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City rethinks waterfront flood mitigation plans after seeing the price tag

The foot of King Street flooded with water is a dramatic visual that comes up nearly every time there’s flooding in Alexandria, but the city is facing some sticker shock for a long-planned fix.

At a meeting of the Waterfront Commission Flood Mitigation Committee this week, city staff presented a variety of plans that could help combat flooding on the waterfront, from a pair of cost-conscious options to options that put focus more on results than staying within budget.

City staff said that the three main sources of flooding on the waterfront are:

  • Stormwater overwhelming the stormwater-sewer system
  • The river backing into the sewer system
  • The river “overtopping” and coming into Old Town streets and parks

Matthew Landes, division chief for project implementation, said the last one — overtopping — happens less frequently than the other two. Landes presented two cost-based options for combatting flooding on the Waterfront within the capital improvement plan’s $100 million allocation for Waterfront improvement, but neither will fully fix overtopping from the river.

Waterfront flood mitigation cost-based option 1 (photo via City of Alexandria)

The first, which covers the Waterfront from Duke Street up to the northern end of Founder’s Park, mitigates rainfall flooding but makes no shoreline or park improvements. A combination of pumping stations, use of underground space at Founder’s Park, and more would help retain and remove floodwaters in the area. The project is estimated to cost $90 million, but staff said that could range from $63-136 million.

“On this project, we are prioritizing rainfall-runoff mitigation,” said project engineer Sara Igielski. “What that means we have to make sacrifices in terms of the other flooding that we have seen but we have identified rainfall-runoff and that backflow as being critical to addressing the funding we see most frequently.”

Landes said the project would meet two of the three objectives for managing water, but would do little to nothing for situations where the river rises and floods Old Town.

Waterfront flood mitigation cost-based option 2 (photo via City of Alexandria)

The other cost-based option presented would be hyper-focused on the area between Duke Street and King Street and would defer improvements north of King Street. The project would add a new bulkhead on the promenade along with a pumping station and underground retention at King Street park, but still would not hit all three of the flooding issues for Old Town and staff expressed concerns that flooding upstream could still lead to flooding in this area.

“This does not meet our flood mitigation goals,” Landes said. “It does not remove all of the floodings as we would want it to when we invest $100 million.”

But while staff also expanded on some more comprehensive and more expensive options with estimated costs of $170 million and $215 million, Committee members balked at proposed budgets.

“Everything you’re doing is more than we can afford,” Committee member Nathan Macek said. “That’s one-and-a-half elementary schools. I can’t imagine spending that kind of money to fix the flooding in this part of the city.”

Macek also noted that the Waterfront Small Area Plan approved in 2012 was intended as a parks and recreation plan, not an infrastructure plan, and the plans put forward by staff would allocate the full budget for the plan into flooding infrastructure. Macek said a more realistic approach might be building-specific enhancements to safeguard against damage from flooding.

“Everything we’re talking about here, to me, as much as I love the Waterfront, I couldn’t fathom the city spending this kind of money on this area,” Macek said. “Look at the flood problems we have here in Rosemont and other parts of the city with [$200-$300 million improvements] that will affect more homes and properties. [The] improvements and alternatives need to be paired back to be as minimal as possible while still providing amenities on the parkland.”

Trae Lamond, Committee member and owner Waterfront restaurant Chadwicks (203 Strand Street), said the first cost-based option was more than ample in its flood protection, but that the city can’t afford to defer the issue much longer.

“I would hate for us not to do anything and then have something terrible happen,” Lamond said.

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