Meet Laurie Olin

Meet Laurie Olin

By Derrick Perkins (Photo/Derrick Perkins)

Pressed for an honest assessment of the city’s Potomac River shoreline, Laurie Olin, the man charged with revitalizing the public space along the waterfront, paused before saying, “It has good bones.”

“It needs to be better,” the famed landscape architect said a few beats later, facing a standing-room-only crowd Tuesday night. “It needs to be a better waterfront.”

The evaluation came at the tail end of a meet-and-greet with residents organized by city officials. Alexandria’s denizens got a feel for Olin’s philosophy and his past projects at the get-together, the first in a series as the controversial waterfront redevelopment plan goes into action.

Officials — and developers — have thrown themselves headlong into the plan after city council reaffirmed the contentious zoning changes along the shoreline earlier this year. Additionally, the state Supreme Court dismissed the roadmap’s most serious legal challenge last month.

September also saw the sale of the Robinson Terminals — both slated for redevelopment in the plan — by The Washington Post Co. to JBG, EYA and CityInterests. And Washington-based Carr Hospitality continues working on a longstanding hotel project for a third redevelopment site: the Cummings and Turner block along South Union Street.

In a related development, Mayor Bill Euille announced last week that he was no longer willing to wait for negotiations with the Old Dominion Boat Club for its waterfront parking lot. Planned as the location for a future public plaza, Euille said he would seek eminent domain to secure the property if necessary.

Though vitriol and contention often marred the multiyear debate over the shoreline’s future, the meeting Tuesday night was markedly conciliatory in contrast. Taking on an appropriately professorial tone, Olin — who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania — walked residents through his earlier work while shying away from any specific ideas for Alexandria’s waterfront.

“No two [projects] are alike,” he said. “Whatever you think we’ve done somewhere else … is probably not what you should end up with.”

Olin’s previous projects include revamping the grounds of the Washington Monument, the Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia and Bryant Park in New York City. The landscape architect hit the right notes throughout the meeting, telling residents that the final design was up to them and would be for them — not tourists.

“A lot of people go to Paris because it’s beautiful,” he quipped. “But you’ve got to understand: The Parisians built it for themselves.”

His approach won over even fierce critics of the plan like Bob Wood, who unsuccessfully ran for city council last year as an opponent of the approved roadmap. City Hall should have brought Olin in earlier in the process, he said.

“I thought it was inspirational, and it gives me some hope that such a professional is going to get a shot at a design plan,” Wood said. “The [waterfront] plan was always missing a design plan. What we built was a framework without a design plan.”

Mark Mueller, a staunch opponent of the plan, remains cautious but was likewise impressed by Olin’s presentation.

“I think he’s done some marvelous work in other places,” he said. “We’ve got a set of challenges that are perhaps more daunting than his other projects.”