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Letter: Mayor’s Vision for Waterfront Is Mostly about Development

— To the Editor:

Mayor Bill Euille’s plan for the waterfront is a delight if you are developer, or an investor seeking new business on the banks of the Potomac River a la National Harbor. But, to call this waterfront plan eco-friendly, as the Mayor does in a recent opinion piece, is to pervert the meaning of the word 'ecological,' or 'green.'

There is a big difference between an eco-friendly development on the waterfront, or anywhere else for that matter, and a waterfront plan that respects the river, Chesapeake Bay, and our city’s environment. The mayor’s plan assumes that that good engineering, a little more green space, and green architecture will protect the Potomac from pollution generated by new denser urban growth that may include as many as two hotels.

There is no plan to mitigate the increase of traffic that will accompany all this development, and the floodplain is given only minimal protection. The city says pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorous that run off paved surfaces will be trapped, but storm water ponds often stop no more then 60 percent of these fertilizers, and more development means quite simply that more such fertilizers, grease, and heavy metals will reach the river and bay. A 100-foot strip of greener pavement between any new development and river is not a real buffer to pollution.

As sea levels rise, and they are rising higher every year due to global warming, the river will flood more often, and that will mean we end up spending more money trying to protect new development and the new devices that will capture some of their pollutants. This is development that shouldn’t be located there in the first place.

Contrast that with what the mayor and planning staff always claim, that developers will do far worse things to waterfront and other places if they are allowed to develop under the current zoning. So, by gosh, let’s give them more development rights under the guise of creating a waterfront plan that is environmentally sound. This is an argument that has its origins in the “improvable marsh” of George Washington’s day. It’s mostly about upping the financial value of land, not crafting a plan to sustain an historic community over the long haul.

We shouldn’t use development, or more development, as our environmental baseline for promoting more development. This is perverse logic. We need to start think outside of this narrow box. Indeed that is exactly what Citizens for an Alternative Waterfront Plan tried to do in their review of the city’s plan: offer new ideas. They took a more holistic view of the waterfront that didn’t assume that more development on the waterfront is going to be eco-friendly and the best plan for Alexandria’s future.

The highest and best use of the waterfront is not even higher density development, but less development, more park land, and activities that are truly beneficial to the public as a whole and attract tourists. This is a sensitive and unique landscape. It’s part of a national historic district. It’s not a site near a metro.

The mayor’s plan to rezone the waterfront for more development is all about wringing as much revenue we can out of this special landscape. There is no doubt in my mind that we can come up with a far more environmentally and financially sustainable plan, if we work together as a community. Green is not just the color of money.

Andrew Macdonald

The writer is running for the next mayor of Alexandria. See AndrewMacdonaldforMayor.com. He is a former vice mayor, chair of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin (ICPRB) and holds a Ph.D. in geology.