King Street park naming process draws ire

King Street park naming process draws ire
Council voted on Saturday to name the park at the foot of King Street "Waterfront Park." (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

By Missy Schrott |

When the City of Alexandria broke ground on a new park at the base of King Street on St. Patrick’s Day, the event was a little less Irish than anticipated.

Since city council adopted the Waterfront Plan in 2012, city staff, residents and media have called the park Fitzgerald Square. The name was first published in recognition of Lt. Col. John Fitzgerald, an Irish immigrant, Revolutionary War veteran and former Alexandria mayor.

In preparation for the park’s groundbreaking, however, City Manager Mark Jinks instructed his staff to begin referring to the space with a more generic label – King Street Park at the Waterfront – since it had not yet been officially named, according to city spokesman Craig Fifer.

The new name was published on March 6 in news releases and social media, but the groundbreaking itself took place on March 17, sparking outrage from Alexandria’s Irish organizations.

“Unfortunately, due to a complete coincidence, the groundbreaking was scheduled for as soon as possible and … it turned out to be St. Patrick’s Day in March,” Fifer said at an Alexandria City Council Naming Committee meeting on Sept. 12.

“That was not intended as any sort of slight or affront,” he said. “It was a total coincidence, and I certainly apologize for not thinking of that when we scheduled the groundbreaking.”

The Sept. 12 naming committee meeting was the first public meeting about the naming process for the park. The conference room in city hall was filled with about 20 representatives from the Ballyshaners and the Ancient Order of the Hibernians – Alexandria’s two dominant Irish organizations – donning green blazers and shamrock ties.

The naming committee includes Councilors Del Pepper and Tim Lovain, along with staff liaison Jack Browand, division chief for the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities.

At the meeting, Fifer emphasized that both Fitzgerald Square and King Street Park at the Waterfront have been temporary placeholder names, as only city council has the power to adopt an official name for a park. He said the purpose of the meeting was to determine a public process for giving the park a permanent name.

Despite the committee’s objective to discuss the process and set a timeline, Fifer spent the majority of the meeting explaining the reasoning behind the placeholder name change in March. He acknowledged that the park has been referred to as Fitzgerald Square for the past five years, if not longer, and apologized that the city hadn’t switched to a more generic name sooner.

“To be perfectly honest, we started drafting an invitation, and we had to put something on the invitation,” Fifer said. “We realized that inviting people to the groundbreaking of Fitzgerald Square would not be appropriate because the park had never been named Fitzgerald Square.”

Fifer said the confusion dates back to the Waterfront Plan, which refers to the space as Fitzgerald Square multiple times. He said those who drafted the plan favored historic names over general or geographical names. Despite the references in the draft, however, council did not approve the suggested names when it approved the Waterfront Plan itself, Fifer said.

“The adoption of the small area plan by city council did not represent an official naming selection,” he said. “The names in the plan were recommendations or suggestions and really, the entire plan was a concept plan. Any of the individual actions that would be taken as a result of the plan would have to be approved separately.”

Fifer said when staff started planning the groundbreaking and realized there would have to be an official naming process approved by city council, Jinks stripped the Fitzgerald Square placeholder and replaced it with King Street Park at the Waterfront.

Mayor Allison Silberberg said there had been a lack of communication about the change within city hall.

“Until two or three days before the groundbreaking for the park, I was unaware that there was [an official naming] process underway,” Silberberg said. “The city manager said there has to be a naming process, but I think a lot of people thought that had already occurred because that’s what it’s always been called. … It had just always been Fitzgerald Square. I have documents in my office that didn’t say Interim Fitzgerald Square, just Fitzgerald Square.”

Terry Riley, president of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, said he was frustrated with the lack of engagement between the placeholder name being changed in March and the meeting last week.

“For some time, all that we had was a number of people that are close to city council trying to get meetings, trying to get answers, without much success,” Riley said. “Up until [Sept. 12], because we weren’t getting any concrete answers, it was all just rumors and so forth, so it was very frustrating.”

Ballyshaners Chair Kim Moore said the lack of communication about the change was not only upsetting but emotional, as Ballyshaners founder Pat Troy, who died in March, had spent years advocating for the recognition of John Fitzgerald’s contributions to the city.

“Even before the Waterfront Plan was going into place, Pat Troy had been advocating to have John Fitzgerald Square,” Moore said. “… Pat would talk about it at public hearings, and then when the Waterfront Plan came through, and the Fitzgerald name was affixed, that looked to us like very good news.”

Fifer said city staff should have specified when the Waterfront Plan was adopted that the park would eventually have to go through an official naming process to avoid the confusion and frustration Fitzgerald’s advocates are now experiencing.

He said a Washington Post article last month added to the confusion. The Aug. 1 article, “Battle over park name shows that history is never the past in Alexandria” suggests that the city stopped referring to the project as Fitzgerald Square after receiving complaints about a connection between Fitzgerald and slavery. The article also mentioned the removal of a Robert E. Lee portrait from City Council Chambers.

Fifer said it was true that he had received about a dozen complaints about Fitzgerald’s association with slavery around the time of the groundbreaking, but that they had nothing to do with the decision to change how the park was referenced.

“Yes, we did receive complaints about slavery,” Fifer said, “but that’s a footnote, it is not the main story, and the point with regards to the naming process is that when we got those questions and comments and complaints, there wasn’t anything for us to do with them, because there was no naming process.”

That naming process kicked off with the meeting on Sept. 12. Fifer said the committee did not make any decisions at the meeting because they wanted to consider his presentation and the comments of the attendees. When the group meets again, it will determine a timeline for the public engagement piece of the naming process.

Fifer said the naming process is set to take place in the fall, and will most likely involve an online survey period for people to submit name suggestions, followed by a public hearing with a presentation of the survey results. The naming committee would then decide what name to recommend to city council members, who would vote on whether or not to adopt the name at a public hearing, most likely in December or January.

Riley said he is more committed than ever to advocate for John Fitzgerald’s name to be permanently adhered to the park. The Ancient Order of the Hibernians has a petition with nearly 1,500 signatures demanding that city council “immediately restore the name Fitzgerald Square to the waterfront project and institute changes to the project plans that emphasize the city’s deep Irish past and current culture.”

“They’re dismissing a war hero, a public servant, somebody who was wounded in battle, an immigrant, and … a veteran,” Riley said. “It’s not just an Irish thing. It’s not just an immigrant thing. It’s not just a Catholic Church thing. This seems to hit every key element.”