MY VIEW: A few thoughts on Old Town

MY VIEW: A few thoughts on Old Town
King Street is one of the most popular destinations for tourists heading to Alexandria.
Allison Silberberg

(Photo/File Photo)

By Allison Silberberg

Whether headed to City Hall or on my way home from a night of meetings, the quiet streets of Old Town always provide an enduring sense of calm.

There is a lasting beauty — the scenery gives me pause. I tell myself I must never take our historic preservation efforts for granted. Of course, I also marvel at Alexandria’s other beautiful neighborhoods, and I will continue doing all I can to protect all of our neighborhoods.

I have been thinking about some of the overarching issues facing our city: growth, development, about having a vision and about how we are at a crossroads. Old Town became a historic district in 1946. It is the third-oldest historic district in the nation. The first two were Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans.

Many historic districts have faced similar, transformative moments. We, as a community, need to be extremely careful about our decisions or all that has been given to us may be lost forever.

As we allow new construction in the historic district, including on the waterfront, we need to keep Old Town looking like Old Town. Otherwise, we risk the possibility of losing its one-of-a-kind charm. It is our authenticity and uniqueness that make our home an international destination.

Today, the concerns are about the look and size of new construction. Does it fit with our historic district? A shared vision is needed as we move forward and start thinking beyond the legal discussions.

A brief recap: In March, after a divisive community debate, the Alexandria City Council voted 6-1 to implement the waterfront plan. I cast the lone dissenting vote, having fought for a compromise that would have taken into account the impact that the plan would have on density, traffic and altering Old Town’s character.

Alexandria is now implementing this plan and moving full steam ahead. Developers have bought the two Robinson Terminals from The Washington Post Co.

Hotels there and at another site, as well as residential properties and the waterfront’s landscape design, are all under discussion. The council also is considering eminent domain to seize waterfront property owned by the Old Dominion Boat Club. A great deal is happening.

But in all the meetings, emails and news reports, one overarching consideration can sometimes be forgotten: Old Town’s aesthetic and character.

Some improvements to the waterfront are certainly needed, but we are a historic community — first and foremost — and therefore have a historic appearance. It is our No. 1 asset.

While we are committed to preserving the historic district, we also need to insist that all new buildings — whether hotels or residential — should incorporate Old Town’s look. This applies to landscape design as well. Our Old Town image is what binds us and is something to treasure and protect.

We must hold the line, so that Old Town will remain a national treasure for generations to come. That is why we have a historic district. We earned it, and we do not wish to jeopardize it.

We have a shared core value that runs through all of our veins no matter where we live in the city, and that is our sense of pride in the historic architectural beauty of Old Town. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Virginia recognize Old Town as a national gem.

It is more than just the restored homes and buildings of the 1700s and 1800s, the tree-lined streets, the gas lampposts, the historic waterfront, the brick sidewalks, and the few remaining cobblestone streets. It is also the farmers market, the many American flags, and the historic markers and ubiquitous plaques that show us where former President George Washington’s lawyer, banker and physician lived or where Robert E. Lee lived as a boy.

It is the unique shops and restaurants. It is the friendly atmosphere and the talented musicians performing on the corner of King and Union streets. We are blessed.

So this is about gratitude and what we must never take for granted. I am grateful that others before us had the foresight to save Old Town’s historic architecture from urban renewal, as redevelopment was called at the time.

The city council of the late 1960s voted to tear down 23 blocks of Old Town in order to make way for the new. After six blocks were demolished, residents spoke out. The council listened and stopped the demolition.

I am grateful to all those who have served as our architectural and historic guardians. I am grateful to those who transformed Founders Park into an oasis on the water. I am grateful to those who had the foresight to create the Torpedo Factory.

We, as a community, are making choices that will reverberate across generations to come. What will be our legacy? What will future generations see and savor? How will they judge us? Were we wise? Were we careful enough?

We must have a shared vision when it comes to new construction. We must recognize that our historic look only exists because of many decades of careful, thoughtful preservation.

Our history and historic look are our future. Insisting on that look is in everyone’s best interest.

Old Town was a gift we inherited. Only together can we preserve what our ancestors left to us. We are all the temporary stewards of this national treasure called Alexandria. Keep Old Town Old Town.
– The writer is the vice mayor of the City of Alexandria.