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January 31, 2012 Published in Editorials

Listening Is In The Ear Of The Beholder

City Council adopted the waterfront plan on a vote of 5-2 after a marathon public hearing. Opponents vowed to fight on in the courts but the issue is settled for the moment.

One of the most frequent complaints from those opposed to the plan was that the decision makers did not listen to them. That is one of the most preposterous assertions in Alexandria's recent history. There were many opportunities for public input. A Citizens Task Force included opponents. At adoption the Plan was changed to incorporate many of the suggestions made by opponents.

Citizens seem to believe that unless they get their way no one is listening. Children seem to feel that way when they are quite young. The fact that mature adults are expressing those feelings in Alexandria reflects the overgrown sense of entitlement that permeates American society at every level today. Our notes reveal that as many proponents of the plan spoke as did opponents.  There was no clear majority.

The debate was also one of the most emotional in recent history and opponents resorted to rabble rousing and name calling. Public officials were subject to innuendo that was spread around the City even though it had no basis in fact. There should be no surprise. When emotions meet fact emotions usually come out on top. In this case, however, the majority of Council persevered to the end. There certainly were good reasons for this.

First, the increase in density issue was driven by the lawsuit from The Washington Post Company, owner of the Robinson terminal piers and warehouses which represent the largest undeveloped parcels on the central waterfront. In 1983 Robinson Terminal along with other private landowners became a party to the settlement of the waterfront title suit. In 1992 the City unilaterally downzoned the Robinson parcels. Robinson filed a lawsuit then which was withdrawn under an agreement that the issue would be restudied and that the statute of limitations would not apply. The increases of density in the new plan for Robinson bring those parcels back up to the 1983 density level.

There is some good news for citizens here, however, as the City has more control over the development of the property which, if properly implemented, will result in more open space, more amenities and more infrastructure then allowing the development under current density. There will also be no costly and protracted lawsuit which, given the circumstances, would be very difficult for the City to win.

Second, the waterfront requires substantial investment in infrastructure for flood control and other reasons. There is no source of revenue for this unless taxes are raised or development is encouraged and required to pay for some of it. Also, new development will provide a continuing source of additional revenues to pay for the maintenance of the waterfront.

The major reason the opponents of the waterfront plan failed to derail it were their inability to produce the cash necessary to fund their vision and their inability to deal with the legal issues surrounding the Robinson Terminal sites. These are real issues. The rest of the City does not want to pay for the wants of some Old Towner's. Emotion could not trump this.

There is always more study that can be done but delay could have produced additional development without giving the City the additional controls needed to secure open space and infrastructure. The increase in density over current levels, about 15%, should not itself cause traffic and parking problems. That is not to say that building the other 85% will not, but that is already on the books. A detailed Flood Control study could reveal the need for more expensive infrastructure and that could have been used to justify greater density.

We were disappointed that the Council vote was on a partisan basis. We would have thought that Republicans who talk about being business friendly and talk about the need for additional revenues without raising taxes would have been in favor of the plan rather than opponents. We will see if this strategy assists them in the November City Council election. We rather think it will not.

City Council did well in dealing with the Waterfront Plan. It is now up to the staff and Council to do as well with the implementation.

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