Harbor renovation for Alexandria, Virginia

Reply Tue 10 Apr, 2007 01:57 pm
I don't know what I think about this yet - a combination of the project is worrysome and maybe it would be good...
I used to live in Alexandria, for a good part of '47, but I was only five - don't remember much from then except getting a coloring book at some drugstore, how wonderful that was.

in today's Washington Post -

graphic by Gene Thorp, Washington Post

Alexandrians Gird For National Harbor
As Project Rises, So Do Hopes and Fears
By Kirstin Downey

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 10, 2007; A01

Old Town Alexandria, an urban jewel box of some 6,000 meticulously preserved historic buildings, is bracing for change.

In a few weeks, city officials plan to unveil an ambitious proposal to redevelop the waterfront, a plan conceived as a way to make the city more of a tourist mecca.

Meanwhile, the largest public works project on the East Coast, the rebuilding of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, is hurtling toward completion in the city's southeast corner. The new bridge, a key link in the nation's most heavily trafficked north-south corridor, raises the possibility that Old Town will become a stopping point along the way for even more vehicles. A network of conjoined bike trails will funnel hundreds of cyclists from Virginia to Maryland and back.

And just across the Potomac River, on the Maryland side, a $2 billion hotel and convention project known as National Harbor is jutting ever larger into the sky, bristling with construction cranes. A battery of water taxis will ply the waters between the two shores, disgorging an estimated 500 to 1,000 tourists and conventioneers each day onto Alexandria's narrow streets.

A major transformation is underway in this 258-year-old city of 135,000 residents. Longtime Alexandrians are starting to look across the river with a combination of concern and elation about how National Harbor might change their city's character. They are starting to wonder about the increased traffic, the additional parking and signage that will be needed, the capacity to handle the crowds and the possibility that long-established businesses will be pushed out to make way for a crush of tourists who want to buy tacky T-shirts and fudge.

"For a long time, it was below the radar," said Christopher M. Campagna, a seventh-generation Alexandrian. "People now see it coming out of the ground. Now it's meaningful. It's big. It's real. It's 'Oh God, what will it do to us?' "

Landscape architect Geoffrey C. Stone, an Alexandria resident, is frankly worried.

"People don't want to see the destruction of our core historic fabric," Stone said. "It's a conundrum -- the one thing that makes us attractive is our historic character. We don't want to destroy the thing that makes us attractive."

National Harbor is a project that many people thought would never become a reality. The property, in Prince George's County, was for centuries a forested green expanse across from the bustling industrial waterfront in Alexandria. Then the site was proposed for the much-ballyhooed PortAmerica complex, with a 52-story office tower envisioned as its centerpiece, but the project fell into disarray and went into foreclosure in the 1990s during the savings and loan crash. The site was denuded into a muddy wasteland.

But Fairfax-based developer Milton V. Peterson resurrected the concept, and National Harbor, the largest non-gambling hotel and conference center on the Eastern Seaboard, is scheduled to open for business in April 2008. Nine hundred thousand room nights have been booked, with reservations made up through 2012, and some conventioneers are already clamoring for hotel space in Old Town.

While some Alexandria residents are watching with trepidation, many others, including city officials and much of the business establishment, are thrilled and optimistic about the commercial opportunities coming their way. They have had a series of planning meetings to figure out how to prepare for the visitor onslaught and reap the maximum reward for city taxpayers, who have been weighed down by rising property tax assessments.

"This is the largest opportunity we have seen in Alexandria in a while," said Stephanie Landrum, acting executive director of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, who envisions Alexandria becoming a gateway for tourists to Virginia and the state's numerous historic destinations. "So many new people are coming into the region from just across the water," she said.

Happiest of all are the owners of the stores and restaurants along King Street.

"It will bring some new energy to the city," said Glenda Giovannoni, president of Old Town Food Service, which owns the Fish Market restaurant and Pop's Ice Cream. "Anything that brings people is good."

Giovannoni hopes the new developments will spur a large-scale return of the most profitable clientele, young and childless urban professionals, adding that many of the restaurant's longtime patrons now show up with kids in tow, asking for high chairs instead of tall schooners of beer.

Fred Parker, founder of Hard Times Cafe, also on King Street, welcomes the prospect of more people arriving with a craving for spicy fare.

"Traditionally, the chili business slows down in the summer, but hopefully this will give our business a boost in the hot weather," Parker said.

Jay Thomas, who owns a Kwik Kopy printing shop near the waterfront, is weighing the pros and the cons. He began getting nervous about the potential effect on parking and auto congestion, which could make it hard for his regular patrons to reach him, after he began noticing the immense scale of the construction projects underway. He said local tourism officials have tried to reassure him by stressing that any losses he might suffer would be offset by the potential to score new contracts selling marketing materials to conventioneers.

"It was a little scary, a threat, when it first began coming up, but [officials] are taking the position it is an opportunity," Thomas said.

Parking is a major concern. Alexandria is developing plans to encourage people to walk or bicycle from place to place, and it has set aside $200,000 to create a shuttle bus to transport visitors from the waterfront to the King Street Metro station. Officials say they hope the transit service will be free to encourage people not to drive. They believe the half-dozen parking garages scattered throughout the core of Old Town can accommodate most of the motorists.

"Building more parking garages is not an attractive option, because it only adds to the numbers of cars on the road," said Richard Baier, Alexandria's director of transportation and environmental services. City, regional and state transportation officials will gather in Alexandria on April 19 to explain plans for dealing with auto congestion, including traffic problems relating to National Harbor and the Wilson Bridge, and Baier said residents with questions should try to attend.

Others question whether an increase in tourists could end up drawing businesses that cater to vacationers: fudge stores, tattoo parlors and funky T-shirt emporiums. Landrum, of the economic development partnership, is quick to quash that vision: She says the city's zoning ordinance and special use permitting process will allow officials to weed out what she called "down-market uses and undesirables."

Many residents seem to agree that the prospects are mostly positive.

"I think it will be a success, and I think Alexandria will benefit," said Bill Harvey, who lives in Alexandria's Carlyle development on the edge of Old Town.

But not everyone is convinced yet, especially those who fear being displaced because of economic activity generated by the mega-developments. They fear that the historic buildings will be preserved but not the residents who have lived in them.

"Alexandria is a historic town, and there is value for Alexandria in preserving what it has been," said Chuck Benagh, a resident of the Hunting Towers complex near the Wilson Bridge. "The human part is a big part of any community. Once you deport your elderly, you make it other than what it was."
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