Make It Distinctive

Make It Distinctive

To the editor:

Although I strongly support the city’s waterfront plan, I believe it has a major flaw: It does not provide enough funding for the features needed to transform the area into a truly vital, distinctive place.

The plan includes projects that should really be part of the city’s normal capital budget; for example, flood mitigation and Windmill Hill Park improvements. The cost of these improvements will crowd out funding for the elements that could make the waterfront special, especially the art walk and history proposals. Reducing hotel uses — and the revenues they are expected to bring in — would further reduce the funding for distinctive elements. If we can’t create a distinctive waterfront, we’ll never have a successful waterfront — one that people value and want to visit.

The City Council should approve the plan and then take four steps:

(1) Ask staff to do a detailed cost analysis of the elements needed to create a distinctive place. If money from developers and new tax revenues isn’t sufficient, consider additional taxpayer funding to make up the difference. If the waterfront is to be a special place for all residents, funding from all taxpayers can be justified.

(2) Appoint a committee — distinct from any implementation committee — of design professionals, artists, and others to refine and advance the thinking about the elements of the plan that can transform the waterfront into a special place. This committee can work to overcome a major obstacle in creating a distinctive place: the tendency of people to be too rigid and stodgy in their thinking about design. The committee should especially focus on the art walk and history proposals.

(3) On the three development sites in which hotels are allowed, demand the highest architectural standards, and even insist on design competitions. The challenge south of King Street will be to find designs that fit into our historic fabric. Surely this can be done while also creating distinctive architecture.

(4) For the Robinson Terminal North location, consider a truly striking piece of architecture of the caliber done by signature architects such as Frank Geary or Santiago Calatrava. This site lends itself to iconic architecture because the land juts into the Potomac River and overlooks the Washington skyline. It is now surrounded by modern office buildings and townhouses with little trace of Alexandria’s history.

The task of transforming the waterfront into a distinctive place will not be easy, given that one of the chief features of today’s waterfront is its lack of distinction. The waterfront is mostly a semi-private enclave of townhouses and office buildings.

The challenge will be compounded by the generally unimaginative designs of existing parks and public spaces. (Contrast our parks with, for example, the stunning Waterfront Park in Charleston, S.C.) To be sure, walking or bicycling along the waterfront can be enjoyable, but visually, most of the waterfront is boring.

In the long debate over the waterfront plan, there was unfortunately relatively little public discussion about what makes a public place distinctive. It’s easier to show examples of such a place than to explain it, but in essence, a distinctive place is one in which the various elements are combined in such a way that they enliven the senses, prompting people to visit and to think, "Wow, this is really special."

I feel fortunate to live in the Washington, D.C., area where there are so many distinctive places to visit. I hope that Alexandria’s waterfront can eventually become one of these. We have an enormous opportunity ahead of us.

Bill Hendrickson