Seaport Foundation Without a Seaport?

Seaport Foundation Without a Seaport?

Waterfront plan leaves nonprofit homeless, for now.

For the last decade, Robinson Terminal South has provided 8,200 square feet of space for the boatbuilding projects of the Alexandria Seaport Foundation.

For the last decade, Robinson Terminal South has provided 8,200 square feet of space for the boatbuilding projects of the Alexandria Seaport Foundation. Photo by Michael Lee Pope.

A sense of uneasiness fills Randall Smith when he starts talking about the future of the Seaport Foundation, the nonprofit that taught him how to build boats. One recent afternoon found him scarfing a board so that it has the right ratio to be part of a kit that the nonprofit sells for people to make a kind of boat known as a Bevin's Skiff. By this time next year, the nonprofit will have to move out of this building, which will be demolished as part of the waterfront plan.

"I like this place right here, though. I really don't want it to go nowhere. So I really don't like it," said Smith, an apprentice who lives in Alexandria. "I feel, like, hurt I guess. It should stay right here."

Of all the ways the waterfront plan will transform Old Town, one aspect that has received little attention is the fate of the Alexandria Seaport Foundation. The nonprofit organization, which was founded in 1982, teaches youth boat-making skills. It has about 40 apprentices a year and hosts middle-school students from Alexandria City Public Schools as part of a mathematics program.

"We have a very important program that benefits youth and young adults in the Northern Virginia region," said Mari Lou Livingtood, executive director of the Seaport Foundation. "And right now, we have a sense of uncertainty."

ROBINSON SOUTH is a sprawling industrial warehouse at the foot of Duke Street, a spot that has been a private realm for generations. Now, as city leaders hope to transform the waterfront with redevelopment, the old warehouse located here will be demolished as developers EYA and City Interests move forward with a plan for a 280,000-square-foot project that's mostly residential although it also has restaurant space and some commercial space. Perhaps most significantly for the Seaport Foundation, it has no space for the nonprofit's boat-making operation once Robinson Terminal South is demolished.

"It's a little scary," said Anthony Ness, one of the senior apprentices. "I know the organization will continue, but I hope the transition goes smoothly and I hope we can find a place that's just as good as this or better."

Visitors to the waterfront may be familiar with the organization's floating building at the foot of Queen Street. That building, known as the Seaport Center, was constructed in 1998. It has administrative offices and a master boat shop on the first floor. One of the recommendations of the waterfront small-area plan calls for the Seaport Center to be relocated to the foot of Duke Street. But the plan is silent about where the operation at the Robinson South facility should be relocated. Leaders at the nonprofit believe they may have found an answer in Recommendation 3.94.

"Consider a civic structure in the park, with potential uses including history, art, or shipbuilding activities, as well as services for park users and other park functions," the recommendation suggests.

THE CIVIC BUILDING was designed to be part of a new part between Prince and Duke streets, although the city's recent deal moving the Old Dominion Boat Club to the foot of Prince Street reshuffles the deck. The Boat Club's new location will require a waterfront parking lot and boat launch that will eat into the public park, which was supposed to feature the civic building. Now leaders of the Seaport Foundation say they are ready to make the city an offer it can't refuse that would give the foundation access to at least part of the building.

"We're prepared for a capital campaign also, so we're not expecting a free ride," said Duncan Blair, a land-use attorney who is chairman of the foundation. "The amount of a capital campaign could be several million dollars, and that may make us stand out when others are vying for a space."

So far, no other organizations have stepped forward to lay a claim to the civic building. But the foundation still must make its case to a series of stakeholder groups, everyone from the landscape design team working with the city to the Waterfront Commission and, ultimately, the Alexandria City Council. Back in March, when members of the council were considering a ceremonial resolution honoring the nonprofit organization, one of the board members used his time with the microphone to solicit a promise from the mayor.

"I would be remiss if I didn't tell you that I'm a little concerned with the waterfront plan because right now we have no future home in the plan," said Alan McCurry when he had a moment with the microphone. "Without a place to build the boats the Seaport Foundation will cease to exist, but more importantly the at-risk youth and the underserved youth that we help will also be homeless."

With that, he handed the microphone to the mayor.

"I'm sorry I'm the last one with the mic after those comments," said Mayor Bille Euille. "You may not be in the plans today in terms of knowing exactly where you are going to be, but I can assure you that my colleagues and I will work with staff and the developers to ensure that you will continue to have a place on the waterfront."

IN THE COMING months, leaders at the Seaport Foundation will be making the case that they deserve a spot at the civic building — a facility that remains largely theoretical as the land-use deals continue to change the contours of the waterfront plan. For now, the land where the building would be constructed is owned by the Washington Post. City officials plan to acquire the property as part of a proffer agreement when EYA applies for a development special-use permit.

"The question will be how much space is there?" asked Blair. "Is it enough for our program or is it really a satellite for another boatbuilding facility somewhere we can continue our overall program?"