To the Editor:
Waterfront development in Old Town Alexandria is a bear. With only a narrow strip of land between a wide, polluted river and a national historic district of substantial importance and size, this is an Olympic-size challenge. One that requires imagination, creativity, strength, persistence, innovation and a willingness to take the risks of a champion. While this is not normally how city bureaucracies are described (although it might be), it accurately describes the moral fiber of Old Town. Right now, it’s time to look hard at just what made Old Town a standout success, and transform how we make use of the river land that remains. We still haven’t done this.
What is easy to lose sight of is that the area of proposed development is only a fraction of the land that constitutes the historic district, yet because the river blocks access we are left with any increases in density on the river acting with double the impact. Vehicles of any kind and increased sidewalk traffic only have half the range of motion of any other site where the city has used the density argument to increase revenues. This is only insurmountable only if you use last years’ rusty development tools.
Small-scale houses and streets in a historic district, which is what we’re talking about bearing the brunt of increased density on the waterfront, which is vigorously augmented by campaigns to increase tourism, cannot be infinitely altered to accommodate more vehicles or people. The resulting congestion of streets and sidewalks is something residents — who willingly bear the private costs of maintaining nationally (and internationally) historic properties — patiently live with. But while the history and importance to democracy that residents are happy to share is important, the city should be reminded that people live here — also paying the public price to do so — because of the quality of life it provides year round.
The influx of tourists is seasonal, just like the occasional high density the tall ships brought to the riverside. Old Town survived with centuries of lucrative river traffic, which spilled by necessity into the town, because while the ships were large they were not permanently tethered. They came and went — an important difference to what is being proposed today, i.e., permanently anchored large scale buildings with the river on one side and a collection of small scale infrastructure on the other.
If 19th century ship owners had “developed” the waterfront to maximize their revenues by building large scale permanent dockage or infill in the shape of numerous promontories, the city would have a very different shape than it does today — the streets would be wider, the houses bigger, the reach of the city itself would extend far beyond the King Street Metro area. It would be the kind of infrastructure that could sustain the density now proposed. This didn’t happen. Today, we are constrained by permanent small-scale buildings and intensely built infill. This is a fundamental definition of the solid constraints of Old Town.
How can we achieve small scale, low density development on what remains of the river’s edge and in a way that can maintain the high quality of life that is Old Town’s — and at a price we’re willing to pay? What are the parameters that made Old Town sustainable, and how can we reinterpret and transform them so that Old Town Alexandria is once again an important port city, but this time trading in history, culture, and perhaps, Internet enabled businesses. These are old questions “re-languaged” using current understanding, so that we answer them for tomorrow. Can Old Town become a center of telecommuting — green, digital, internationally derived revenue flows? That doesn’t need density to succeed. We are already home to a large number of banks and financial service providers. We can broadcast our history to the world, generating knowledge traffic that showcases democracy, transports fragile documents, features local artists and artisans, restaurants, small businesses — imagine more!
Innovation and creation is what Old Town does very, very well. Let’s harness it and ask the tough questions so that some truly vital solutions can emerge and thrive. Let’s ditch the rhetoric, talk about it, and get real. This doesn’t take a lot of money — it takes a lot of fun time with smart and good people who care about where they live and want to take the unique and wonderful quality of life that is Old Town’s forward into a sustainable future.