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Keeping the Past in Alexandria's Future

Historic preservation community wraps up two-day conference.

As residents of a city almost 50 years older than Washington, D.C. — and one that relies in part on its history to draw visitors — Alexandrians have developed a vested interest in historic preservation.

Last Friday and Saturday, the city's preservation community held a two-day conference, attended by a total of about 170 people, to discuss ways to balance historic preservation and commercial growth. The conference wrapped up with a panel presentation and an informal town hall-style meeting. On the panel were former State Del. Marian Van Landingham, Planning Commissioner Stewart Dunn Jr. and Potomac Riverboat Company President Willem Polak, and the discussion was moderated by Jean Federico, former director of the Office of Historic Alexandria.

Early on, Dunn took issue with the idea that progress and preservation are necessarily opposing forces that must be balanced. "I think historic preservation is a part of progress," he told the audience of 90 or so who attended the wrap-up at First Baptist Church on King Street. "I refuse to sign on to the concept that if you're for preservation, then you're against progress."

However, the two do not always work concurrently, and changing methods of development can lead to changing streetscapes. Van Landingham noted that city blocks used to be sold off one-fourth at a time, "so you didn't get long rows of exactly the same type of building."

From a business perspective, Polak pointed out that Alexandria's historic character is largely responsible for its current economic growth. "People come here to see the history," he said, noting that the challenge lies in accommodating increasing numbers of tourists while preserving the city's character.

He expressed concern that the city will not be prepared for the influx of visitors when his company begins offering water taxi service between Alexandria and National Harbor next spring. Polak said he expects to carry at least 100,000 people into the city from National Harbor in the first year, in addition to the 50,000 to 60,000 people the company already brings each year from Georgetown.

Dunn said he thought preservation in Alexandria has become less a problem of historic structures being knocked down than a question of smaller-scale infill construction, such as the contest between a historic wall and a homeowner's desire to expand a kitchen.

Dunn noted that a city-wide infill study is being planned, and he invoked the most oft-repeated solution of the evening: heavy involvement by the preservation community, in the infill study and other city planning. "There's a tremendous dollar value to preservation," he said. "Be there for the hearings; be there for the elections."

Federico noted that two important city departments — the Department of Recreation and the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services — were not represented at the conference. "Much more needs to be done within the larger departments to be receptive to our input," she said.

ANOTHER POPULAR SOLUTION to the preservation problem was education. During the town hall meeting, conference co-chair Dr. Morgan Delaney, president of the Historic Alexandria Foundation, said efforts should be made to educate the city's children, and signage should be put in place to let passers-through know what neighborhood they're in.

Pat Butler, Alexandria resident and chairman of the Virginia Board of Historic Resources, agreed that getting children interested in the city's history should be a key approach. He suggested applying to have local schools placed on the state historic register.

"Let's do it bottom-up, and let's start with the kids," said Butler. He also said he would like to see local associations working to get more neighborhoods onto historic registers. About a quarter of Alexandria is currently on-register.

Marguerite Long of the Rosemont Citizens Association said she wanted to see more historic markers in town and pictures on store fronts of what the buildings once looked like. "Gets us thinking about how we were," said Long.

Other suggestions included pamphlets about each neighborhood's architecture and history, walking tours of the neighborhoods, tax abatements for approved architecture, additional conditions on special use permits, a classification system to prioritize structures that should be preserved, and a city-wide preservation master plan. Easements on parts of a building, such as the facade or interior features, can be donated to the Alexandria Historical Restoration and Preservation Commission, said Chuck Trozzo, who sits on the commission. Easements guarantee the preservation of these features, often in exchange for tax credits and a drop in real estate taxes due to decreased home value.

LILLIAN WHITE, a member of the Greater Alexandria Preservation Alliance, noted that a land use committee in Del Ray is available to approve or make suggestions on renovation and construction projects, although compliance is voluntary.

Polak said he felt that the preservation effort along the waterfront has focused primarily on the King Street/Union Street corridor, and he said he would like to see more attention paid to the rest of the waterfront. "I think it hurts some of the great parts of Alexandria," said Polak.

One area that was cited for specific attention in the future was Robinson Terminal, an old building on the river with a wide dock in front of it. "This is one of the few places on the waterfront where you can still bring in a large ship," said Van Landingham. "It has enormous potential. It could be the cultural center. You could bring boats in there."

Dunn noted that the terminal is owned by the Washington Post. "They're probably holding off until the Waterfront study is completed," he said, referring to a study attempting to unify the Alexandria waterfront in use and appearance. "So participate in that."