Don’t let developers and city staff low ball us on the waterfront

Don’t let developers and city staff low ball us on the waterfront

By Bob Wood, Alexandria

Anchoring is a well-established, effective negotiating technique. The seller attempts to set the first price high and the buyer attempts to make his first offer low.

Negotiations proceed around this anchor price and quickly pass from a discussion of true value to a process of gamesmanship as one party seeks to achieve marginal gain over the other. The person who makes the first offer typically sets the anchor and holds the most influence.

After negotiations finish, there is relatively little movement away from where the anchor was first set.

After witnessing the most recent board of architectural review discussions on plans for the redevelopment of Robinson Terminal South, I am convinced that anchoring forms the basis of public engagement in Alexandria, from city staff, through the developers, to residents. A “low ball” offer is put before the public first and foremost.

How else can one explain the startling, contemporary design presented by EYA, the builder on this site? (See the plan on the city website:

From the bland facade of townhomes along Union Street and the barely updated garden apartment replicas along Wolfe Street to the monolithic glass and metal “European modern” condos on the river, this design must be this first low ball offer to anchor subsequent discussions with likely outraged residents.

The plan has little to do with design and everything to do with negotiations. In this case, that means negotiations for top price water views and maximum tax revenue for the city. Keep the residents appeased with brick face on Union Street, but strive for transparent glass blocks to attract the world!

The board of architectural review was appalled. Three of five board members were straightforward in their alarm and rejection. Two others were more circumspect in registering clear concern. After all, the board’s guidance had been clear, as stated on page four of the report: “Therefore, a fundamental goal of the architectural design of the project should be compatibility with the waterfront and historic district as a whole, clearly recognizing the context in which this building will be located and respecting the longtime local building traditions. At its most basic meaning, a compatible new building is one that can co-exist with historic buildings in harmony.”
To the board members’ credit, they all but stated the builders and architects must start over. This was a concept review, designed to prevent future conflict in more formal reviews.

Sadly, they probably won’t. The anchor has been set.

In the heart of our historic district, between two of our most historic waterfront parks, we now have large, massed blocks of glass and steel. The discussion will move quickly to window design and building materials. The appropriateness of the scale, the inferiority of the vision and the clanging presence of this commercially derived design will only change at the margin.

That is, unless residents strongly reject this anchoring approach that so commonly characterizes dialog between public and commercial entities in our city, facilitated by city staff.

It was city staff, after all, who gave the green light to this flawed concept in the historic district, writing on page 10 of the city’s report, “In concept, staff strongly supports the general design direction for a large-scale, transparent, contemporary building constructed of timeless materials.”

Any homeowner in Old Town’s historic district knows the struggle they face to add a light fixture, repair a window or change the paint color on external walls. Apparently, developers get a bye from city staff in this regard.

Residents must demand more very early, or continue to expect less in the end, of our waterfront and our city. Our anchor is our history, the structure and form of our streets and residences as well as the scale and beauty of our diverse neighborhoods.

Negotiations should start from this point, not from poorly formed precedents imported from elsewhere to lower expectations and divert our discussions.