Waterfront plan opponents have no choice but to fight

Waterfront plan opponents have no choice but to fight

To the editor:

The Alexandria Times appropriately applauded the Alexandria Aces for their 4-3 near-comeback against Bethesda Big Train in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League playoffs. Just as the Aces didn’t quit when they were down 4-0, the waterfront folks shouldn’t give up just because City Hall has the votes to approve the redevelopment plan.

Their continuing opposition to waterfront hotels is not “opposition for opposition’s sake,” but opposition for principle’s sake.

Until the Virginia Supreme Court rules in the city’s favor, the ballgame isn’t over. Even if the court allows City Hall’s waterfront plan — or if city council simply re-passes the plan with the requisite supermajority if the court rules against it — plan opponents must mount a challenge for three reasons.

One, the tactics City Hall used to circumvent legal requirements — including suing its board of zoning appeals and denying the board independent legal representation in earlier court cases — constitute a breathtaking abuse of power, which must be fought on principle lest it be relied upon as a precedent and used against other zoning challenges. “The Iron Ladies’” fight is not just about the waterfront; it is a fight for the rights of property owners anywhere in the city to petition for a supermajority vote to change zoning.

If their challenge fails, who knows whose neighborhood, stripped of a key tool to fight City Hall’s slick schemes and cozy developer deals, will be next on the chopping block?

Secondly, unlike in nearby Arlington County, where bond referenda have forced competence on the county’s heavy-handed, one-party government, Alexandria’s one-party government is a comedy of errors. Multiple votes (the waterfront plan so far has endured three) are necessitated to correct elementary errors.

City Hall falls over itself to sacrifice land for public-private partnerships for which it lacks legal authority. And legislation is passed against the advice of its appointed committees. Because the politicians have so badly bungled the waterfront plan politically, clean closure of the kind the Times’ August 8 editorial (“If it’s going to be a hotel, let’s make sure it fits”) seeks isn’t possible.

City Hall designed a waterfront plan with the expectation of hotels at the two Robinson Terminal properties to moot legal challenges, but instead the proposed hotel is at the Cummings-Turner block. Does approving a hotel there mean three hotels on the waterfront, or does it mean some unplanned, unintended use at one of the Robinson Terminal sites?

When Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg attempted to bring closure to the waterfront plan controversy with a one-hotel compromise earlier this year, her colleagues on city council didn’t even press waterfront plan opponents as to whether they would settle the disagreement amicably on this basis. What choice do they have but to continue their opposition when the other side won’t offer a reasonable settlement?

Finally, what happens when a neighborhood is sacrificed for overall public betterment? There has been no referendum on the waterfront plan, but we know it cost the city council two voting precincts in the last election. Did the other voting precincts support the waterfront plan or just not care?
No neighborhood that fails to stand up for itself is safe from politicians’ and planners’ predations. And a neighborhood that fights to the bitter end is one that cares about itself deeply, with residents bonded in a common cause of self-defense.

Those with designs on such a neighborhood will think twice before pressing their schemes. No one will know the disasters avoided because developers and officials did not have the stomach for the fight likely to ensue. The waterfront neighborhood’s continuing opposition will stave off future development catastrophes.

– Dino Drudi