Statement of Robert L. Montague
Woodrow Wilson Bridge
June 6, 1997

I am Robert L. Montague, III, Chairman of the Alexandria Historical Restoration and Preservation Commission. I appreciate very much the opportunity to present our views to the Committee this morning.

I would like to draw the attention of the committee to the range of destructive and irreversible impacts that the unnecessarily large proposed replacement of the current Wood row Wilson Bridge will have on the nationally significant historic area of Alexandria.

But our Commission does not take the "NIMBY" position that there should be no improvement or replacement of the current span. We accept that there is need for a replacement and recognize that any replacement proposal would have some adverse impact on Old Town. We just want to minimize the damage to our historic landmark to the greatest extent possible while being expected to shoulder the major share of the burdens that are created by accommodating the growth in vehicular traffic. A 10-lane bridge would serve the purposes adequately and not have the very substantial adverse impacts that would result from the currently proposed 12-lane bridge with all of its features.

LEGAL BASIS AND OBJECTIVES OF THE COMMISSION

The Alexandria Historical Restoration and Preservation Commission was created by an Act of the General Assembly of Virginia in 1962. This act recognized that Alexandria "possesses historical values, cultural traditions and elements of unique beauty and charm, including important historic sites of state and national interest...." The Assembly also found that is "desirable to restore... and to preserve and maintain" the important historic sites and "other important landmarks" in Alexandria "and to adapt the area surrounding these buildings to a similar plan, design and architecture in order to properly interpret and understand the history of the city and its relation to the Commonwealth of Virginia...."

The Assembly has given the Commission powers to acquire, restore, lease or convey properties and to accept easements on such properties to achieve these objectives.

Probably most notable among the Commission's endeavors has been the acquisition and restoration of the Lloyd House. It currently is seeking easements on open space to preserve the traditional viewscapes and atmosphere of Alexandria's historic area. It also accepts easements on the exteriors of significant historic resources and recently launched a program to accept easements on the interiors of residential and other structures in order to preserve these very important historical and cultural resources.

Our Commission believes it is a critical component of the combined public and private effort that is the hallmark of Alexandria's approach to maintaining our unique national historic facilities and character. The citizens and government in Alexandria are engaged in a cooperative "stewardship" of the historic resources we have inherited and ardently wish to pass on to future generations.

PURPOSE OF THIS STATEMENT

We believe it is most important that very explicit and sufficient attention be given to the adverse impacts that the bridge replacement decision will have on the historic and cultural resources in Alexandria. Our Commission advocates that these impacts be minimized to the very extent possible. We also urge that additional approaches be developed and phased in later that provide adequate capacity for vehicular crossings of the Potomac in this general region as need arises and that also prevent degradation of the nationally and internationally recognized resource we have in Alexandria.

It must be emphasized as strongly as possible that this is not a matter alone of preventing the demolition or permanent modification of individual structures. The historical and cultural characteristics that the General Assembly sought to preserve are inextricably embedded in a community context providing viewscapes and settings that are as important as the structures themselves to presenting the Alexandria experience. Take the structures out of the general setting and you have wonderful museum pieces and examples of period architecture. It is only within the setting that these structures contribute to the experience enjoyed by both the residents and visitors to historic Alexandria.

This historic Alexandria is also a very fragile resource that could all too easily slip between our fingers. The threat is only to a small extent due to parties who are adverse to or have little or no regard for the architectural, historical and cultural values that Alexandria embodies. The much greater danger is from two other types of activities: first, those that are trying to achieve objectives that are deemed to be preeminent to preservation values; second, seemingly narrow changes that have relatively small or even imperceptible adverse impacts. However, the second of these activities have precedential and collateral effects which, taken cumulatively, are capable of eventually devastating historic Alexandria.

ISSUES AND IMPACTS OF CONCERN TO THE COMMISSION

The Commission has a number of grave concerns. Some of these deal with the construction process, others with the intrusion that the structure would create even if the construction, itself, did not have an adverse impact and finally with the consequential adverse impacts that inevitably will result from the traffic generated.

The Bridge, Ancillary Structures and Interchanges

Examples of the historic and archaeological resources that are immediately at risk from the construction process include the archaeological sites such as those located on historic Jones Point and the Contraband Cemetery and structures such as the Jones Point Lighthouse and Park, the Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation office and slipways, the Old St. Mary's Catholic Church Site and Cemetery and the Contraband Cemetery. It is difficult to believe that there can be any equivocation on this score. Steps might well be possible to prevent actual physical damage to the Jones Point Lighthouse but its setting will be destroyed. Regardless of proposals to take mitigating steps such as construction of sound barriers, it is not credible that the visual and audible setting will not be radically changed, essentially "taking" them for the use of this regional and national transportation alternative.

Impact statements assert that the proposed bridge would have "No Effect" on Old St. Mary's Cemetery but that is hardly credible since the plans call for raising the South Washington Street bridge over the beltway and taking the existing Mobil gasoline station across South Washington Street from the cemetery. If by some extraordinary means the St. Mary's Cemetery can escape physical harm from the construction, its setting will be very seriously deteriorated by the proposed structures. That very important historic resource is already inordinately impacted by. the current bridge traffic which a short visit to that site clearly reveals.

Under the proposed replacement the Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation office and slipways would be demolished.

Since the bounds of the Contraband Cemetery, which is located west of South Washington Street at its overpass of the Beltway, are not even known to the bridge planners, they can have no idea of the extent to which the bridge and interchanges will adversely impact the graves contained in it. The drawings and other renderings of the new beltway interchange system at Route 1 and bridge approaches lead us to believe that the Contraband Cemetery is in serious jeopardy.

Intrusiveness

The visual and audible intrusiveness of the completed replacement will affect a much broader area. Our Commission takes into account individual properties, assessing the contribution of each property's open space on the setting and viewscapes of the broader historic area and thereby on its authenticity and integrity. Highway Authority impact assessments, however, virtually dismiss as unimportant the views and settings that we have worked hard to assemble through open space easements. Combining those held by the Commission and other accepting agencies, there are more than 25 open space easements held on properties in the historic area of Alexandria. The Commission does not feel that the impacts of the proposed replacement bridge on these settings have been considered adequately. And apparently no specific assessment has been made of the open space sites along lower South Lee Street or in the low numbered blocks of Jefferson and Franklin Streets. And while there are relatively new structures at points between some of the older areas of historic Alexandria and the proposed bridge, the Board of Architectural Review process assures that these are compatible with the old structures and contribute to the historic setting.

Much of the remainder of the historic area may well escape the immediate impacts of the construction and a good deal may not suffer a wrenching visual intrusion. We are not claiming that, in itself, the bridge structure proposed is ugly or unsightly. The problem is that for the historic area the large, 12-lane bridge is inappropriate. For a substantial part of the Old and Historic District or the Historic Landmark, this large bridge will be a dominant feature. For that part, which is within the area to which the Commission is committed to maintaining the historic character of Alexandria, the proposed alternative will cause a very serious deterioration of setting and experience.

Consequential Adverse Impacts

Compounding these problems are some that may be even greater but which are avoided in the impact assessments to date. These are the expansions of the interchanges serving Route 1 and South Washington Street and Telegraph Road and the projected increased traffic that these interchanges will direct onto the streets passing through the historic area. It is inevitable that increasing the capacity for traffic to move to those areas will generate an increase in traffic, especially the rate of flow during narrow rush hours. There is more than a homely saying in the statement from the movie The Field of Dreams: "Build it and they will come...."

The impact assessments claim that the 12-lane bridge would not be the cause of such an increase in traffic because development in the area of the Pentagon and the Potomac Yards will result in the higher level of traffic volume, bridge or no bridge. We contend that is not the case. Projections of traffic flow generally make the assumption that sufficient road capacity will be made available to move such volumes on the selected corridors leading to the new developments. In this particular case, it is not at all clear that the planners have adequately taken into account the alternative corridors that can be taken to those areas, with even less stress than moving through Old Town and its traffic control signals at each intersection. For example, to get to these areas, traffic originating east of the bridge would be well advised to consider taking the 1-295 corridor and crossing the 14th Street Bridge southbound to get to the Pentagon, Crystal City or even the Potomac Yards areas. Traffic to these areas that originates west of Telegraph Road could well be better off traveling the 1-395 corridor north to these areas. We are not convinced that it is at all necessary to funnel this projected increase in traffic, facilitated and supported by the proposed 12-lane bridge into the very fragile Historic District of Alexandria.

It is our very gravest concern that this currently projected greater traffic volume will spill over onto all of the north-south streets of Old Town and increase enormously the pressures to develop enlarged access ways and other commercial and office projects that can only degrade the historic character of Old Town. To state this is not to be snobbish or elitist; it is only recognizing that there is a limited capacity for accommodating guests and visitors to Old Town, as well as its residents, businesses, and, yes, the commuters who transit through it daily. A proposal to increase the capacity for moving people through Monticello by gutting the structure to build "raceways" facilitating movement through it would surely meet with universal disapproval.

Subordination of the Historic and Cultural Values

Draft impact assessments claim there is a need for compromising "local short-term uses of the environment" in favor of providing for the "enhancement of long-term productivity." The clear implication of such a position is that increased mobility through the Wilson Bridge corridor is preeminent to the historical and cultural values embodied in the historic area of Alexandria. We object to characterizing the historic area of Alexandria as a "local short-term use"; it is instead a regional, state and national resource that warrants more than cavalier dismissal.

Less than a year and a half ago, the Wilson Bridge was characterized as a "critical link in the Maine to Florida interstate route." Emphasis today is on the local and regional accessibility that it provides. In the process the Wilson Bridge corridor has been made both the site of the problem and the site of the solution. This only adds unnecessarily to the succession of incremental highway decisions and actions that have had increasing impacts on Alexandria's historic area. One of these was the 1976 decision to make the eastern segment of the Beltway part of I-95. Since then the situation has been exacerbated by the incremental increases in the number of lanes on I-495. It is not difficult to understand how it was easy to conclude that the problem is the Wilson Bridge. However, it is time to break the cycle whereby highway planning and construction have served to funnel increasingly larger volumes of traffic onto the corridor that passes through the southern part of Alexandria. That is working to the detriment of the fragile historic Alexandria resource and is not a fair sharing of the burdens created by regional and interregional traffic.

The irony of the situation is that it is not inevitable or necessary. Planning is not a highly accurate science but the planning process must recognize, and therefore anticipate, that much of what it does becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Vehicles will move where the streets and highways are placed. The placement of transportation corridors shapes and conditions the location of much economic and residential activity. We believe more attention needs to be given to the potential for diverting portions of the projected growth in traffic volume away from the corridor.

Without greater attention to the full range of "prudent and feasible alternatives," we are forever condemned to taking the "easy way out": just pour more traffic onto the Wilson Bridge corridor by expanding its capacity. That is a different kind of traffic diversion, one of neglect and increasing damage to Historic Alexandria.

CONCLUSION

Unfortunately, time is getting short and positions are becoming more emotionally entrenched. Those of us trying to preserve the historic and cultural features of our National Historic Landmark in Alexandria have been characterized as obstructionists and naysayers. However, nothing could be further from the truth. We are not guilty of "nimbyism." The Commission is not advocating that there should be no Wilson Bridge or that it should not be improved. It objects to the huge 12-lane bridge with all of its "extras" that would be built under current plans and the damaging impact that it and the consequential increase in traffic volume will have on the historic area of Alexandria. It believes that if a truly regional and interregional approach were taken to transportation planning, the Wilson Bridge corridor is not the only "prudent and feasible" alternative that is reasonable.

The Commission further believes that if such an approach were taken in an appropriately time phased fashion, the proposed alternative 10-lane bridge with a footprint falling within the existing right-of-way would be adequate to handle the traffic needs of the corridor for the foreseeable future. It would also go far to help preserve the national values embodied in Historic Alexandria and distribute more equitably, the burdens created by accommodating the projected growth in regional and national vehicular traffic flows. In a day when fiscal responsibility is a top political priority, reducing the cost of the bridge and interchanges is also of paramount importance and consistent with historic preservation objectives.