For many years in the latter part of the 20th-century and into the 21st, the classic glass half full or half empty question applied to Alexandria’s waterfront.
On one hand, most of the walk along the shoreline has been and still is pleasant. Passing through a handful of parks and centered at the fun-filled marina and landmark Torpedo Factory, the waterfront is a major part of the appeal of the Old Town Historic District.
On the other hand, the stretch that runs along the east side of the Strand between Prince and Duke has been a bloody mess.
Finally, we’re seeing some action not only there but in other spots too. The old Beachcombers Restaurant bit the dust last week, opening up a better view at the foot of Prince. That crumbling eyesore of a marine shack next to the parking lot has also been reduced to rubble.
This marks the first hint at what an improved Strand and Point Lumley Park will look like. And the Strand is arguably the most critically important part of the Waterfront plan in terms of getting the right balance of historical markings and nods and new real estate. The city’s Waterfront History Plan speaks specifically to this.
The 100 and 200 Blocks of The Strand and South Union Streets contain the last observable vestiges of Alexandria‘s golden maritime era from the last half of the 18th century into the early 20th century. This area should evoke the character of the heyday of the waterfront in The Strand and use it as the Southern Cultural Anchor.
Marketing this section as an ―authentic Alexandria experience will set the city apart regionally, and nationally.
Something we will specifically be looking for along this part of the waterfront is historical markers that touch on the slave trade. Currently, the only marker that does is at 1315 Duke Street. As it points out, Isaac Franklin and John Armfield often sold 1,000 enslaved humans annually... and operated as one of the largest slave-trading companies in the United States.
These peoples were forced to walk in shackles from the Duke Street pen to the waterfront. Like so much cargo, they were then herded on to ships bound for New Orleans. This is a part of our history we must acknowledge in a public way. Currently, no markers on the waterfront mention any aspect of Alexandria’s slave trade.
Back at the foot of King, Vola’s is in the home stretch of a gut job, and the old Fitzgerald Warehouse (Starbucks) is getting a facelift. We want to sing their praises for erecting large historical photos on the outside. Not seen something like that in the city in quite a while.
The 19th-century brick warehouse turned studios at the corner of Prince and Union is also looking sharp, with major improvements inside and out.
We also saw some core sample drilling at Waterfront Park earlier this week. It’s just some pre-action though. The flood mitigation there will come much later.
You can’t talk about this subject without discussing what might be found in the dirt below. As we saw with the discovery of the hull of a ship and waterside warehouse at the foot of Duke, there is great potential in terms of archaeology.
In the entire 265 years of Alexandria, I’m not sure if the waterfront was ever a place where one could walk unmolested. For many years, with industry’s dusty, noisy, smelly and other undesirable elements, most folks probably wouldn’t have wanted to.
Redevelopment is never easy. It affects those who live nearby and change can be tough to deal with.
But ever since the city began to push beyond its original layout of 84 half-acre lots overlooking a belly-shaped bay, Alexandria has been a city in flux. It’s always has been and it always will be.