Community members involved with plans to redevelop Alexandria’s waterfront offered mixed reactions to City Council’s vote to delay action on the proposal, but all agree more time will allow spicy rhetoric on the topic to cool.
"I think the council was pretty clear about their reasons – it provides an opportunity for everyone to take a breath and to continue discussions over the summer," said Faroll Hamer, head of the city's Planning and Zoning Department. "Planning and Zoning staff will not lead that effort, but we will support it, and we look forward to any possibility that further discussions will result in a clearer understanding of the implications of the plan, changes to the plan that are mutually acceptable to the stakeholders, and further information regarding the structure and mechanics of implementation."
The Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association had testified throughout the year in support of moving the plan forward, but its CEO struck a neutral tone in response to the council’s recent vote.
“With more time, we are hopeful that the merits of the plan are appreciated. The planning process clearly identified the community’s priorities including additional open space, waterfront dining, art and history, a continuous walkway and flood mitigation,” said Stephanie Pace Brown, president and CEO of the ACVA. “We believe this can be accomplished with smart low-impact development that pays for necessary improvements to the waterfront and adds to the economic sustainability of the city.”
The city’s business champions at the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce expressed disappointment with the decision.
“The chamber is disappointed about the delay in approving the waterfront plan. We believe the plan to be well balanced,” said Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tina Leone. “It is the result of the combined efforts and opinions of those in the community who participated in the city’s very open planning process, which included over 100 plus meetings held in the last two years.”
She added that there has been an “overwhelming amount of misinformation” spread about the plan.
“It is not a rezoning from parks to development. Developments for office, residential, retail and restaurants are already permitted under the current zoning,” she said. “If the waterfront plan is not approved with the rezoning, the city will by default be blessing redevelopment with no guidelines about what we want and how we want it to look.”
Tom Russo, owner of waterfront restaurant Chadwick’s, said, “There will never be a time when every group or faction will be happy with every part of the plan, but I think the council is smart to give it more time to make sure that all parties have been fully heard, that all parties have all the facts and hopefully some kind of consensus or compromise can be reached.”
Val Hawkins, who heads the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, said: “After two years of tremendous effort…it’s unfortunate we haven’t been able to settle on a vision,” but concurrently he sees the delay as a “positive thing” in that more time “will let emotions cool down over the summer.”
Hawkins agreed with the chamber’s Leone that there had been misinformation spread about the intent of the city’s plan.
For example, there is “no way” that Alexandria would try to “National Harborize our waterfront,” he said, referring to citizen concerns over issues such as density and building height.
Hawkins expects working groups between the citizens and the city to convene in July and August in an effort to reach consensus.
Residents largely seemed copacetic with the delay. Alexandrian Kathleen Kust has been following the waterfront debate and told Patch: "I'm grateful to the people who took the time to define and communicate their reluctance about this project, and to City Council for postponing their decision. I just hope that by fall, the proposal has been re-scaled to keep free access and openness at the waterfront rather than cut it off in various ways. And that by then, it is clear that the negative effects of maximizing hotel space at the river's edge outweigh the benefits."
Mary Kate Mull, a second grader at St. Mary’s School, attended last Saturday’s work session with her mother. "I am glad that the council heard us,” Mull said, referring to its decision to defer action until the fall. “Kids need more parks to play in. Building will take that opportunity away from us forever. The waterfront should be our central park - our place to go."
Her mother, Marianne McInerney, said she has been “monitoring” the waterfront issue for the last seven years. “I am pleased that the council had delayed a vote. It is the responsible thing to do,” she said. “When I was first involved in this issue, the city planners wanted a vista and a waterfront with open space and parks. That has dramatically shifted without benefit of understanding long-term impacts on open space, density or economic and quality of life impact to our residents. Adding mixed used facilities and hotels on the waterfront is completely opposite of where this process began.”
Andrew Macdonald, who has been instrumental in organizing residents who have concerns with the city’s plan, said: “We’re glad that [city council] did that. It’s the right thing to do to step back and allow for further analysis.”
His group, Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront, held a meeting Wednesday evening to discuss formalizing itself into a membership organization. Attendees at the meeting discussed requests the group is going to make to the city and how the process going forward should be structured. It also plans to do research and white papers to “help the process,” Macdonald said.
“We’ll try and work with what ever the city will set up, and we’ll do our own analyses,” Macdonald said. “We don’t want to get boxed in where the planning staff only gives us one option.”
It all may be summed up by one waterfront work session attendee who said while leaving the meeting, "All of this talk of water makes me thirsty. I think I need a drink" to which a fellow attendee said, "Yeah, make mine a double."