Learning from Alexandria’s past redevelopment mistakes

Learning from Alexandria’s past redevelopment mistakes

By Bert Ely, co-chair, Friends of the Alexandria Waterfront (File photo)

I hope you all saw the WETA documentary, “Discovering Alexandria”, which was shown three times earlier this month.  If you missed it, you can see it again on Tuesday, December 30 at 8 p.m.

The 90-minute documentary traced Alexandria’s history from before its founding through the 19th century.  In doing so, it tapped numerous historical experts and city officials, including Mayor Bill Euille as well as Al Cox and Pam Cressey, and residents commending the city’s character and livability.

A second WETA production, slated for next year, will pick up the story of Alexandria from the early part of the 20th century and go to the present day.  Quite likely, that documentary will focus on how Alexandria’s nearly unique historical character has evolved and yet been lovingly preserved by the city and its citizens, with one tragic exception — the blight along and near King Street caused by the misguided urban renewal philosophy of the 1960s and 1970s.

But what will a future documentary say and show, 30 or 50 years from now, about the Alexandria waterfront as it evolves from today forward?  Will it be an area of the city that the Alexandrians of 2044 or 2064 — our children and grandchildren — will speak fondly and proudly of, or will the waterfront be a monument to misguided planning, yet another failure by the city to preserve and enhance its unique historic character while maintaining the wonderful livability of the Old and Historic District?

I fear the latter, if the present development plans for the Alexandria waterfront, and specifically on the two Robinson Terminal properties as well as the site of the proposed Carr hotel, proceed as approved.

The city will reach a critical juncture in 2015, for that is when development plans for the terminal sites are likely to be finalized and presented to City Council for its approval.  In particular, that is when council will approve the design and street grid of these two developments that will be locked into steel, concrete and glass, building materials that will be there decades from now, a monument to either far-sightedness or political folly.

The same holds true for the atrocious design of the proposed Carr hotel — hopefully that project will still not be built, which would give the city a second chance at getting a much more fitting development of that property.  If, sadly, the hotel is built, we hope the construction impacts will not irreparably damage nearby homes as well as the streets that construction vehicles will travel over.  That is why the city must insist, even at this late date, that demolition debris and excavated dirt from that site be removed by barge and not by heavily ladened trucks rumbling over aging streets.

How do you want Alexandria, and specifically its waterfront, to be portrayed in a 2064 documentary? As a badly dated collection of glass buildings that detract from Alexandria’s historic character, or as a further enhancement of Alexandria’s wonderful character?