Photo by runneralan2004 on Flickr.

After a year of fevered debates over Alexandria’s waterfront, it is time to embrace the basic framework approved by the planning commission. The commission’s approach is the most economically feasible way to proceed, and it is also the plan most likely to actually produce the attractive waterfront we deserve.

A recently released alternative proposal falls far short and requires the city to borrow more than a hundred million dollars to buy, through eminent domain or otherwise, private land to add more open space to those already provided in the commission’s plan.

The budget forecast recently delivered to the council anticipates years of slow economic growth. The reality is that Alexandria can’t afford such outlandish spending.

In addition to increasing park space and including a new museum, the proposal approved by the planning commission addresses flooding problems and allows for better pedestrian access, and it does all of this within the current low-building heights and architectural care that characterize Old Town. Further, it uses a public-private financing approach that takes much of the economic burden off of taxpayers.

There are ideas in the alternative concept that merit consideration. For example, council should evaluate the appropriate number of hotels allowed along the waterfront, as well as work to prevent privatization of the remaining waterfront with more townhomes.

Encouraging adaptive re-use of historic spaces is important. And the idea of a waterfront not-for-profit that raises funds to improve and take care of the waterfront is a good one. But the sheer audacity of spending proposed in the alternative concept makes this a budget issue.

In addition to land purchases, the alternative would use funds to build and operate a maritime museum, which would allegedly attract thousands of people a day paying up to $5 per person.

This idea fails any basic test of reasonableness as evidenced by the failed maritime museum in New York, our fiscally challenged Carlyle House and Torpedo Factory, and the reality that no city museum has been able to pay for itself with an admission charge. To speak nothing of the impact of thousands of daily visitors attempting to park around Union Street.

Proponents of the alternative say that their plan will attract people and tax dollars to Old Town. It likely would. But the planning commission proposal would as well.

In fact, opponents once criticized the commission recommendation by saying more visitors to Old Town was a bad idea, raising concerns about traffic. They also once professed concerns about costs in the planning commission plan. Now they want to spend millions more and need a higher number of visitors to make up lost tax revenues and pay for their enormous borrowing binge. Their proposal contradicts their own arguments.

After 5 years of budget cuts, with our nation’s lackluster economy, the council has to carefully manage city resources. The city manager recently asked departments to suggest up to 6 percent cuts in their budgets. Staff reductions and cuts over the years have already strained city services.

New city open space funding was killed by the recession. Our combined sewer system in Old Town needs hundreds of millions to fix. Library services have been reduced. Parks like Ft. Ward, Windmill Hill, and Four Mile Run, city pools and other public infrastructure have unfunded maintenance needs. We must improve fire and emergency services so residents on the west-end are treated as quickly as those on the east. And our police department can’t sustain more cuts without diminishing services.

“Just borrow the money,” some say. But they fail to consider the significant new taxes required for the bond payments or the impact of borrowing on our city’s AAA credit rating. Or the risk that new borrowing undermines school and transportation needs.

We have a multi-year plan to add classrooms for our growing student population; it requires new funds each year. We will likely need even more to address continued crowding. And transportation and Metro costs continue to burden our city as state and federal funds vanish.

In short, we can’t put basic needs on hold in exchange for a Quixotic quest for a few acres of land on the waterfront.

“Just get a grant,” some say. There is no easy money from foundations and conservation organizations. I’ve talked to the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. Funds for land conservation are scarce, and existing funds are prioritized for less expensive and much larger swaths of land outside the Beltway.

I’d welcome any private citizens or groups that want to raise or donate funds to buy waterfront land. Anybody interested can contribute to the city open space account or can buy land themselves.

By working with the planning commission framework, we can have a waterfront that is a pleasure to walk along and visit without an extravagant waterfront spending spree. Opponents are entitled to hold the view that their proposed spending is a higher priority than education, public safety or transportation. Or that the city should do it all by raising taxes to be among the highest in the region. Or that the city should abandon its AAA credit rating to make the alternative work.

But they should be clear about what they want to give up and who it will impact. There are no free lunches. Not even on the waterfront.