It is unusual for three letters, likelier than most to have long-term significance because they summarize what is so very wrong with city hall's modus operandi in recent years, to appear in the same issue: Bill Goff's enumerates the city's insouciance about construction cost overruns; Jimm Roberts' frames how the city's unsustainable practice of pursuing more development causes the problems city hall is trying to fix; and Poul Hertel and Connie Graham's contextualize a half-century history of Old Town's preservation as a self-sustaining economic model which City Council's recent tampering could completely make go awry. If indeed their analyses are accurate, the March 22 Gazette Packet may well become the place to which historians turn for a précis of what went wrong.
But the condition these letters describe didn't develop overnight. As Poul Hertel and Connie Graham's letter hints, somehow it crept up on us. Two decades ago, citizens from all over town packed City Council meetings months on end concerning developments that could alter Old Town's historic character, but today hardly any do. What happened in those two decades?
The 1992 Old Town small area plan set forth a vision which an ancien regime of city leaders embraced at that time, but very quietly, so the rest of us didn't notice, elements within the polity, powerful ones likely, came to favor a very different vision, and actuated a nouvelle regime to carry it forth. The late Patsy Ticer best embodies that ancien regime's attitude. Was easing her over into the state senate the beginning of its denouement? Was the Patent and Trademark Office development, a seemingly sensible idea on its own merits, really also the nouvelle regime's entr'acte, blazing the trail for further, less justifiable development? Was the Waterfront Plan the nouvelle regime's Rubicon of no-return where finally it abandoned quiet caution for full-throttle over-development?
The past dozen years have seen a see-saw battle between the two regimes, but the clearest evidence the nouvelle regime is a well resourced, philosophically coherent ideology is in its refusal to respond to setbacks in a politically normal way by altering course because the course had long-before been fixed. The election defeats of Tim Lovain and then-freshman councilmember Justin Wilson in the 2009 election would normally have signaled a course change, as defeat of a Columbia Pike streetcar advocate led to the Arlington County Council quickly killing it. Instead, the City Council majority doubled down and rammed the Waterfront Plan through despite lacking the requisite super-majority!
Because the nouvelle regime had previously moved so stealthily, the ancien regime still controlled key positions, which explains why the Board of Zoning Appeals insubordinated city council and overturned the Waterfront Plan and why the Waterfront Plan had to be voted on three times to clear its legal hurdles. After winning the 2012 city election, the nouvelle regime, no longer needing resort to stealth, purged the ancien regime's key functionaries from their positions. The ancien regime responded by appropriating into its bloc the city's Republicans, whose crossover votes, along with Patsy Ticer's support, enabled Allison Silberberg to upset the nouvelle regime's titular head, Mayor Bill Euille, in the 2015 primary. But again, this setback did not alter the nouvelle regime's course, as instead it marginalized Mayor Silberberg and sought to remove the last obstacles to its absolute rule whose nucleus in Old Town's waterfront neighborhoods was most impacted by the nouvelle philosophie.
How many of the citizens who packed City Council meetings concerned about altering Old Town's historic character two decades ago have since crossed the Styx? Does a new zeitgeist prevail among the generations replacing them about the future of today's Old Town littered with E-scooters? One city hall functionary noted that, while Waterfront Plan supporters and opponents were almost equally numerous, supporters tended to be younger and opponents older. Your newspaper is filled with letters and articles critical of city hall's new direction, yet the nouvelle regime's acolytes rarely bother to answer these criticisms as if they do not merit acknowledgement, as if like Ozymandias they will be covered by the sands of time. I have heard more than a few Gen X'ers ridicule historic district rules; do they favor converting parts of Old Town to large office buildings which would generate more tax revenue than tourism does? Do today's Millennials see historic preservation in the same metaphor as Confederate statues and look at historic houses wondering where were the slave quarters or whether slaves were exploited to build them? Can how these generations seem to be voting in city elections be interpreted as "no confidence" in Old Town as what we who have known and loved it?