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A look back at the ‘urban renewal’ project that reshaped Old Town

The view from the Alexandria City Hall’s clock tower. (Staff photo by James Cullum)

Fights over historic preservation are nothing new in Alexandria, and a recent edition of the city’s This Week in Historic Alexandria offered a look back at one of the controversial projects from the 1960s that shaped Old Town as it’s known today.

This year marks 60 years since Alexandria’s City Council approved the “Gadsby Commercial Urban Renewal Plan” in 1963 — a project that saw the large-scale demolition of much of King Street’s older buildings once construction began in 1965.

“On March 10, 1965, construction began on the controversial Gadsby’s Urban Renewal Project in the heart of downtown Alexandria,” the Office of Historic Alexandria (OHA) wrote. “It had been approved by City Council in a close 4-3 vote.”

The Office of Historic Alexandria wrote that the trend at the time was demolition in downtown areas with less regard for the preservation of historic buildings.

“In the early 1960s, ‘urban renewal’ in the United States focused largely on the demolition and reconstruction of deteriorated downtown areas, rather than the restoration of historic buildings to revitalize city centers, a concept that emerged a decade later,” the Office of Historic Alexandria wrote. “In Alexandria, renewal was originally proposed for a twelve-block area further west along King Street but ultimately moved east, centered on the area around Gadsby’s Tavern, City Hall, and Market Square.”

The OHA wrote that the project would come to include the destruction of several blocks in the heart of Old Town. WETA wrote that several historic structures like the Belvoir hotel — which had elements dating back to 1792 — were demolished and the age of the building wasn’t understood until after it was torn down. Also lost was Arell’s Tavern, a local meeting place for George Washington and others, WETA wrote.

“Ultimately, the project involved the excavation of entire blocks at and near Market Square and the demolition of 18th- and 19th-century buildings considered at the time as contributing to blighted conditions in what would come to be known as ‘Old Town,'” The OHA wrote.

City Historian Dan Lee told ALXnow the project was particularly controversial given that the areas hit with demolition had already been placed in a historic district in 1946.

“The main aspect of the controversy is that Alexandria had created an Old and Historic District in 1946,” Lee said, “and then knocked down whole city blocks in that district in 1968.”

The project was carried out over multiple phases with the second phase completed in 1981, but by then public opinion had turned against the urban renewal project and a planned third phase never moved forward.

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