Opinion: Four steps to a sense of place on the waterfront

Opinion: Four steps to a sense of place on the waterfront
(File photo)

To the editor:

Now that city council has approved the waterfront plan, the really hard work needs to begin: transforming the waterfront into a vital, distinctive place.

Unfortunately, in approving the plan, the council made this challenge even more difficult by limiting hotel use. This will significantly reduce projected tax revenues and thus money available for distinctive features. Even before this change, the plan lacked enough money for distinctive elements — its biggest flaw.

If we can’t create a distinctive waterfront, we’ll never have a successful waterfront — one that people value and want to visit. That will take money, and it is clear money is lacking.

The challenge of transforming the waterfront was never going to be easy in any event, given that one of the chief features of today’s waterfront is its lack of distinction. But the plan includes a variety of ideas for distinctive elements and designs. The best of all are the art walk and history proposals.

To help create a distinctive waterfront, the council should take four steps:

1. Ask staff to do a detailed study of the cost of the elements needed to create a distinctive place. If money from developers and tax revenues isn’t sufficient, consider taxpayer funding to make up the difference. If the waterfront is to be a special place for all residents, funding from all taxpayers can be justified.

2. Appoint a committee — distinct from any implementation committee — of design professionals, artists and others to educate the public and refine and advance the thinking about the elements and features of the plan that can transform the waterfront into a special place. This committee can work to overcome a major obstacle to creating a distinctive place: the tendency of people to be too rigid in their thinking about design.

3. On the two development sites in which hotels are allowed, demand the highest architectural standards and even insist on design competitions. The challenge south of King Street will be to find designs that fit into our historic fabric. Surely this can be done while also creating distinctive architecture.

4. For the Robinson Terminal North location, consider a truly striking piece of architecture of the caliber done by one of today’s signature architects. This site lends itself to iconic architecture because the land juts into the Potomac River and overlooks the Washington skyline. Also, modern office buildings and townhouses with little trace of Alexandria’s history now surround it.

I feel fortunate to live in the Washington area where there are so many distinctive places to visit. It is far from clear that Alexandria’s waterfront will ever become one of these. But we have an enormous opportunity.

– Bill Hendrickson