The evolution of Windmill Hill Park

The evolution of Windmill Hill Park
Windmill Hill Park (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

By Cody Mello-Klein |

The waterfront section of Windmill Hill Park was officially re-opened on a blustery day in November, complete with a ceremony and ribbon-cutting by then-Mayor Allison Silberberg. It marked the completion of a lengthy revitalization project of the park between Union Street and the Potomac River in Old Town.

With a revamped, fully integrated dog park, a living shoreline and better access to the waterfront, Windmill Hill Park’s shoreline looks better than ever. However, the park — popularly referred to by residents as “Lee Street Park,” as the bulk of the park lies between Lee and Union streets — hasn’t always been the beautiful waterfront promenade it is today. The redevelopment project is only the most re- cent change to a park that has had to evolve to fit an ever-changing natural and urban environment.

“The landscape changed out of necessity and the city was able to use it for different purposes,” City Historian Daniel Lee said.

An aerial photo of Alexandria’s waterfront adjacent to Union Street from 1927. (Photo credit: Office of Historic Alexandria)

Originally called Miller’s Cliff, the park was renamed after inventor John R. Remington built the eponymous windmill in 1843. Back then the park was more than just a place for walking the dog. For some residents, it was an opportunity to enjoy the freedom of an afternoon stroll for the very first time.

“The park area was used by people who had escaped slavery during the Civil War to seek refuge and freedom,” Lee said. “Some of the newly freed people settled in that area.”

In 1882, due to erosion, the park changed again. The cliffs in the park were chiseled away to create an amphitheater. It is no longer part of the park, but while it was, residents were treated to some truly memorable performances, most notably a celebration of Alexandria’s 200th anniversary in 1949.

The centerpiece of the celebration was “Alexandria, My Son,” a play chronicling major events throughout Alexandria’s history.

“It was a 16-episode play,” Lee said. “Some of the highlights included General Braddock’s 1765 meeting with the colonial governors and George Washington’s First Night Ball in 1799.”

The city hired a Broadway designer to build a massive, 100-foot stage that required 40 technicians to construct and maintain it. The result was a major production that, according to Lee, received rapturous applause – and middling reviews.

However, the park hasn’t always been a great place to walk on a sunny day. As far back as 1891, there were complaints about vagrancy and crime. In 1956, the Alexandria Gazette quoted Alexandria’s police chief who claimed, “We get drunks, bootleggers, fights and deaths there all the time.”

A 2016 rendering of what Windmill Hill Park would look like after renovations. (Photo credit: City of Alexandria)

The city has had redevelopment plans for Windmill Hill Park for some time. Multiple development projects have been completed on land around the park, including two residential townhouse complexes in the late 90s. As new residents moved in, Windmill Hill Park’s shoreline became more and more of an eyesore, a promising piece of waterfront land that was sinking into the Potomac.

The Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities and the Department of Project Implementation first developed plans for a revitalization project in 2002. The plans were slightly amended in 2003, but, due to issues with funding and project prioritization, it took a while for the project to get off the ground.

“It really got started in earnest around the 2012, 2013 timeframe when we started having significant problems with the existing bulkhead,” Jack Browand, division chief of Park Planning and Capital Design, said. “Then we really started picking up the process to implement the plan as envisioned.”

After city council approved the Windmill Hill Park Project in 2015, construction got under way in spring 2017 and a year-and- a-half later, the mayor was cutting a ribbon on the Old Town waterfront.

The newly renovated Windmill Hill Park, also known as Lee Street Park, features a living shoreline and a bridge that connects two previously separate walking paths. (Photo credit: Cody Mello-Klein)

With 1,200 feet of restored, living shoreline, new pollinator friendly habitats, the renovated dog park and a waterfront trail that connects to Fords Landing City Park and Shipyard Park, the Windmill Hill Park has changed once again.

The project isn’t done just yet. A new pier is planned on the park’s northern edge and the play- ground in the park’s larger section on the west side of Union Street is slated for renovation. Both improvements are planned during this fiscal year.

For Browand, who has seen the city’s plan for Windmill Hill Park go from the wayside to the waterfront, the community’s response has been incredible.

“The dog owners are loving it and being able to walk and sit right up against the water was a highly desirable feature and that’s now been realized,” Browand said.