Alexandria’s preservation is up for grabs

Alexandria’s preservation is up for grabs

By Townsend A. “Van” Van Fleet, Alexandria (File photo)

To the editor:

After reading a number of articles concerning the blending of historic and new developments in Charleston, S.C., it struck a familiar chord. The problem of new developments clashing with historically preserved structures is not unique to Charleston; it also directly impacts my historic community of Alexandria, Virginia.

I have had the distinct pleasure of attending two separate forums hosted by Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley, in which he highlighted the rigors of keeping historic communities historic. Mr. Riley knows  how to shepherd new developments in his historic city, since he ensures that all new buildings “fit in” and connect to the Historic District. It is readily apparent that Mr. Riley also regards his historic district with a touch of reverence due to its significant place in history.

In addition, maintaining the historic character of Charleston is important to its tourism. It was the first city in the nation to be covered by a preservation ordinance. Alexandria has the third oldest Historic District in the U.S., and it is comparable to Charleston in many ways. It too, is on the water, it also has an Old and Historic District, and it also faces development pressures.

Unfortunately, in the 1960s, six blocks of Alexandria’s Old and Historic District were razed under an urban renewal program, and they were replaced by modern buildings that in no way are connected to the historic district. Many of us fear that Alexandria’s Old and Historic District is again under siege.

Over time, city council has incurred a debt of $500 million, with an annual debt service of $64 million. Since the current tax revenues are not providing a way out of this dilemma, the solution is to build as much and as fast as possible, hoping that revenues will eventually skyrocket and bail the city out.

In order to provide a fast track for approval, the Alexandria City Council has apparently appointed developer-friendly citizens to boards and commissions, who will readily approve unconstrained developments. However, Alexandria’s historic preservationists fear a repeat of the debacle that occurred in the 1960s, so they are attempting to convince the city government that their long time love affair with the developers needs to end.

Currently, a number of old, non-historic structures situated on the shores of the Potomac River are about to be demolished and replaced by a project that is incongruous to the Old and Historic District. In a number of cases, the mass and scale of some of the new structures in this project visibly dwarf adjacent historic structures. It is imperative that new structures not historic in nature fit-in and connect to the Old and Historic District of Alexandria.

They need not look historic, but they should not detract from what is currently in place. When one compares the careful stewardship of Charleston to the reckless squandering of the historic nature of Old Town Alexandria by the city council and its staff, it is apparent that Alexandria is in for a long and slow process of  killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

In due course, the Old and Historic District will become a meaningless jumble of buildings that few will want to visit. It is most ironic that there is a television documentary called “Discovering Alexandria: The Early Years” which highlights the historic nature of Alexandria at the same time its city leaders are attempting to further eradicate it.

As a direct descendant of George Mason (the author of the Bill of Rights) who was an Alexandria Council Member from 1754-1779 (along with George Washington and others), I am confident that my ancestor would have had a “responsible development” viewpoint. The aura and charm of this historic community needs to live on, so that a century from now, the citizens of Alexandria will applaud our efforts to preserve the history and charm of this unique city, and not ask themselves “what were they thinking?”