Members of the Alexandria City Council cast what may become one of the most important votes in their career last weekend, approving a controversial zoning change that would triple density at three sites slated for redevelopment compared to what’s there now. The two-year ordeal has featured sharp comments, raised voices and several lawsuits — a process culminating in an election that unseated the two Republican opponents of the plan.
“The choice itself doesn’t do the work for you,” said Mayor Bill Euille shortly before voting for the plan Saturday afternoon. “It’s merely the starting point from which you put in the effort and commitment.”
The vast majority of speakers opposed the plan, which they said would clog the streets of Old Town and create new environmental hazards by developing new buildings on the waterfront. They criticized the logic of allowing more than 800,000 square feet on three sites that currently have 300,000 square feet — especially considering the existing zoning allows for 650,000 square feet of development. Former state Sen. Patsy Ticer (D-30), who was mayor when the 1992 zoning was adopted, said council members would be harming Old Town for the benefit of developers.
“I think the whole city, for a long time, has been too concerned about the fact that we don’t have enough money,” said Ticer. “And everything seems to rotate around that.”
BACK IN 2008, long before city leaders released a plan, the Washington Post brought a lawsuit challenging the 1992 zoning. In court filings, the newspaper charged that the two warehouses it owns on the waterfront were entitled to more density than the current zoning allows. The lawsuit said city leaders engaged in "illegal spot zoning" by reducing allowable density at Robinson North and Robinson South in 1992, claiming the property was rightfully entitled to 97,000 more square feet.
“Robinson now desires to cease using the North Terminal property for warehouse and terminal purposes,” the 2008 lawsuit explained. “Robinson has designed a development plan in accord with the provisions of the Settlement Agreement and has determined to proceed with such a development.”
Officials from the company then began a public-relations campaign, meeting with community members to show them architectural drawings outlining a concept that would have included a hotel at the site. Robinson Terminal eventually suspended the lawsuit, although the threat of a potential legal action loomed over the planning process. When city planners released the concept for the waterfront at the end of 2010, they gave the Washington Post everything it wanted and more in exchange for developer contributions to open space and flood mitigation.
“We were not going to be bullied,” said Planning Director Faroll Hamer. “At the same time, we viewed the lawsuit as an opportunity.”
THE ORIGINAL PLAN was released in February 2011, initiating a vigorous discussion about everything from density and congestion to traffic and parking. Council members were deadlocked on how to proceed, so they appointed a work group to find common ground. That group met for six months and eventually reached an impasse over the same issues that divided the council, especially the impact of increasing density. Some members of the work group suggested that the plan not be adopted until a transportation analysis is conducted.
“It's essentially a sell-out to the corporate entities,” said Old Town resident Bob Wood, who was a member of the work group. "We are all glad to get rid of the warehouses, but the city could have seized an opportunity, really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to make this an Alexandria brand instead of a corporate brand."
Supporters say the plan calls for developers to contribute 2.5 acres of new parks, 3 acres of public spaces, contributions to a new art walk, historical interpretation, a new shoreline treatment and an improved streetscape. They said the lure of additional density gives the city leverage to ask for amenities that would not be available under the 1992 zoning — the legality of which is still in question.
“I do not believe that it’s Apocalypse Now,” said Val Hawkins, president of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership. “There’s enough study, there’s enough people working on this together with the community that will now allow willy-nilly irresponsible development to happen.”
OPPONENTS HAVE NOT given up the fight. They say the Virginia Supreme Court may take action this spring that could send city officials back to the drawing board once again. That case was filed by three Old Town homeowners known as the “Iron Ladies” who said the city improperly rejected a protest petition requiring a supermajority vote on the Alexandria City Council. Several of the speakers last weekend urged the council to wait until the court challenges have run their course rather than taking action now.
“They’re, you know, just basically bullying ahead, and they need to learn how to play by the rules,” said Bert Ely, a member of the work group and one of the leading opponents of the plan. “Hopefully that will be the instruction that comes down from the Supreme Court.”
One catch — assuming the Virginia Supreme Court rules that the city should have required a supermajority vote, that’s a threshold the plan can now meet. Back when city leaders rejected the petition from Alexandria citizens, the waterfront plan did not have a supermajority of support. Now that Democrats have unseated Republicans, the dynamics have changed and the proposal has clear support. Supporters say that the election results is a mandate from the people in favor of the zoning change.
“Having small boutique hotels will certainly improve the landscape of the waterfront for everyone,” said Old Town resident Gina Baum, one of the leading advocates of the plan. “We’ll have improved parks. We’ll have improved walkways.”
NEWLY ELECTED Democrat Allison Silberberg was the lone vote against the plan. She tried to offer a compromise that would have retained the 1992 zoning and limited development to one hotel instead of two. She said that would allow the city to move forward with redeveloping the industrial eyesores while gaining support in the neighborhood that will have to live with the new development.
“I was seeking a middle ground,” said Silberberg, who received more votes than any of her colleagues in part because of her opposition to the waterfront plan. “But we can all count the votes.”
In the end, the vote count aligned with how members campaigned in the fall — six in favor and one opposed.