By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
At its public hearing on Saturday, city council officially adopted the name Waterfront Park for the new park at the foot of King Street.
The decision comes after months of heated debate. Before the launch of an extensive naming process and dating back to 2012, the site had been commonly referred to as Fitzgerald Square in honor of Lt. Col. John Fitzgerald, an Irish immigrant, aide-de-camp to Gen. George Washington and former Alexandria mayor.
City Manager Mark Jinks instructed city staff last spring to stop calling the park that specific name because it still needed to go through an official naming process, according to a city spokesperson. He implemented the temporary placeholder name King Street Park at the Waterfront.
The change sparked outrage, especially from members of the Ballyshaners and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, two of Alexandria’s Irish organizations. Members said they had learned of the name change on St. Patrick’s Day.
The official naming process, which included meetings, an online survey and a hearing before the Alexandria City Council Naming Committee, began in September. It drew vehement public participation both from those in support of the Fitzgerald name and those opposed, many of whom said they were against naming a park for a prominent slaveholder. Fitzgerald owned 46 slaves at the time of his death, according to a document from the Slavery Inventory Database.
The naming committee, composed of councilors Del Pepper and Tim Lovain, suggested the name Waterfront Park to council at the Dec. 11 legislative meeting. Despite the fervent public input in the past few months, only one person, former Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald, testified against the proposal before the final vote on Saturday.
“I think Waterfront Park is a lackluster, unimaginative name, and we can do a lot better,” Macdonald said. “I think it’s better to name our parks after something that expands our view of our history, that does more to show why we are such a historic town. Waterfront Park does nothing for us. … It’s a simple, lackluster way to escape all controversy.”
Pepper and Lovain said Fitzgerald’s slaveholding was a major factor they considered during the naming process.
“It was a difficult decision with a lot of controversy associated with it, but I too was just appalled by the record of the slave ownership,” Lovain said. “Yes, times were different, but this is not one or two slaves. His successful businesses were accomplished on the backs of enslaved human beings.”
In response to Macdonald’s comments about the blandness of Waterfront Park, Pepper defended their choice.
“Maybe waterfront park doesn’t excite everybody, but at least it doesn’t offend everybody,” she said.
Waterfront Park will open as an interim park in early 2019. At some point in the next few years, it will close so that flood mitigation infrastructure can be added before it opens permanently.