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Votes

Finally, a ‘Gateway’ for Everybody

Who says persistence doesn't pay off? Don't tell that to the residents of Porto Vecchio.

After nearly seven months of back-and-forth confrontation, the powers that be at Alexandria City Hall have finally acquiesced to what the residents of Porto Vecchio wanted originally concerning the design of the so-called "Southern Gateway" — that is, a mirror image of their pines and high berm, forming a cradle for the southern entrance and exit to and from Alexandria.

It all started when city planners developed a design to create a "gateway" to the city, as originally envisioned by the plan for the George Washington Memorial Parkway owned by the National Park Service. It was to mirror a similar configuration at the north end of Alexandria. That has long since been obscured by traffic realities.

In May, fueled by mitigation moneys from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project, city officials proposed to create not a circle, but a landscaped, architecturally designed southern entrance to Alexandria. But, in order to do so, and achieve the desired symmetrical balance, it was determined the high berm and the 40-foot-high pines on that berm directly in front of Porto Vecchio would have to go.

The residents said, “No way.”

THE ORIGINAL PLAN proposed by the city was to remove the berm and trees, which had been planted there by the Porto Vecchio builder and cared for by the residents ever since. It was to shield the condominium from highway noise and pollution.

The original city plan called for the berm to be leveled and the trees relocated to the fence line of the building. They were to be replaced by a configuration of a variety of plantings that would form the frame for the new egg-shaped gateway.

This brought forth a head-to-head confrontation between a citizens coalition and the city's Department of Planning and Zoning and Transportation and Environmental Services (T&ES). A letter dated April 1, 2002, signed by Frederick Kroesen, president, Porto Vecchio Condominium Association, stated, "The City Planning Department has developed plans that call for the leveling of the berm, removal of the large Norway spruce trees ... ."

The condominium association proposed that both the berm and the trees remain and that a new high berm and like trees be planted across the roadway to form a mirror image. This, they argued would be far preferable, cost far less, and not endanger the existing trees.

Porto Vecchio Condominium Association based objections to the original plan on two main points: (1) Moving the trees would be extremely expensive, and there was no guarantee they would survive, and (2) the existing trees protect condominium residents from prevailing west winds and screen them from Parkway traffic.

However, after months of negotiations between the association and both the departments of Planning and Zoning and T&ES, the city has basically agreed with the original suggestion by the association to create a mirror image.

AT A MEETING this past spring, Richard Baier, director of T&ES, stated, "Before I ... came to the city, a lot of time had been put into this, and there was some degree of ownership of the concept. But it became clear the original landscape plan was not desirable, and the Porto Vecchio residents had some valid points."

As explained by Reed Winslow, bridge project liaison for T&ES, "This has been going on for four or five years between the bridge design people and the city." The funds for the gateway creation are all part of the settlement package between the city and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project, according to Winslow.

"When they discovered the urban deck could not do what they originally thought, they decided to make the money available elsewhere," Winslow explained.

Eileen Fogarty, director, Department of Planning and Zoning, had explained at the time of the original sessions between the city and the Porto Vecchio residents, "All the professionals felt there was a real need to create a gateway treatment. But the residents also have legitimate issues in wanting the visual and wind screen."

As for the now agreed-upon plan, Fogarty stated, "We tried to maintain the entrance concept to the Parkway and satisfy the Porto Vecchio people's desire not to lose the berm and the existing trees. We feel the compromise will meet both objectives."

ON OCT. 29, a meeting was held between condominium representatives and those from the departments of Planning and Zoning; T&ES; and Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities. It was chaired by Fogarty.

This was followed by a meeting of the condominium association at Porto Vecchio on Nov. 25. At that gathering the new plan was explained, according to Douglas Bannerman, an association spokesperson.

"We had about 50 people in attendance. They [city representatives] presented the new plan, and we gave a standing ovation. We are in total support of this plan. At the conclusion of that meeting, we asked for a show of hands on how many approved, and we got a unanimous vote of approval," Bannerman exclaimed.

The jointly agreed-upon proposal calls for the following:

. Retain existing berm and spruce trees and repeat on West side of Parkway;

. Install proposed underground utilities and new street lights. Create a "sense of place" for the gateway;

. Streetscape of Parkway, from Hunting Creek to Church Street, considered part of entry sequence;

. Consider appearance of gateway in both short and long term.

. Keep original Gateway Memorial concept, but don't be limited by 1930 plans.

. Use formal landscape plan to distinguish city entrance from informal Parkway landscape;

. Use natural materials to offset visual impact of new bridge concrete;

. Incorporate existing spruce trees into gateway design and move formal circle south, if possible.

THERE WILL BE two stonewalls with post lamps and a sign on each. The west side will announce the Parkway, and the east will welcome travelers to the city. The stone and details of the new entrance walls will match that used in the adjacent historic bridge over Hunting Creek.

Some of the trees for the gateway are from seeds and grafts of trees originally planted by George Washington at his Mount Vernon Estate, according to the latest plan. "This will create a memorial entrance to Washington's hometown," the plan states.

The bike/walking path, which now goes behind the existing berm and trees, will be straightened somewhat to flow behind additional trees before entering the bridge. The twist in the existing traffic flow will be straightened, with a center divider added, as in the original proposal.

As summarized by Fogarty before the November meeting of the Old Town Civic Association, "We put together a whole list of things in an attempt to satisfy all parties concerned." Judging by the vote of the Porto Vecchio Condominium Association, they succeeded.