Letter to the Editor: Our Historic River
Alexandrian Kathryn Papp says the city's latest announcements regarding waterfront redevelopment introduce more error into an already confused development process.
To the editor,
From its very beginning, the Feb. 15 letter from the Office of the City Manager is a model letter of ambiguity, Byzantine confusion, conciliatory and authoritarian tone. Quite an achievement for something under a page in length. It’s difficult to know exactly how to interpret it, except to conclude that it is a deliberate attempt to introduce even more error into an already confused development process. (Editor's Note: See attached PDF file of city manager's letter.)
In the beginning, the “community vision” was described by residents to prefer open space, naturalistic river walks, and support art and history, perhaps a historic ship – with a minimum of commercial activity. This preference has not varied. Otherwise, confusion reigned. Landowners were confused, when some were told hotels were required, others were told they were preferred. The vote was frenzied, as Councilwoman Pepper barely managed to limit the hotels to two. Already, the Work Group’s plan revisions were not even minimally met in a first attempt to conceive a building under the plan’s requirements – the Cummings architectural rendering defied several important guidelines.
This is how legal battles are won – on process and procedure and confusion, not substance. Unfortunately, the deeper the city wades into this swamp the more their early errors are magnified. Aggressive actions like this letter encourage error. The most remarkable of these is clarifying access to Protest Petitions by limiting them to map amendments only. This restricts due process by locking out residents subject to zoning change via a text amendment. Unless the city can categorically prove there will never be a need to write a text amendment, they are setting themselves up for a sure legal challenge on equity. And the City Charter entertains any device to trigger a Protest Petition, so any type of amendment is eligible. A change to City Charter must be done at the state level – a very serious undertaking! One that is never ever rushed past those who are directly affected.
However the legal issues play out, the heart of the problem remains. The design of the plan and the density of the properties allowed will constitute an artificial and stark contrast to the surrounding small scale and low mass of the Historic District. The waterfront remains and always will be an integral part of Old Town’s community. The Cumming’s property hotel design was tested against this community vision by the Board of Architectural Review and failed. It was also clear that it would be exceedingly difficult for any large mass commercial property to satisfy the limitations of the place – where will the loading dock be? On Duke Street facing Harborside or on the Strand facing the public park? The parking requirements for number of rooms were short. The view shed was nonexistent, and public space was rendered as an inner courtyard and a green roof.
The city has stubbornly resisted using models to project traffic and flooding impact. Rather they are like those hedge fund traders who use simple spreadsheets to track intricate global trades. The result is outsize risk, because you have no idea of the magnitude of the decision you’re making. Which brings me to FEMA and the new risk of disaster flooding from immense storm systems.
In a very short time the country has been forced to admit that climate change is here. Sandy in New York City and New Jersey made that clear, as did Nemo in the Northeast, and the derecho in Washington last summer. Sea level on the eastern shore of North America is rising faster than anywhere on earth. Ships have been traveling through the melted Arctic since 2010. The EPA/FEMA flood maps for the City of Alexandria show disaster flooding rising as high as Royal Street, and the entire waterfront plan is built on infill – as in NYC or anywhere, it is guaranteed to flood… at an enormous cost to property owners, infrastructure rebuilding and cleanup by the city, and life. The combined sewer system is a disease incubator.
In the end, this risk burden will fall on the City of Alexandria, and should a massive storm strike - the cost of this waterfront plan will be enormous. The cost of Sandy is now estimated at $60 billion. City officials will surely be remembered for their decision to build on the river’s edge, and probably not kindly.