Our View: North Old Town planning requires juggling of interests, ideas

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Our View: North Old Town planning requires juggling of interests, ideas
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(Image/City of Alexandria)

“To cope with while adroitly balancing” is one of the definitions of juggling — and it also describes the challenge facing city officials as they grapple with revamping the Old Town North small area plan.

The existing plan has been in place since 1992, the last year of George H.W. Bush’s presidency. It predates widespread use of the Internet. The iPhone was not yet even a gleam in Steve Jobs’ eye. Our city has changed tremendously in the 24 years since this plan was developed, and it needs updating in order to be relevant.

And yet city planners need to tread lightly. The Hippocratic maxim of “do no harm” applies here. When change to an area is considered, established stakeholders like residents and businesses need to know their quality of life — and livelihoods — will not suffer.

The planning stages of a revamp like this are fun. Innovations can be considered, and several interesting proposals are on the table, such as making the area an “Eco-District” with a focus on environmental sustainability; turning the site of the former NRG coal-fired plant into an “innovation district,” and a new open space trail that would connect the waterfront to the existing Mount Vernon Trail.

We have one more potential innovation to toss on the table: consider turning the old bus barn property into a Williams- burg-like visitor’s center. Tourism is Alexandria’s golden goose, and yet the city lacks a focal point that serves as a launch pad for tourists. Tour buses idling on the streets and visiting cars clogging the neighborhood negatively impact the Old Town experience for visitors and residents alike.

Be innovative with the space. You could go up with the visitor’s center and down with the parking deck – and make it large enough to accommodate buses. Yes, the city would forgo tax revenues that would come if the site were developed into townhouses. But if the project boosts tourism while improving the quality of life, wouldn’t we all win?

Such a project might not be feasible for a variety of reasons, including the fact that WMATA — not the city — owns the property. But why not put it on the table while innovations are being explored?

North Old Town is also home to important components of Alexandria’s arts community, including performing arts venue MetroStage and The Art League’s Madison annex. Planning that involves recommendations for redevelopment needs to ensure that these important parts of our city’s arts community don’t get squeezed out in the name of progress.

And so, city staff, the local advisory group, planning commission and city council will continue the difficult balancing act of devising and approving a new area plan for an important section of Alexandria. They must protect the needs of current residents and businesses, ponder how to expand the tax base, improve access to parks and recreational activities, make the area more green and retain its arts scene, all while simultaneously considering innovations and remembering this area is not an island but part of the larger city.

It’s a shame clowns are under such suspicion nationwide right now. Because what we really need are deft jugglers.

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