Your Views: The importance of Washington Street

Your Views: The importance of Washington Street
Photo/City of Alexandria 424 N. Washington St.

To the editor:

The City of Alexandria is proposing a zoning change encompassing Washington Street that opens the door to permit construction of buildings beyond the current maximum heights of 50 to a possible height of 75 feet. The proposal would irrevocably change the character and feel of Washington Street, made worse by the city describing it as a likely area to make the use of the zoning change.

The City of Alexandria had lobbied the federal government hard to have the George Washington Memorial Highway run through the city on Washington Street, which was agreed to on conditions, referred to as the 1929 agreement. The city and the federal government entered the agreement governing the disposition of Washington Street on June 20, 1929.

Some of the key elements included the following two provisions:

“to restrict the said street to residential and business development of such character and of such types of building as will be in keeping with the Quality purpose and memorial character of said highway.”

“The City hereby agrees that it will enact any and all ordinances, and do any and all things necessary to carry into effect this Agreement and that it will enact no ordinance nor take into any other action which will be in conflict herewith or contrary to the purpose or intent hereof.”

The National Park Service further interpreted this to mean that, “There should be public impression that Washington Street is connected in some way (physically, thematically, or in some other positive way) with the parkway.”

By 1946, the city had so abused the agreement that the federal government threatened to move the Memorial Parkway away from Washington Street to the waterfront for condemning buildings that were considered inappropriate. Instead, the city agreed to create the Historic District to protect the integrity and purpose of the George Washington Memorial Highway.

The city did not have any height restrictions, and in the early sixties, the issue came up regarding Washington Street. This is referred to as the “height limit crisis” and was precipitated by a building proposal on Washington Street. In conjunction therewith, a 50-foot height limit was placed on Washington Street precisely to keep the memorial character of Washington Street intact. As a result, the 50-foot height limit was also enacted for the entire Historic District.

In the year 2000, the Washington Street ad Hoc Task Force discussed the possibility of reducing the height further on Washington Street, but at no point considered or believed height increases to be a possibility. On the contrary, the existing height limits were thought to be integral to the maintenance of the integrity of the Memorial Highway.

The George Washington Memorial Parkway is not just a street, but rather the impetus for the entire Historic District, and by inference, it is responsible for Alexandria’s place on the tourist maps. It inculcates a heritage that warrants sharing with the world, as people from all over the globe make a pilgrimage from Washington D.C. to Mount Vernon to pay their respects to the father of this country. The Parkway also represents a trust placed on the city by the federal government that it would maintain the highway for the purpose and dignity that it was envisioned to convey.

-Poul Hertel, Alexandria