The public hearing officially ends and council discussion will continue. City Councilman Paul Smedberg proposes initially motion to approve the waterfront plan.

6:26 p.m.

Mayor Bill Euille thanks all of the speakers for their thoughts and opinions today. He reiterated that there will be further opportunities for discussion as the city moves ahead.

“Whatever decision made today, it is not cast in concrete,” Euille said. “There are other steps which staff will go through that will take place.”

6:52 p.m.

And the debate – on the city council level – begins. City Councilwoman Del Pepper proposes limited the number of hotels on the waterfront to two, 150 rooms each at most, for a total of 300 rooms. The plan, as it has gone before council, calls for a maximum of three hotels, 150 rooms each.

It’s an interesting and unexpected proposal, given the lengthy debate that went into defining exactly what was a “boutique” hotel last spring. It took the planning commission quite some time to narrow that down to a 150 room hotel or less.

City officials say capping the total number of hotel rooms at less than 150 will deter developers. Vice Mayor Kerry Donley and City Councilman Rob Krupicka both object to the suggestion. Krupicka doesn’t believe there’s a market for more than one hotel on the Potomac shoreline.

“I’m not that confident that we’re going to get any more than one hotel [on the waterfront] anyway,” Krupicka said.

 7:22 p.m.

Vice Mayor Kerry Donley questions the importance of creating a plan that pays for itself – eventually – as the waterfront debate continues at the city council level and hits upon an important point to remember. There’s no way of knowing exactly what will happen at sites slated for redevelopment, he said. It might be a hotel, it might not.

It’s a point that is in danger of getting lost in the current debate. While the waterfront plan allows for hotels, and at times called for them, at the Robinson Terminals and the Cummings and Turner properties, the final decision is up to the property owner and/or developer. The plan could pave the wave for waterfront hotels, but since it’s not city owned property and the city isn’t in the hotel building business anyway, officials can do little more than plan and hope.

What we could end up seeing is just more office space along the waterfront.

8:01 p.m.

Quick update as city council heads into home stretch. City Councilman Rob Krupicka (D) embraces the plan despite opposition; Frank Fannon (R) expresses misgivings, but stays neutral; Alicia Hughes (R) comes out against the plan. Regardless of the tossed out protest petition, plan supports are looking for a supermajority vote tonight to lock this thing down.

8:33 p.m.

It’s winding down now. City Councilmen Rob Krupicka, Paul Smedberg and City Councilwoman Del Pepper are either for or leaning toward the waterfront plan as are Mayor Bill Euille and Vice Mayor Kerry Donley. City Councilwoman Alicia Hughes is against it and Councilman Frank Fannon seems undecided.

8:35 p.m.

We have reached something akin to closure. After more than 2 years, the controversial waterfront plan has been approved by city council in a 5-2 vote.

Mayor Bill Euille, Vice Mayor Kerry Donley, city councilmen Rob Krupicka and Paul Smedberg voted for the plan along with City Councilwoman Del Pepper. City Councilman Frank Fannon and City Councilwoman Alicia Hughes voted against the plan. Interestingly, the vote broke down among party lines. Fannon and Hughes are both Republicans.