Our View: Vibrancy must be balanced with livability

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The current favored buzzword in Alexandria is “vibrancy.” To be vibrant is to be full of energy and life. Who doesn’t want that?

The question is not whether we want to be vibrant, for surely we do. The issue is at what point on the graph do we move from the positive of vibrancy to the negative of eroding livability?

We as a city need consensus around what our larger goal is in encouraging vibrancy. That’s a conversation that has not taken place at the macro level. There is no community-wide consensus around this topic.

Instead, city leaders are making many small decisions that add up to an apparent new philosophy of pushing for vibrancy at every turn, in every corner of the city, regardless of the cost to longtime, nearby residents. This pursuit is being used to justify new dining establishments in Old Town, Del Ray and Arlandria that are likely to violate our noise ordinances and that allow takeout or outdoor consumption of food and alcohol until 2 a.m.

To be clear, we don’t object to all of these projects. It’s the manner of the process and the apparent disregard for our neighborhoods that are troubling.

Vibrancy was a key element cited in the city’s abrupt, permanent takeover of the Torpedo Factory in November, as detailed in today’s page 1 story, “Torpedo Factory evolves.”

The Torpedo Factory is surely in need of some change. If artists want the facility to remain an art-first venue, then they need to keep their studios open a greater percentage of the time so it doesn’t feel empty and abandoned to visitors. Likewise, Old Town, Del Ray and Arlandria need fun places that draw patrons from within the city, and also visitors from the region and beyond.

Our concern is that, without having a comprehensive conversation with residents, Alexandria’s city leaders – council, city staff and local business organizations – have decided to pursue development intended to compete with National Harbor and The Wharf.

There are many problems with such an approach:

–First, Alexandria is historic, and National Harbor and The Wharf aren’t. Visitors should come to all three places, but for different reasons. Let tourists stay at National Harbor until 2 a.m., and also come to Alexandria to visit Christ Church, go on the Manumission Tour and have a nice dinner.

–The commercial areas of Old Town and Del Ray are in the middle of neighborhoods that are old and historic, and people who pay high and rising property taxes live in them. Residential districts do not abut National Harbor and The Wharf.

–A vibrancy-at-all-costs approach will attract more visitors for sure. But do we really want inebriated guests wandering our neighborhoods in the middle of the night – lured by our establishments serving alcohol until 2 a.m.? We think not.

Let’s have that comprehensive conversation, hopefully find consensus and build on what we do well.

The new, almost-finished walkway along the waterfront in Old Town is a step in the right direction. It will have historic markers and artifacts in many places. Projects like this, that enhance our parks and highlight our considerable history, are what will continue to set us apart.

Anyone can build a restaurant that stays open into the wee hours. Real history can’t be built – it has to evolve over time.

A far-sighted approach would view every development project, large and small, through the prism of its impact on our history and the livability of our adjacent neighborhoods. Vibrancy that passes that test should be encouraged. If it doesn’t, we should just say no.

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