Opinion: Waterfront plan in, George Washington’s legacy out

(Stock photo)

To the editor:

The most famous fresco in America is in the U.S. Capitol rotunda in Washington, D.C. If you look 180 feet up, you’ll see a mural of George Washington rising to the heavens, as if he were a god.

In Alexandria, there is West Point, site of a 1731 tobacco warehouse that helped create Alexandria. It’s where George Washington exported his wheat and tobacco. Robinson Terminal North occupies that area, with a nearby sign that says “West Point”  — no mural, no statute, no museum, no history. And coming soon, if the city’s waterfront plan is implemented, is a hotel or office building.

West Point is a genuine historical site, surrounded by an authentically historical waterfront — at a time when authenticity is in short supply. The difference between the plan city council approved January 25 and the citizens’ alternative plan is the alternative plan celebrates and protects the legacy of George Washington, as well as the waterfront’s history, just as the Capitol building reflects its priorities by showing George Washington ascending to the heavens, in glory, on the dome.

The city council showed its hand by permitting the development of West Point as a commercial property. The waterfront history and George Washington’s legacy deserve more. Let’s go back to the drawing board and do a better job with stewardship.

– Patty Sheetz



  1. I agree with the desire to find more ways to reflect our great history in the waterfront. The plan the city passed calls for historic interpretation up and down the waterfront. That section of the plan was written in most part by the city Archeology Commission. The current RT North warehouse does not reflect the city’s history at all. Anything built must provide more open, public space, historic markers and other features to bring attention to this important site (and many others). The question is how you get there. The city plan has the city work in partnership with private property owner to pay for it (a public private partnership). The writer would prefer the city buy the land with eminent domain and find funds to then upgrade and maintain the site. The first approach has a chance of happening. The second doesn’t at all. We don’t have funds in the budget for basic items like a head start building, new classroom space or to maintain current city parks and infrastructure. Assuming the city can buy private land and develop it without any form of private partnership is essentially assuming that we do nothing at all. Doing nothing doesn’t honor George Washington. Also, GW lived in Alexandria when it was a commercial port. I think he’d be surprised to see all of the current and planned parks along the waterfront instead of heavy commercial activity. A historically accurate waterfront, if we used GW’s time as the guide, would include a lot of factories and commercial buildings. I’m personally glad we are not doing that because I am fond of the parks. But we can’t pretend GW’s Alexandria waterfront was a place for dog parks and picnics.

  2. The Archeology commission was specifically prohibited from including this site in the consideration of their history plan. Rob knows that. Alexandria has a great history of private/public cooperation, including the donation of Oronoco Bay, a former oil tank farm, to the United Way, and thanks to the involvemet of Engin Artemil, the city acquired significant parkland, and the United Way got a headquarters. This time the city never attempted any such negotiation to see if there could be a beneficial agreement with the Washington Post, the owners of Robinson Terminal. Yes, the current buildings are not historic, but the site is very historic, and that is just one of the reasons a different outcome besides developing the site to its full potential is desirable. It was the site of the oldest structure in Alexandria, the site of the first Wharf, and the point at which George Washington and his brother laid out the streets of Alexandria. He often docked his boat, The Farmer, there. If we treat it as a historic site instead of a development opportunnity, we will have the chance to do the archeology that might let us discover even more history of the site. Like Freedmans Cemetary, (the purchase of those properties, I assume Rob supported) I hope that beneath the concrete pad there might be remains of this building or the wharf. In the rush to develop we are not likely to have the time to see what is there. Having primarily parkland between Founders Park and Oronocco Bay Park would make a much better connection along our waterfront, and would encourage more users to continue down to the North Waterfront. None of the opponents of the waterfront either recommended leaving the current wharehouses, or returning the waterfront to exaclty how it looked in George Washington’s time. Channeling what George Washington would think about the waterfront plan is a totally facetious and not constructive.

  3. In Rob’s comment, he says “The city plan has the city work in partnership with private property owner to pay for it (a public private partnership).” I would point out that changing the zoning to encourage development, especially to resolve a pending lawsuit between the city and Robinson Terminal is not a public private partnership. According to wikepedia a private public partnership involves a contract and “a government service or private business venture which is funded and operated through a partnership of government and one or more private sector companies.” It could also involve a non-profit foundation in the management and operation of a site, that would have the ability to generate income from the site, fundraise, and provide a service to the public while saving taxpayers from having to fully fund a project for the public good. This is how I see the future of the site, as somewhere where “a private sector consortium forms a special company called a “special purpose vehicle” (SPV) to develop, build, maintain and operate the asset for the contracted period…It is the SPV that signs the contract with the government and with subcontractors to build the facility and then maintain it.” This kind of cooperation between government, the private owner of the property (the Washington Post), and the communnity is how I would see the future use of the site. The acquisition of the site could be paid for by reestablishing the 1 cent for open space, possible donation of some of the value by the Washington Post, and perhaps involving a group like the Nature Consevancy that helps buy public open space. We need to start thinking outside the box. Rob will say I want to raise taxes, which is absolutely not true. I think there might be some creative ways to manage our current budget and seek alternative funding sources. You can also go to the National Counil for Public Private Partnerships for more information: http://ncppp.org/howpart/index.shtml