Boat Club, City Strike Deal

Land-swap concludes decades of feuding between the two organizations.

The feud between the Boat Club and the city dates back for decades, a conflict that involved the city threatening the use of eminent domain and the Boat Club winning a case against the city at the Virginia Supreme Court. Now the two have finally come to a resolution, one in which both parties get most of what they wanted all along. This week, members of the Boat Club voted to finalize the deal and end the long-running feud.

"With this vote, we look forward to the Boat Club's bright future and a new opportunity for a community waterfront accessible to all," said Mayor Bill Euille in a written statement. "We thank the members for their overwhelming support of steps to help preserve Alexandria's legacy as a historic maritime city."

City officials will get the boat club's property at the foot of King Street, which they want to transform into a public plaza known as Fitzgerald Square. Former Alexandria Planning Director Faroll Hamer once called Fitzgerald Square the "soul" of the waterfront plan. Meanwhile Boat Club members will get $5 million from the city and a new home at the foot of Prince Street, a building that was originally built as the Beachcomber Restaurant that was a firearms retailer for many years. Boat Club members will also get part of the parking lot next to the Beachcomber building, which will include a boat launch. Despite the 80 percent approval, some Boat Club members remain deeply skeptical.

"It's not over. It's never over," said Townsend Van Fleet, a member of the Boat Club who opposed the deal. "The next City Council could try to use eminent domain again just like this one did."

THE CONFLICT dates back to the Nixon administration, when the Justice Department filed a series of lawsuits against waterfront property owners in an effort to open up the waterfront to the public. Unlike most of the property owners, members of the Boat Club resisted the federal government and refused to settle. They would eventually win in court, decades after the lawsuit was filed. But by then, city officials had already started eying their land to be the centerpiece of the waterfront plan.

"I think a lot of the members of the club, myself included, thought that after 90 years we'd like to stay there," said Boat Club member Richard Banchoff earlier this year. "But I think everybody realizes that we wouldn't be making this move if the city didn't want to put a park where our parking lot is."

When city leaders unveiled their grand plans for revitalizing the waterfront at the end of 2010, members of the Old Dominion Boat Club were surprised to see a public plaza where their parking lot and boat launch is currently located. Drawings included with the draft version of the waterfront plan included a plaza known as Fitzgerald Square, complete with a large water feature that could be used for ice skating in the winter. Boat Club members could see the writing on the wall.

"The elimination of the parking lot creates the opportunity for a major new public space between the Fitzgerald warehouses and the water," the waterfront plan explained. "This would open up continuous public access along the waterfront and increase the amount of public space at one of the most important locations on the waterfront."

THERE WAS ONLY one problem — the Boat Club was not about to give up its spot at the foot of King Street. So city leaders convened a press conference to formally threaten the use of eminent domain. Euille officially changed his position on the issue, reversing course on his longstanding pledge not to use the power of eminent domain as long as he was mayor. Members of the City Council conducted a long and contentious public hearing on their threat of using eminent domain, eventually issuing an ultimatum to the organization.

"There's an old poster some of you may be familiar with that has Uncle Sam pointing a finger out saying, 'I Want You,'" said Pat Troy, a prominent businessman and frequent critic of the city. "Now you are creating a new one, 'I Want Your Property.'"

Behind the scenes, the city was offering a carrot with the stick — a prominent spot at the foot of Duke Street. When members started assembling for a vote over the weekend, it was apparently a deal that was too good to pass up. Now both sides can call a truce and move forward with envisioning a new waterfront, one where the properties have been shuffled — even if feathers remain ruffled.

"This is not the keystone to the waterfront plan," said former Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald. "This is just an extension of a plan built by developers, not the community."