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  • Case Study: Historic AlexandriaThe Next Fifty Years
  • Baird Smith (bio)

Alexandria, Virginia, historic preservation, city planning, regional planning, master plan

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Figure 1.

Map showing Georgetown, Washington, D.C., to the north with Alexandria, Virginia, to the south, 1835. The District of Columbia was an emerging city at this time between the two areas. (Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)

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The Alexandria, Virginia, historic district has been considered one of the best national examples of the application of historic preservation principles to guide development of a city while preserving historic resources. A superficial examination finds a town rich in historic resources, ranging from the eighteenth century to the twentieth, that has grown and changed while keeping appropriate scale and massing. However, after a critical look at a variety of planning issues, one finds that the legacy of preservation has been mixed. With ever-increasing impact over the last fifty years, development in the core of the city has been managed primarily through preservation controls. One of the results is a cap on the height of buildings and a resulting uniformity of design. These limits may inhibit both future growth and the flexibility to incorporate changes in transportation, parking, and building technology. Looking ahead, these issues will have to be faced as public funding and resources diminish and support for historic preservation research and documentation dwindles.

I write this essay as a preservation architect who has worked in Alexandria and scores of other historic districts across the Mid-Atlantic region.1 It is based on my experience and observations since the early 1970s. After providing historical background on the development of Alexandria’s historic district, I present an assessment of the long-term impacts of historic district controls—which have, as I will argue, effectively replaced zoning. I examine what this implies for the future of the city, including economic viability/stability, social justice, and sustainability.

The Historic Core: Urban Development and Preservation

Alexandria is an incorporated city with a population of just over 146,300 and a land area of 15.4 square miles.2 There are about 60,000 households according to the last census. The original town was founded in 1749 on the Potomac River; along with Georgetown to the north, it thrived as a regional port town through the eighteenth century (Fig. 1). Like other cities, particularly on the East Coast, the urban core of Alexandria was shaped by natural and man-made boundaries: the Potomac River, to the south, Hunting Creek, and the west with the railroad (Fig. 2) (This differs markedly from cities in the Midwest and West, where physical boundaries have rarely existed and therefore, physical growth has not been contained.) This original core area of Alexandria is now called “Old Town,” and reached an area about one and a half miles long and one mile wide. Since its foundation, Old Town has grown in a westward direction, away from the Potomac. Through the early [End Page 169] twentieth century, the growth extended well beyond the original town footprint with the annexation of land from the neighboring two counties, Fairfax and Arlington. By 1935, Alexandria had generally reached its current footprint.3

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Figure 2.

Map emphasizing Old Town with its surrounding rivers and freeways. Note the locations of Washington and King Streets (center of map) which will be repeatedly referenced. (Map #370402, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior, 2011)

This westward development can also be linked to modes of transportation. For most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the town was compact and focused on the seaport; walking and horse-drawn vehicles were the forms of transport. With the introduction of the railroad and later the Civil War, a western edge for the city was formed by the railroad right-of-way. The railroad also created incursions directly into the core of the town, to facilitate movement of goods to and from the port. With automobile use in the early twentieth century, major north-south and east-west highways were developed that both expanded the town greatly and caused commercial development...


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