Though passed by council, waterfront plan remains fluid

Though passed by council, waterfront plan remains fluid

The city council may have approved the contentious waterfront plan, but that doesn’t mean Alexandria’s elected officials can’t tweak the blueprint in the coming months, years, or even decades.

“The power that [city council] had last Saturday, they still have it,” said Karl Moritz, Alexandria’s deputy planning director. “[That authority] doesn’t ever go away. That’s part of the job the council has: They get to decide to approve plans and … if they no longer approve what is within a plan they can change it.”

City officials could amend the small area plan of their own volition or could tweak it based on a special use permit request, according to Moritz. Once a proposal is drawn up, it’s made available for public review. Then the amendment would go to the planning commission for approval before city council would take up the proposed change.

Large, controversial changes likely would require more public outreach, perhaps several informational meetings and an extended period of time for residents to comment.

Still, amending previously approved plans isn’t something city council members have done lightly in recent years, he said. If they were to tweak the plan, it would probably be because someone pitched a good idea not already discussed in the document.

“Generally, once they adopt a plan they stick to it, but sometimes they will, over the course of a plan’s life, find that there is specific plan language that prevents something that could [benefit] the plan, something that is in keeping with the plan,” Moritz said.

And that’s about the only scenario Vice Mayor Kerry Donley can see forcing Alexandria’s elected officials to take another look at the waterfront plan. The hypothetical situation probably would arise during the special use permit process, he said.

“Usually when you promulgate any kind of change to small area plan there is a long community process,” Donley said. “As you can see with this community plan, this was longer than typical. It’s not something that’s just initiated in a [hasty] manner.”

City officials spent more than two years working with residents, business owners and civic organizations to craft the waterfront plan. The blueprint, which paves the way for redevelopment along the Potomac shoreline – including the possibility of two boutique hotels – elicited heated criticism by some residents.

City Councilman Frank Fannon, who cast one of two votes against the proposal, said the plan has too many unanswered questions, particularly in regard to traffic congestion, limited parking and flood mitigation. As the city moves ahead with further study into those issues, he believes opportunities to reexamine some areas of the plan will emerge.

“We’re going to really have to take a look at what the results of these studies [are] and we have to react to the findings of the studies before we really move forward on approving any development down there,” Fannon said. “This was the start of the waterfront redevelopment and as we move forward there will be a lot more in-depth studies and more discussions.”

Asked if waterfront plan opponents had interest in lobbying city council members in favor of changing some aspects of the plan, Andrew Macdonald, cofounder of Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan, said the group’s relationship with City Hall had deteriorated beyond that point.

“I don’t see why lobbying members of the city council has any relevance at all,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, this is an adversarial relationship. They’ve decided it’s their way or the highway.”

An offshoot of CAAWP comprised of residents living along the waterfront is taking the lead in challenging the plan on legal grounds. CAAWP plans to support those efforts by raising money for legal fees, Macdonald said.

But residents, no matter their feelings toward the plan, will have a say in how the waterfront undergoes redevelopment. Most projects will require either a public permitting process or approval from the board of architectural review, another committee of residents.

Officials also hope to create an advisory group composed of stakeholders to oversee redevelopment.