We must look beyond the Old Dominion Boat Club’s parking lot


By Kathryn Papp, Alexandria
(File Photo)

To the editor:

Now that we’ve got 90 days to concentrate our thoughts on improving the design at the foot of King Street and the surrounding area, let’s use it. This discussion is not only about the plaza, but also the newly created commercial corridor on Union Street that runs between the Robinson Terminals. It’s all up in the air right now.

It was getting caught up in the past that led inexperienced city planners to focus solely on the foot of King Street. This is a problem.

The proposed plaza is constrained by two design bottlenecks: the Torpedo Factory and the Chart House. These buildings would trap people arriving from King Street or by water taxi and impede the flow of foot traffic going north. This means that developments at Robinson Terminal North will see fewer dollars, as potential customers will flow south or back up King Street.

And as designed, the small plaza at the foot of King Street is expected to accommodate disparate, contradictory activities: the Old Dominion Boat Club, a fountain/ice-skating rink, water taxi arrivals and ticketing, and a loose collection of chairs and potted trees for the walking weary.

It is obvious that professional redesign is desperately needed now — before another permanent development mistake is made, and commercial properties to the north are shortchanged.

This is precisely why the OLIN firm was engaged. This is not a job for amateurs. It’s a toughie. Getting it wrong creates a costly problem.

One solution may be to distribute visitors who arrive by water taxi (or commuter ferry?) by repurposing the large Chart House building, its spacious surrounding dock and natural exit via the wide passageway to Union Street next to the Torpedo Factory. With the right signage, this can work for the new commercial corridor. With full facilities — a visitors center, coffee shop, ticketing and restrooms — it can create a good first experience.

As Realco testified to the city in February, a lack of traffic from the river combined with a drop-off in seasonal tourism from November to April were at the heart of the nearby food pavilion’s failure. A large, dedicated ferry station would ensure traffic and the new Waterfront Market and proposed restaurant at the former food pavilion would thrive.

It is fully expected that the navigational channel of the Potomac will very soon teem with commuter water traffic. Let’s seize this opportunity.

Very importantly, this option may help retain one of the truly great features of Old Town: a living, breathing, historic and beloved boating club. The group’s membership wait list is very long, and people wait for years to get in.

Both are good measures of the club’s value to the community. Its launch site might even be shared with kayakers or rowers stopping for lunch and needing a place to park for free. Old Town is a place where people of all kinds float their boats.

Let’s put our money into redesigning a small part of the waterfront to transform and benefit the whole Union Street commercial corridor, avoid eminent domain and go with the flow of rising river traffic on the Potomac.




  1. Kathryn Papp makes several important points. City staff is still pursuing implementation of a waterfront plan that was developed by “inexperienced city planners” focusing on a dead end plaza at the foot of King Street. Instead, the focus might better be on the development of Union Street as the north-south corridor. The ferry terminus might indeed be better located near the Chart House or in the area between Prince and Duke… A plaza located where the Mia Thai restaurant now stands would draw foot traffic onto both Union and the Strand…. More creativity is needed in redesigning the Small Area Plan. That redesign is necessary today to recognize that eminent domain taking of Old Dominion Boat Club property has been made far less likely in light of the amendment to the Virginia Constitution. The Club has made a reasonable offer. The alternative of moving the Club to the foot of Prince has also been proposed. If the City pursues eminent domain a lengthy and expensive court battle will delay plan implementation. The documented purpose of the Waterfront Plan is economic development and tax revenue. A purpose that is now unlawful under the Virginia Constitution as amended. The problem is that it is very unlikely that the City is sufficiently agile to accomplish a redesign by February 19. OLIN is under contract to develop a final design. The decision on the question of eminent domain should be in the context of the final design, not some arbitrary deadline set by a City Council continuing to waste taxpayer money on projects that primarily benefit developers and out-of-town tourists instead of the citizens of Alexandria.