Alexandria: Waterfront Developer Muddies Public Relations

Alexandria: Waterfront Developer Muddies Public Relations

Residents, council members disparage company’s email.

A select group of Waterfront residents received an unexpected email from EYA, the developer currently set to redevelop the Robinson Terminal South site. A conflict has been building between the developer and local citizens over whether or not debris from the construction site should be removed via trucks through Old Town or a series of barges at a nearby marina.

The email asked local residents to speak on the company’s behalf at a March 14 City Council public hearing. The email warned that, if EYA is forced to pursue barging options, that would be taken directly out of the planned public benefits to the city.

The email read: “Attention: City Officials are considering an expensive & unprecedented mandate which would reduce funds available for public benefits.

“We need your help today to ensure the future of the Alexandria Waterfront at Robinson Terminal South! City decision-makers are considering an extraordinary and expensive requirement that material be brought to and from Robinson Terminal South by barge...

“Most important, the result of this unprecedented requirement would be a loss of more than $1.5 million for public benefits such as revitalizing the pier or building the waterfront promenade.

“Stand with us and let City Officials know that we are at a pivotal moment to revitalize the waterfront, and barging would threaten our shared vision for a public, active, and welcoming Robinson Terminal South.

“Sincerely, AJ Jackson, Managing Partner, EYA”

The email successfully brought local citizens to the City Council meeting, but it wasn’t to speak in support of the project. Hal Hardaway, a resident of South Union Street, described the email as a clear manipulation of the public.

“Their strategy is to pit citizen against citizen and use the council as a pawn,” said Hardaway. “What we have are counts of developer public relations morphing into manipulation.”

“Rather than presenting its concerns to the Ad Hoc Monitoring Group for Waterfront Construction, which the city has set up to address waterfront construction impact issues, EYA has chosen to sidestep that process,” said Bert Ely, co-chair of Friends of the Alexandria Waterfront.

Mark Jinks, acting city manager, said he was surprised when he heard about the email.

“We’re still in negotiations,” said Jinks, “and we’re still investigating the barging [option].”

The email raised concerns for many on the City Council.

“This is unprecedented,” said City Councilwoman Del Pepper, “Not one time have we had this kind of lobbying before anything official’s come out.”

“This is an attempt to create a rift,” said Mayor William Euille. “We don’t need this and it does not help.”

Robert Youngentob, co-founder and president of EYA, apologized to the public at a March 17 meeting of the Ad Hoc Monitoring Group for Waterfront Construction, but also said that the email was not an attempt at deception.

“I spoke with the mayor and apologized for the email and the turmoil it caused. I believe email and written word leave room for misinterpretation. On behalf of everyone at EYA, I apologize. For 23 years, we have been active in the city and our reputation is the most important thing we have … “If anything, sometimes we’re too honest.”

While apologizing for the nature of the email, Youngentob also warned that the cost of barging could, potentially, drive EYA away from the site development.

“This project is being pushed and pulled in a lot of directions,” said Youngentob. “If the mayor and council tell us to barge the material, we’ll barge. We have to have a discussion with [investors] to see if we still do this project. That’s not a threat, just the reality of the economic situation. Our costs are dramatically higher than we thought … It’s getting very challenging to make this whole thing work. We don’t want to lose our reputation over one project.”

However, Youngentob said EYA wasn’t ready to give up on the project just yet and clarified that the company would not repeat their mistakes.

“We’re prepared to discuss hauling routes and barging options,” said Youngentob. “We will not use email in the future … to drum up support.”

Some residents, however, said that the fact that EYA only mailed notification of the public hearing to citizens they believed would support the project was as bad as the letter’s content.

“What I find particularly appalling are the selective email lists and selective invitations,” said Robert Wood, a resident of the Waterfront. “This is purposefully manipulating the public.”

“This is quite evident by the fact that even though EYA has emailed me in the past about the terminal project, it did not have the courtesy to send that email to me even though I am a member of the Monitoring Group,” said Ely.

“The email was sent to people who’d previously expressed support for the project,” said Youngentob. “I have told our entire organization that we will not use email to bring people out to support projects. It was wrong.”