For the first time the Alexandria-Woodrow Wilson Bridge Neighborhood Task Force monthly meeting was held at Porto Vecchio last Thursday night and its residents scored a major victory in their fight to stop construction of the new southern Gateway to the city.
After an emotional presentation by Porto Vecchio spokesperson and resident, Douglas Bannerman, Task Force Chairman Councilman William D. Euille, announced, "This is a plan that does not make sense. I have suggested to the City Planning Director and Director of Transportation of Environmental Services to stop the plan in its tracks.
"I talked to the city manager this morning. He met with Rich Baier (T&ES Director) and Eileen Fogarty (Director of Planning and Zoning) after that this morning and a new plan will be developed."
Since the proposed new gateway project was not even on the evening's agenda, Euille explained why he was allowing Bannerman to present his case and make his own announcement.
"The reason this was discussed tonight is I felt this was an issue the Task Force might have to buy into. That's not so now since the process is stopped and new plans are to be developed," he said to the applause of Porto Vecchio residents in attendance.
IT WAS JUST THREE weeks before, on May 1, that a revised plan for the new Gateway was presented to the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) and gained their unanimous support. As BAR member Oscar Fitzgerald said, "We were very impressed with the work the Planning people have done. Al Cox (City Architect with Planning and Zoning) has made a good effort to accommodate the Porto Vecchio residents. It is a well thought out plan..."
At the center of the controversy is the line of 20-year old, 30 to 40 feet high, Norway spruces that occupy a raised berm in front of Porto Vecchio immediately to the south of the condominium's main entrance on the edge of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. The residents want them to stay exactly where they are while a new Gateway calls for them to be relocated behind the existing bike path along the property's fence.
Originally, the plan called for the spruces to be replaced by deciduous trees and shrubs in a mirror pattern on both sides of the Parkway. The residents contend that these types of planting will not shield them from noise and air pollutants from Parkway traffic or from the westerly winds as the spruces now do.
Arguments had been addressed by Cox and the City's Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Activities department. And the residents' concerns have been addressed in the new plan, including the schedule for moving the existing trees, and replacing them with a mix of evergreens and deciduous, to maintain the protective elements now offered.
THE ONLY PRACTICAL difference for the Porto Vecchio residents would be the removal of the present trees from their present location to the existing fence line and the creation of a new landscape pattern on both sides of the Parkway. But they hold fast, as evidenced by Bannerman's presentation to the Task Force, that no change should be made to the existing trees and that a matching berm and tree line should be created on the west side.
An assessment of that position was summarized by BAR member Peter Smealie following the May 1, presentation to that body. "The work that has gone into the south entrance is superb. It's very sophisticated. I think the residents of Porto Vecchio are objecting on very selfish grounds. They should be embarrassed. It's costing the city nothing," he said.
The reference to no financial impact on the city stems from the fact that the funds for creating this Gateway are coming from the original agreement with the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project to provide the city with an existing landscape plans, according to Cox.
This was verified by Euille at the Task Force meeting when he stated, "The $52 million contract allows for the new bridge to tie into the outer loop. This will affect the Gateway in front of Porto Vecchio. VDOT agreed to approve the city's agreement. The Gateway is part of the tie in contract. This is not, per say, a city project. It is all part of the bridge project."
ALL GATEWAY planning and design costs will be covered by mitigation monies from the bridge project, according to city officials. It was redirected when the original plans for the scope of the so-called Urban Deck, where Washington Street crosses over the Beltway, were deemed unfeasible.
As noted in an article on this subject two weeks ago in the Gazette Packet, the various accommodations made to the Porto Vecchio residents by the amended plans for the Gateway were endorsed by both Baier and Fogarty. Following Thursday's Task Force meeting Baier stated, "We have decided that we don't want it (the Gateway Plan) to be part of the BR3 A deck plan. We'll address it later."
When asked when later, he could not give a specific time frame. A full week prior to the Task Force meeting Fogarty had indicated, "All the professionals felt there was a real need to create a Gateway treatment. And that can't be done with the berm there. But, the residents also have legitimate issues in wanting the visual and wind screen.
"We tried to address their concerns and also find a way to maintain the spirit of a Gateway and satisfy the goals. We sat down with Parks and Recreation and came up with a plan to make plantings early on to allow them time to grow and develop before the existing trees are moved. This addresses the residents' concerns not to lose the screen effect."
Apparently, the entire matter of whether or not there will be a southern landscape/architecturally designed southern Gateway to the city, as originally envisioned in 1932, or whether the status quo will prevail is under further consideration. Perhaps the prevailing winds are being determined more by the calendar than geography.
BUT THE PORTO VECCHIO tree line was not the only point of contention at Thursday's meeting. There was also the demolition of the Hunting Tower and the Hunting Terrace buildings coupled with VDOT's raising of tenant rents since they assumed ownership of those residences late last year.
In the case of the methodology of demolition, Euille assured the audience that, "The city will be approving the demolition process." This was followed by resident demands, "We want to be appraised of every detail. We're not children. We need to know what we are breathing."
They were further assured by Reed Winslow, T&ES liaison to the Bridge Project, "Once we see the demolition plans there will be an extensive review process. There will be an environmental monitor on site and the city and VDOT will approve the demolition plans."
Noreen Walker, VDOT representative to the Task Force, informed the audience that Old Dominion Demolition would be the demolition contractor. "Initial work for the demolition of the tower and the two garages will begin in mid-June.
"But, actual demolition will probably not begin until fall. Demolition of the office and Hunting Terrace buildings will be later," Walker said. All fire exercises in the condemned Hunting Tower building have ended.
Following the meeting, Winslow stated that it was "99 percent certain that the buildings will not be imploded but brought down mechanically. The demolition specifications require a permit and we will have oversight."
As for the question of asbestos, Winslow said, "Most of the asbestos is in items such as floor tiles. There is not a large quantity of it and it is not the same as insulation asbestos that is more airborne."
ANOTHER BONE OF CONTENTION with the Hunting Tower and Hunting Terrace residents voiced at the meeting was the escalating rents since VDOT assumed ownership.
"VDOT is now our landlord and they tell us to suck it up and pay more rent," Ken Poorman, Vice President, Terrace, Hunting Towers and Hunting Terrace Tenants' Association said.
Poorman noted that some long-time residents had received rent increases as high as $250 per month. He also pointed out that the vacancy rate in both the Tower and Terrace is 13 percent, "This is six times higher than the average in Alexandria," he noted.
"I never asked them to lower my rent, I asked them not to raise it. I want my money back and I want my rent lowered to where it was," he said. "The message they (VDOT) are sending is that they want us out."
In response, Euille said, "The heart of this issue is to prevent continuing escalation and get a rollback. The city is behind the residents. I have expressed these thoughts to both our state representatives and the governor. VDOT is not happy with us taking an advocacy position but we are not happy with VDOT."
Finally, there was the question of noise abatement and Maryland's desire to work 24/7 and not be bound by Alexandria restrictions. Yvonne Wright, a Task Force member, expressed the feeling, "Maryland is taking the position it's all up to them. They have ignored both the fact that the bridge begins at Royal Street and that there was supposed to be an Authority formed, with Alexandria having a seat on that Authority."
Baier said, "Maryland has not been working with us. They want to work 24/7 and do night hauling. The city is very much against both. We don't want to get into litigation, but we are not going to be backed into a corner. We are not going to be dictated to by Maryland."