City council forges ahead with interim waterfront park plan

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City council forges ahead with interim waterfront park plan
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By Chris Teale (Image/City of Alexandria)

City council dug into the proposed plan for an interim Fitzgerald Square park along the waterfront at a work session during its May 24 legislative meeting, but raised questions about lighting, the tree canopy and the current Old Dominion Boat Club clubhouse.

Under the plan from the city’s department of recreation, parks and cultural activities, the interim park would be created on land currently being used as a parking lot bordered by The Strand and Waterfront Park, the King Street Park and the existing site of the Old Dominion Boat Club clubhouse which is slated for demolition. The piers near the clubhouse for docking boats would remain.

The interim space would be in place until construction begins on a permanent park, and have an area for flexible use like an ice rink in the winter and a temporary beach in the summer. Other programming would be available as well as seating. Officials have not set a timeframe for the permanent park.

City Manager Mark Jinks said designs for the boat club’s new clubhouse at 1 Prince St. have been approved, and that members are in the midst of determining the cost of the project with their contractor. Jinks said once construction starts, it should take between 12 and 14 months, and that once ODBC moves out of its current space, the city will move in.

City Councilor John Chapman said he was torn about keeping or removing the boat club, as he said it could serve as a useful venue for civic functions like meetings or a home for the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, a nonprofit located nearby along the waterfront.

But other councilors disagreed, arguing that the removal of the clubhouse is crucial to the area’s redevelopment.

“In order for us to move forward, we’re pretty much going to have to tear it down,” said City Councilor Del Pepper, who added that the costs to rehabilitate the clubhouse could be too much to bear.

“I definitely want to see us get past the uses that are there today and provide a publicly accessible waterfront,” said Vice Mayor Justin Wilson.

Mayor Allison Silberberg cited an email she received from Wayne Neale, a member of the Board of Architectural Review for the Old and Historic District, raising concerns at the lack of a focal point in the current waterfront plan.

She suggested a focal point found in other cities’ waterfronts like a fountain, sculpture or obelisk, and said she would prefer to see a fountain upwards of 40 feet in height to have the “sound of water at the waterfront.”

Others remained unconvinced, noting that there is already a fountain in the Market Square, right in front of City Hall.

“This is not Market Square [version] 2.0,” said Chapman. “This is another different area. We have to differentiate between what we have here [at Market Square] and what we have at the waterfront.”

The proposal would make the waterfront more continuous for pedestrians, removing the chain-link fence that divides the parking lot from Waterfront Park, as well as some of the trees. Silberberg mentioned a letter sent by James Kapsis, chairman of the city environmental policy commission, that gave the project general support but questioned the reduction of the tree canopy in the area.

Silberberg sought details from staff on the types of trees that would be removed. Parks and recreation division chief Jack Browand said most of the trees being removed screen the fence from view, and are deemed “low-caliber.”

In addition to discussions about the interim Fitzgerald Square, councilors dug into some of the common elements to be found on the waterfront, like the stonework, lighting and the shoreline. Acting deputy director of parks and recreation Tony Gammon said the elements reflect the city’s maritime heritage, but Silberberg and Pepper raised concerns about the proposed lighting elements.

Staff studied five different alternatives for waterfront lighting, including those with an industrial and with a historic look. The two preferred alternatives were one historic lighting option found on Washington Street, and a nautical option that Gammon said helped create a mass of light on the shore for ships. Both Pepper and Silberberg were unconvinced by staff’s choices.

“To me, this is a reflection of a community like Newport [Beach], Calif., that is not Old Town Alexandria,” Silberberg said.

Pepper agreed, saying the choices were not “hitting a home run” in her opinion.

City Councilor Paul Smedberg, who also chairs the city’s waterfront commission, said the lighting was debated in numerous meetings, and that a simpler approach with less heavy light was favored. Gammon said the idea was to have the lights blend into the background.

In their presentation, Browand and Gammon said they had been “on the campaign trail” in the community, selling the project to a variety of stakeholder groups. Next up is the revision and finalization of the design concept of the project, and a detailed design and site analysis.

The planning commission and city council are expected to vote on the project this fall, with construction slated to start in either late 2017 or early 2018, depending on how the ODBC’s new clubhouse progresses.

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