City Council voted 6-1 Saturday afternoon to allow new kinds of development along the Alexandria waterfront and allowing the city to curb litigation currently stalling the city’s plans to redevelop its riverside.
Council also voted 6-1 on an amendment clarifying a part of the zoning code governing property owners’ protest petitions.
Deputy Director of Planning and Zoning Karl Moritz explained Saturday that the text amendment “is needed to implement elements of the small area plan such as permitting hotels.”
The newly adopted text amendment would allow hotels under certain circumstances, permit cultural institutions and offer rules governing size and height of new development.’
It also would allow structures 5,000 feet or larger that “foster art, history and cultural awareness” such as museums, schools and cultural institutions.
The waterfront plan focuses on three sites along Union Street – the Robinson Terminals north and south and the Cummings-Turner block.
The Planning Commission March 5 had approved the amendments 7-0 saying it was “necessary to implement the vision of the previously approved and adopted Waterfront Small Area Plan” adding that it’s what the community-at-large wanted.
City Council in January 2012 approved the Waterfront Small Area Plan, but at that time never officially adopted an accompanying text amendment because the status of the hearing and vote on the text amendment was challenged on a legal matter.
Citizens Speak For, Against Changes
Skip MacGuiness, speaking for the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. supported the change. He called the plan a huge compromise and said the deliberations on it over the last few years has “added to the perception that Alexandria is a difficult place to do business.”
A resident of the Carlyle neighborhood said parts of the city’s waterfront look like an abandoned industrial town.
“Our waterfront is an embarrassment,” he said adding that Georgetown, National Harbor and the Anacostia waterfront are upgrading and will compete for “visitor attention and dollars.”
“For those who want a quiet retirement destination – it’s called Florida,” he said.
Val Hawkins, president of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, said if the plan’s execution is done properly, “we’ll be proud of what we’ve done.”
Andrew Macdonald, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor as an independent, was first up in a long list of speakers urging council to reject the amendment.
“We have a chance to do something quite amazing…We’ve turned to the old generic argument of mixed use retail,” he said. “…The benefits are weak and not well thought out.”
Bert Ely, co-chair of advocacy group Friends of the Alexandria Waterfront, said there should be no increase in building heights and the three sites that could be developed would “add about 600,000 square feet of actively used space to an already congested area.”
Old Town resident and former Sen. Patsy Ticer came out once again against the plan, urging council to vote against the amendment. “As I said before we’re not ready for prime time. I don’t think we’re ready for prime time now. I don’t know what the house on fire is all about,” she said echoing several comments asking council members what’s the rush and why not have more public discussion on the issue.
City Attorney Jim Banks later said he did not believe the vote was rushed.
Council Responds to Residents' Concerns
Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg, who was the lone dissenting vote on both amendments, offered a motion to amend the Waterfront Small Area Plan allowing only one hotel. The plan currently allows two hotels with a total of 300 rooms between them.
"I am trying to seek a middle ground," she said.
Councilman Justin Wilson shot down that idea quickly, arguing that while he was prepared to “entertain the conversation” it’s not something that could be voted on immediately without a discussion of the tradeoffs of allowing only one hotel.
Councilman Paul Smedberg said he has gotten emails from area residents who are concerned the city is going to bulldoze Old Town to build hotels – which is not true, he said.
Moritz explained that the city is not intending to knock down any historic buildings beyond what is proposed at the three sites.
“I find it hard to see the horror some people see in this plan,” Smedberg said, adding that he sees parks, beautification, an art walk, public access to the water and other benefits.
Councilman John Chapman said he supports the change because it shows Alexandria is moving toward becoming a “destination waterfront.”
The council members generally agreed they wanted to avoid privatized residential development along the waterfront that would prevent public access.
“Once it’s gone, it’s never coming back,” Wilson said.
Council members agreed to approve a second controversial amendment addressing citizens’ rights to protest certain zoning changes, saying some language in the code was a technical error.
For more news, letters to the editor and articles on Alexandria's waterfront redevelopment debate, see Old Town Alexandria Patch's Waterfront Redevelopment page.