To the editor:
City leaders should have realized that the middle of a pandemic is not the time to debate a complex, perhaps precedent-setting, urban development project, such as the Heritage proposal. To put it another way, how can you argue with a mask on your mouth?
Who wants to bother with every-day, city hall squabbling when, to overdramatize only slightly, death is in the wings? One result has been that those with most at stake, including the occupants of affordable housing and neighbors in nearby houses and apartments, have yet to be adequately informed.
This project should be put off until the people most affected – residents and neighbors – have the time and ability to pay attention to it and when we can meet in person and review this matter together rather than on a computer screen.
As things stand, the developers are seeking a “permit to demolish” before other details have been worked out. They are, of course, aware that once peoples’ homes are demolished, further talk will be futile.
The area in question may be considered by some to be lacking in historical importance. True, it has few plaqued brick houses, though the same goes for most houses in traditionally Black areas. But it includes the area known in the 19th Century as The Bottoms or The Dip, part of a story explained in more detail in “Courage Journey: A Guide to Alexandria’s African American History.” Looked at more closely, it was indeed important in Alexandria’s history and economy.
It includes everything from old horse stables, interesting if modest residences, small businesses still reflecting their Black heritage and businesses and individuals competing for space, especially at the northern end adjacent to Washington Street. Much of this housing looks attractive, as my wife and I discovered only after walking became a healthy necessity thanks to COVID-19.
The Heritage site anchors an important part of this area. It straddles Wilkes Street which continues all the way to the waterfront. It greets traffic coming into Alexandria on Route 1. To build such massive structures would destroy one of the few remaining gateways to the city not already overbuilt, in a fashion totally incompatible with the historic core of Old Town.
The area immediately to the west of Heritage, abutting cemeteries, is filled with particularly attractive housing with spacious surroundings and funky yards. It is an area that should be protected.
But here is the problem: If the Heritage proposal goes forward, it will greatly increase the pressure to “densify” other areas west of Washington Street which do not necessarily enjoy the kind of protection enjoyed elsewhere, particularly in what is known as Old Town. Nothing will be safe.
Moreover, do not believe that if the city approves the new Heritage it will consist of anything more than the same mass-produced architecture that has already bloomed all over the greater Washington area. If you don’t believe it, just look at the metal and glass development now on display on our own waterfront despite all those years of negotiation; on the bones of Potomac Yard – it was more beautiful when it was full of trains, or, for that matter, on the new D.C. waterfront, which is slightly more attractive because large amounts of money were thrown at it.
Let’s slow down and think the matter through without the interference mortal threat.
-Robert Pringle, Alexandria