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Livability Depends on Who's in Control

Expert credits citizen involvement in Alexandria.

What makes one community more livable than another? More aware of its history? Have a more "can do" spirit than another? More willingness and ability to control development rather than letting development control it?

Those were some of the questions given during City Council's Oct. 20 Community Workshop. The subject was "Livable Communities and Smart Growth."

"This is the time for us to come together, to listen, to learn and to discuss," Mayor William D. Euille told the 150 plus citizens and local leaders assembled in the Atrium Auditorium of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Joining the mayor and City Council in presenting the workshop were the Planning Commission and Board of Architectural Review.

"This will enable us to learn more about what is happening. With all the growth that is taking place we need to look at where we are, where we are going and how we want to get there. Are we getting enough benefits and are we meeting the goals of our master plan?" Euille said.

Answering those questions was Edward McMahon, senior fellow, Urban Land Institute, who as both a lawyer and community planner has consulted with municipalities and local governments nationwide on the subjects of growth and development. His presentation concentrated on the interlock between community character and economic growth.

"Many small cities have been losing the uniqueness of their character. We have been losing our sense of place," McMahon said.

But that was not his prognosis of Alexandria. "I have worked in every corner of this Commonwealth and nobody is doing a better job of planning in Virginia than Alexandria," he said.

"But, if you don't know where you are, you don't know where you are going. And, if you don't care where you are going it doesn't matter which train you take," McMahon said.

Growth is both inevitable and desirable, according to McMahon. The question is how that growth takes place and what controls are exercised by the city's leadership.

"FIGURE OUT where not to build. We have to think about what we shouldn't do as much as what we should do," he told the audience. To make the point, McMahon quoted Yogi Berra, "We're lost but we're making great progress."

Livable communities are founded on three goals, according to McMahon:

* Creating and maintaining a healthy environment;

* Sustaining a vigorous economy; and

* Having a vibrant community, in fact and in essence.

"We spend far too much time in Virginia fighting about what we don't agree on," said the past director of planning for Arlington County. "If we have conservation plans as well as a development plan we reduce confrontation. Both sides would know the ground rules and be happier with the results."

He suggested the creation of a tree ordinance to preserve established trees and encourage the planting of new trees to enhance the overall community. "The National Association of Realtors and the National Home Builders Association have discovered through surveys that trees actually increase the value of residential properties," McMahon said.

Coincidentally a city tree sale was scheduled for two days later, Oct. 22 at Fort Ward Park, to encourage residents to plant more shade, ornamental and evergreen trees on their properties to enhance the city's natural ambiance. Serving as chairman of that project was John Komoroski, vice chair of the city Planning Commission, who was present at the workshop.

ANOTHER CRITICAL ASPECT to creating and preserving a livable community is paying attention to the community's "Gateway." Just as in human contact, the first impression is usually lasting, according to McMahon.

"The image of a community is fundamental and necessary to its economic well being," he said. To make the point he displayed a series of slides showing pleasing gateways and ugly gateways.

Returning to residential values, McMahon said, "The surrounding environment is the single most important thing affecting home value. You can put a dollar value on a view. That is why you pay more at a seaside hotel for a room with a view of the water than the parking lot."

Turning to one of Alexandria's economic engines — tourism — McMahon said, "Tourism is all about having things that are unique. It is about preserving them and not making them conform. Tourism is the biggest industry in the world today."

"We should also be looking at tomorrow. Is what we are building today going to be worth preserving in the future," he asked rhetorically. "Historical preservation is about preserving ourselves."

New construction should enhance the community. The new economy is about quality of life, according to McMahon.

He urged the audience not to make blind, generalized judgments about development proposals. Big box stores "are what we used to call department stores," he said. He gave several visual examples of how so-called big box stores such as Wal-Mart can be enhanced in architecture and design to actually complement the community and their surroundings.

He also noted that the American demographic is changing and development needs to change with it. According to McMahon the greatest amenities desired by aging baby boomers are trails, bike paths, and natural woodlands — not golf courses.

"Conservation development is the top priority of the baby boomers, not golf courses, according to a recent survey of the National Association of Realtors," McMahon said.

He also noted that "two thirds of American household don't have school-age children. And, only 20 percent of the population will have school-age children in 20 years." This will greatly impact the design and location of the housing market.

MCMAHON LISTED four basic guidelines for creating livable communities:

* Develop a vision of the future

* Make an inventory of local resources

* Build local plans around natural and cultural assets

* Pick and choose among development proposals

"People won't preserve what they don't understand. Money always follows good ideas. Cheaper isn't better, it's just cheaper," he said. "The most important question to ask in assessing development and preservation is "What should we do?"

Following McMahon's presentation, Eileen Fogarty, director, Alexandria Planning and Zoning Department, told the audience, "We have some incredible assets. One of the reasons Alexandria has been so successful is because we've had one of the most aggressive preservation programs in Virginia."

She emphasized that, "No city gets there by accident. We are unique. Many new town centers have used Alexandria as their model."

Fogarty noted that the Strategic Plan adopted by City Council is "critical to preserving this community." It explored what this community would look like in the future. "New development has got to conform to the city's concept," she said.

This workshop will be followed by a second on Nov. 14, also to be held in the Patent and Trademark auditorium at 600 Dulany St. beginning at 7 p.m. A seminar on "Walkable Communities" under the aegis of the city Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, it will feature a presentation by Daniel Burden, executive director, Florida's nonprofit Walkable Communities, Inc.