Does Alexandria need a visitors center? What kind would it be? Where should it be located?
Those were the three questions posed by the Alexandria Department of Planning and Zoning to the Planning Commission during a presentation following its September meeting. The answers were mixed and qualified by additional questions.
The consensus was that a lot more study and analysis needs to be done, according to Barbara Ross, department deputy director. "We'll be revisiting this," she said.
It was the question of need that drew the most conjecture from the Commission members. "There's a very real question of whether we need this," said Commissioner H. Stewart Dunn Jr., "particularly in this age of the Internet."
The “if” of the proposal was coupled with the “where” in the Commission's collective mind. "We don't want a visitors center located where it encourages people to come by car and park on the street," Dunn pointed out.
On April 22, a City Council workshop took a first look at a report prepared by Parter International Inc., a consulting firm hired by the city to analyze the need for a new and expanded visitors center. The present one is located in the Ramsey House, 221 King St.
Parter's presentation at that time concentrated on three potential scenarios: Expand the existing Ramsey House to create a much more spacious and sophisticated center, create a whole new center complex on Market Square, or create a new center in the area of the King Street Metro station
AT THE APRIL briefing the conclusion of the report was that an expanded visitors center is needed. But, as Mark Jinks, assistant city manager for fiscal and financial affairs, noted at the time, "There is no money in the 2004 budget to do anything right now."
As with the earlier presentation, the greatest emphasis for a location was either expansion of the Ramsey House or new structures on Market Square. Each of these scenarios was met with critical analysis by the planning commissioners.
"Both are quite unsound and unwise," Dunn emphasized. "People come here because of Old Town's history, charm and architecture. We shouldn't be pushing for a visitors center that proposes to damage one of our most historic houses (Ramsey House)."
As for the proposal to consume a portion of Market Square with new buildings for a visitors center, Dunn said, "This is hard to conceive why anyone would want this."
The proposal calls for two pavilions to be constructed on Market Square, one on each side — one enclosed and the other open-air.
Dunn was joined in his objections to both the Ramsey House site and the use of Market Square by Commission vice chairman Richard Leibach. "Ramsey House should not be touched. It's too much of a historic asset to the city. And Market Square is our open space in the midst of Old Town's congestion. Both of those sites are not appropriate," he said.
Commissioner John Komoroske said, "We took some nice buildings down to create Market Square. We shouldn't now build there again. There is good vacant office space in the area. For instance, we could rent space next to Gadsby's Tavern."
Market Square encroachment, with the loss of open space, was also a concern of Planning Commission chairman Eric R. Wagner.
"Market Square is the only real open space along King Street in the heart of Old Town. It is a place to gather and have events. It should be preserved."
Wagner also questioned the need for a new and expanded center. "What is the real need for this? In a sense, the study seems to assume a need. What would a new center add to visitors' experience of coming to Alexandria?"
Komoroske agreed. "We seem to be getting good numbers of visitors already," he said.
COMMISSIONER Donna Fossum further questioned the need for a full-blown center. "Alexandria is not a destination place. People find themselves here while in the area. I'm more interested in the materials that are available to visitors."
She added, "We, as a city, need to put together a neutral, complete and informative document and visual presentation that tells about the whole city and its rich heritage. And we should not forget about the West End, there's a lot of history there, also."
But, Fossum said, "Every city the size of Alexandria that caters to tourists needs to have a place for people to go to gain information and be oriented to the sites and why they should visit them. I'm in favor of studying the concept further."
The one member of the Commission with firsthand knowledge of the Visitors Center concept was J. Lawrence Robinson.
"I did serve on the original Visitors Center Board, and I think there is a need for a center. But I have not looked at the details enough to make a true assessment as to where it should be," he said.
"Conceptually, there is a need for a center. But Market Square is definitely not the place. I'm hesitant to start messing with Ramsey House. It should be located where people can get to it easily and get to the various sites," said Robinson.
AS TO THE location question, Dunn said, "We need to think about the wisdom of where it should go if there is going to be one. The location should encourage, not discourage, the use of mass transit."
The Parter study cited three possible locations for a new center in the vicinity of the King Street Metro station: Metro station parking lot, on the Metro concourse, and within King Street Gardens.
However, most of the study concentrated on the Ramsey House and Market Square sites. As Leibach pointed out, "We got very little information on the Metro sites. I would have to know more before I could adequately assess it."
When it came to costs, the various proposal estimates ranged between $1.5 million and $2.6 million, according to Bill Logan of Parter International, at the time of the Council workshop presentation.
In descending order, the site estimates were Market Square, a little over $2.6 million; Metro, about $2.5 million; and Ramsey House, approximately $1.5 million.
Wagner said, "I think there should be more analysis as to the need for an expanded center and where it should be located.”
Dunn concluded, "This matter needs much further development and study."