By Allison Silberberg
Driving through Old Town Alexandria on my way to City Hall in the early evening or on my way home after a night of meetings, the quiet streets of Old Town always provide an enduring sense of calm.
There is a lasting beauty; the scenery gives me pause. I tell myself I must never take our historic preservation for granted.
I have been thinking about some of the overarching issues facing our city: about growth, about development, about having a vision and about how we are at a crossroads. Old Town became a historic district in 1946. It is the third-oldest historic district in the nation, behind Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans.
Many historic districts have faced similar, transformative moments. We, as a community, need to be extremely careful about our decisions or all that has been given to us may be lost forever.
As we allow new construction in the historic district, including on the waterfront, we need to keep Old Town looking like Old Town. Otherwise, we risk the possibility of Old Town becoming similar to thousands of places. It is our authenticity and uniqueness that make our home an international destination.
Today, the concerns are about the look and size of new construction. Does it fit with our historic district? A shared vision is needed as we move forward and start thinking beyond legal discussions. So in addition to historic preservation, we also need to ensure that all new buildings—whether hotels or residential—reflect Old Town's look.
A brief recap: In March, after a divisive community debate, the Alexandria City Council voted 6-1 to implement the waterfront plan. I cast the lone dissenting vote, having fought for a compromise that would have taken into account the impact the plan would have in terms of density, added traffic and altering Old Town’s character.
Alexandria is now implementing this plan and moving full steam ahead. Developers have bought the two Robinson Terminals from The Washington Post Co.
Hotels there and at another site, as well as residential properties and the waterfront's landscape design, are all under discussion. The council also is considering eminent domain to seize waterfront property owned by the Old Dominion Boat Club.
But in all the meetings, emails and news reports, one overarching consideration can sometimes be forgotten: Old Town's look and character.
Some improvements to the waterfront are certainly needed, but we are a historic community—first and foremost—and therefore have a historic look. It is our No. 1 asset. Our Old Town look is what binds us and is something to treasure and protect.
We must hold the line, so that Old Town will remain a national treasure for generations to come.
We have a shared core value that runs through all of our veins no matter where we live in the city, and that is our sense of pride in our historic architectural beauty of Old Town. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Virginia recognize Old Town as a national gem.
It’s not only the restored homes and buildings of the 1700s and 1800s, the gas lampposts, the historic waterfront, the brick sidewalks and the few remaining cobblestone streets. It is also the farmers market, the many American flags, and the historic markers that show us where President George Washington's lawyer, banker and physician lived or where Robert E. Lee lived as a boy.
This is about gratitude and what we must never take for granted. I am grateful that others before us had the foresight to save Old Town's historic architecture from urban renewal, as redevelopment was called at the time.
The city council of the late 1960s voted to tear down 23 blocks of Old Town in order to make way for the new. After six blocks were demolished, residents spoke out. The council listened and stopped the demolition.
I am grateful to those who have served as our architectural and historic guardians. I am grateful to those who transformed Founders Park into an oasis on the water. I am grateful to those who had the foresight to create the Torpedo Factory.
We, as a community, are making choices that will have an impact for generations to come. What will be our legacy? What will future generations see and savor? What will they say about what we did or did not do? Were we wise? Were we careful enough?
We must have a shared vision when it comes to new construction. We must know in our core that our historic look exists only because of many decades of careful, thoughtful preservation.
Our history and historic look are our future. Insisting on that look is in everyone's best interest.
Old Town was a gift we inherited. Only together can we preserve what our ancestors left to us. We are all the temporary stewards of this national treasure called Alexandria. Keep Old Town Old Town.
Allison Silberberg is the vice mayor of Alexandria.