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December 30, 2010 Published in Letters/Opinions

The Alexandria Waterfront – In Peril Again

To the editor:

Almost 40 years have passed since Marian Van Landingam and the late Ellen Pickering spearheaded efforts to prevent developers from turning the historic Alexandria waterfront into another Watergate on the Potomac. With the support of residents, toxic industrial sites were turned into attractive public spaces, and an old torpedo factory was transformed into a unique art center and archeology museum, which attracts more than half a million visitors annually.

Now, we are at another tipping point, as city planners and elected officials prepare to conduct public hearings on a new waterfront plan. To many residents, though, the entire two-year planning process has been mostly an attempt to highlight opportunities to exploit the waterfront’s commercial value, as if it were a modern office building that we want to lease at market rates. In the 1800s, the town’s fishermen gillnetted the Potomac herring and shad with similar unsustainable efficiency.

For starters, the Council has decided to wrest control of the Torpedo Factory Arts Center from the artists, citing its lack of vibrancy and the lost opportunity to generate more revenue and attract more tourists. Economic studies, now a few years old, paint a more flattering portrait though of the center. Not surprisingly, the artistic community, which has helped bring life and tourists to Old Town, feels under siege and under-appreciated.

But the real opportunity – and the biggest threat too– is figuring how to reuse a collection of old buildings and piers, including the two large Robinson Terminal warehouses owned by the Washington Post Corporation. Venues that showcase the town’s seaport history are what will attract both residents and tourists to the town and its many small businesses along and off the waterfront. Boutique hotels and town homes clearly do not belong here, nor do shoreline parking lots, even one that is the private property of a historic boat club. But a maritime museum, more parkland, and more art-based activity, do and I think would be economically sustainable too.

Elected officials, however, have so far shown a preference for restaurants and hotels, even if the residential community does not agree. Perhaps it is because they cannot take their eyes off glitzy National Harbor across the Potomac, which a retail theme park with a dock, not a historic waterfront town on the banks of the Nation’s River. Whatever the reasons, you get the feeling that they hope developers will do all the real planning and investing.

Of course, there are good ideas in the current plan too. But not enough to justify –what the City seems eager to do quickly over the next few months –turning a weak concept into a comprehensive plan that we can all get behind. We need to take a step back and consider carefully how we want this waterfront to look in 10 years. Let’s preserve the waterfront for things that either can either be done nowhere else, or at least help sustain its very special public character.

Andrew H. Macdonald
Former Vice Mayor, City of Alexandria