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City Rethinking Waterfront Plan, Other Capital Projects Amid Rising Construction Costs

Rising regional construction costs and are making Alexandria planners rethink a number of capital improvements, including the city’s extensive waterfront plan.

“We are in a highly volatile construction market, and it has been very challenging,” Deputy City Manager Emily Baker told city council in a budget work session on Feb. 26. “And it’s been very challenging for us to keep coming to you and saying, ‘Well, you know, we thought the project was going to cost X and now it’s going to cost some multiple of X.'”

Staff are now determining which projects would be shifted or reprioritized. There has been a 26.7% increase in construction costs in the greater Washington region over the last five years, according to the Engineering News-Record Construction Cost Index. Another study showed construction costs increasing 18% between 2013 and 2018.

City Councilman John Taylor Chapman said that public engagement will be key as the city will have to update its planning on capital projects.

“We haven’t really communicated with the public, ‘Hey, there’s a large change X times the amount for every project we’ve talked to you about the last 10 years,'” Chapman told staff at the meeting. “If we’ve talked about schools, that cost is going through the roof. If we’ve talked about City Hall, that cost is going through the roof. If we’ve talked about the waterfront plan, that’s going through the roof, and frankly I don’t think it does us well… to say to the public, ‘We’ve blown through these numbers and we’re going to do them over.'”

Chapman added, “I don’t think that’s a realistic path forward. At what point do we talk about re-prioritizing stuff, moving stuff out of the CIP, drastically changing the scope of different projects?”

Baker responded, “That is something we are doing right now.”

The $2.1 billion, fiscal year 2021-2030 Capital Improvement Program covers city and school system improvements, including the $122 million waterfront plan, the eventual renovation of city hall, $7.5 million for bridge repairs and refurbishments, $17.6 million to support Metro’s capital improvements and $30.5 million toward flood mitigation along the waterfront.

“No shovels are in the ground,” Terry Suehr, the city’s director of project implementation, told council. “We haven’t moved toward construction, and so it is a perfect opportunity for us to say, ‘Okay, there’s things changing in the industry. There’s things changing in our world, and we have very high costs. Let’s take a step back and take a look at what were the decisions and why were those made.'”

Suehr said that the city remains committed to the vision, values and principles that have been laid out in the Waterfront Small Area Plan.

“There’s been a lot of long term plan a lot of civic engagement that’s gone into that plan,” Suehr added. “And we understand that the value is a walkable waterfront that honors our history that provides us a very significant public amenity that gives an active waterfront for people to come to embrace.”

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