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Letter: Additional Work Needed

To the Editor:

As a member of Alexandria’s Waterfront Work Group, I participated in the recently completed review of the City’s waterfront plan. As co-author of the Work Group report, I understand how we reached our conclusions and why we recommended more work ahead for the City if it wishes to implement a successful waterfront plan. Now that the report is published, I want to offer my personal perspectives on it and recommend a constructive way forward for City leaders as they consider waterfront plan adoption.

After six months of review and deliberations, the Waterfront Plan Work Group offered 39 findings and 69 recommended changes to the waterfront plan. Clearly, the plan offered for approval last summer needed much more work. The City’s planning staff agreed and, on Jan. 10, recommended acceptance of all Work Group recommendations.

Indeed, the Work Group’s report provided constructive ideas that once incorporated in the current plan will add needed detail and help plan implementation. Important recommendations included:

  • An integrated waterfront district with more focused city management
  • Better support and planning for waterfront activities
  • Stronger environmental leadership and stewardship
  • Public oversight of plan implementation
  • Rejection of eminent domain to take private property
  • Budget transparency and spending against clear plan priorities
  • A better and more feasible location for a new public marina
  • A public space at the foot of King Street that acknowledges private property rights of the Old Dominion Boat Club
  • Flexibility for mixed-use development
  • A design plan well beyond the plan’s simple design framework
  • Additional public funding for the arts and history.

While the Work Group successfully amended and agreed on roughly 85 percent of waterfront plan content, we could not resolve issues dealing with density, amenities, flood mitigation and specific commercial uses. Our attempts to reach agreement and find a way forward suffered from the plan’s lack of convincing analysis or compelling detail in these areas. Serious questions remain about the plan’s real costs, tangible public amenities, environmental impacts, engineering and design details, traffic and parking effects, and feasible funding alternatives.

Alexandria’s City Council faces the same problem — inadequate analysis and insufficient detail to support the final critical choices that set our City’s waterfront, literally, in concrete for future generations. Although, as noted earlier, the Waterfront Plan Work Group and its recommendations represent real and substantial progress, further progress can only be built on additional work. The waterfront plan, in its entirely, is not yet ready for approval by city leaders.

I strongly recommend two steps to correct plan shortfalls and continue to move this planning process forward.

First, before final plan passage by Council, the City should complete a majority, if not all additional studies recommended unanimously by the Work group. These eight requested studies would answer fundamental, first order questions defining change in this historic and fragile cityscape. Do this critical analysis to turn what still remains a self-described conceptual waterfront plan into a more complete and acceptable product, ready for implementation. At a minimum, real answers and further details are needed to resolve these questions:

  • How can the City add density or choose flood mitigating measures without understanding traffic impacts along the river or related engineering costs?
  • What if the City’s best efforts to resolve parking problems prove ineffective?
  • How can the City expect amenities in trade for added density when developers face generally stated guidelines instead of stringent plan requirements?
  • Without knowing the proffers yet to be negotiated from developers, how can we count on their investments in public spaces on the waterfront?
  • With no environmental assessment supporting this plan, what hidden costs make our intentions and plans for the waterfront pure fiction?
  • If the developers’ own experts argued strongly against hotel and amenity requirements by faulting the City’s own studies, how can we expect to unite diverse City interests behind this plan with its critical but suspect reliance on hotel revenue?
  • If the City’s own presentations show it is possible to pay for this plan with mixed use development, longer but assured cost recovery, and no change in zoning, why are we rushing to concede density increases to owners beyond legally defensible, City staff supported, and federally backed limits?
  • Since the GenOn site, the largest parcel of land to be developed within our defined small area plan boundaries, was excluded from our planning assessment, how can we be sure this plan doesn’t miss obvious solutions in hindsight or cause serious and expensive unintended consequences.

Second, the City should make a relatively small investment ($50,000-$100,000) in modeling and simulation technology used by other Virginia cities to dynamically assess urban planning alternatives where the interplay of flooding, development, traffic, and commercial activities complicate public policy. Norfolk, with the help of the Virginia Modeling and Simulation Center (VMASC), has thoroughly modeled such critical choices to promote better public policies. The director of VMASC at Old Dominion University, Dr. John Sokolowski, has offered the Center’s existing models, powerful simulation tools, and technical skills to address our challenges immediately. He believes that our problems and their analytical tools are well matched. Alexandria can retain, adapt, and use these tools to help implement this waterfront plan and tackle other city zoning and policy challenges.

There is no reason for our City’s leaders to rush to failure by implementing an unfinished plan for transforming our waterfront. Slow, don’t stop this process; adopt and acknowledge the good work already done; complete the analysis needed to reach the best conclusions on the most difficult issues; and acquire better means and learn modern methods to help guide plan implementation while balancing development, public usage, and traffic impacts. Most importantly, City Council must resist the pressure to "do something" when that "something" abruptly ends public engagement and dialog, embitters whole neighborhoods, and poisons the sense of community so necessary for successful waterfront plan implementation.

Bob Wood

Alexandria