Quandary on the quay

This small, historic, Potomac River waterfront city -- dating to the mid-18th century when George Washington was a resident -- is finding itself in the center of a squabble between federal and local authorities over its world-famous downtown port district.

The issue is a not totally unfamiliar question -- but it is taking on new urgency in an age when "business" has become more and more suspect with large segments of the public: Is it possible to maintain the commercial and industrial value of a seaport and at the same time convert as much of the dock area as possible to parkland to satisfy conservationist group demands?

While federal officials would like to convert much of Alexandria's riverfront to parkland, local officials are fighting to preserve the continuation of Alexandria as a thriving port city.

What is happening in Alexandria raises these additional questions:

1. To what extent should the federal government be able to "take over" control of a local jurisdiction's waterfront area?

2. Do industrial sites (such as large, often ugly warehouses) still have a legitimate place on a waterfront? Or, should industrial enterprises, commercial businesses, and homes be replaced by large open spaces?

3. What is the best way to maintain the historical role of a once-thriving seaport community?

The answers to these questions are expected to be studied at scores of other seaport and riverfront communities throughout the US.

Alexandria is a city of 115,000 people astride the Virginia side of the Potomac River just below Washington, D.C. It is entangled in a mammoth legal battle over ownership of the downtown port area. The federal government, through the Department of the Interior and the Justice Department, claims title to the waterfront area based on a 1971 highwater mark for the course of the Potomac River at that time.

Although Alexandria is older than the nation's capital itself, part of it was ceded to the new federal capital in 1791, when the District of Columbia was put together out of lands donated by Virginia and Maryland. In 1846 the city was returned to Virginia.

The question of waterfront ownership, which was dormant for many years, became controversial again in the early 1970s, when private developers sought to erect four high-rise condominiums on the Alexandria port side of the Potomac.

Conservationist groups and the US Interior Department were appalled at the prospect of high-rises along the lower stretch of the Potomac, the river entrance to Washington. Eventually, the US brought suit, claiming the waterfront as a way of checking high-rise development. In fact, waterfront development has subsequently come to a virtual stop.

Now, as a way of finally resolving the ownership impasse, the city and the US are considering three alternative development plans for the 1 1/2-mile-long Alexandria shoreline. But ironically, what is presumed to be the most popular plan -- put forward by the federal government -- could in effect completely end the city's long history as a seaport. And, as community leaders wryly note, end the only real rival to the District of Columbia as a riverport city within the immediate Washington area.

The controversial federal plan, very popular with conservationist groups, would in effect end industrial port-related activities and turn most of the port area over to parkland, or so-called "open space."

The city currently has two large privately owned warehouses on the waterfront. Under the maximum "open space" federal plan, the two warehouses would eventually be turned over to parkland, joining the parkland on most of the rest of the waterfront area. There would also be a 50-foot-wide bike trail and walkway along the water.

The warehouses, as city officials note, provide jobs for 50 to 90 full- and part-time people, and add substantially to city tax coffers.

Meantime, two compromise plans, one put forward by the US, and the other by the city, would put most of the waterfront area into parkland but would retain some land for mixed commercial (port-related) activities. While the city plan would provide for limited industrial and residential usage (including the two warehouses), the federal plan would scuttle industrial and residential sites on the port.

At a recent public meeting sponsored by the US and the city to discuss the port, Alexandria Mayor Charles Beatley called efforts to reach a compromise an "historic" opportunity.

Within the local community, however, the unease continues.

The president of the city's largest privately controlled local bank argues that turning the waterfront into open space would merely mean "more muggers" and less tax money for the city.

Moreover, critics of maximum "open space" point to thriving West Coast ports like San Francisco and Seattle as proof that "mixed usage" ports best serve total public needs. In Seattle, for example, a visitor may dine at a fine seafood restaurant right on the dock front, sit in a dock-site public park, visit an aquarium, or buy trinkets from Asian lands at unique curio shops.

By contrast, with the exception of Alexandria (and the waterfront area of Georgetown in the District of Columbia, which the Interior Department is also seeking to control), the US Park Service now maintains nonindustrial or commercial parkland all along the stretches of the Potomac River around Washington.

The "green stripping," as the park concept is called locally, is popular with many of the younger, more affluent young professional couples who have come to the Washington area in the past decade. They tend to enjoy nature trails and bike paths while finding industrial or commercial related activities along the river distasteful for aesthetic reasons.

The question for residents of this area now, is whether a happy compromise is possible for Alexandria's waterfront, ensuring a mix of not only green space, but water-linked commercial enterprises.

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