Alexandria was chartered by the General Assembly in 1749, immediately after a charter for a parallel town at Dumfries was approved. Scottish merchants were the sparkplugs behind the creation of the two new communities; the tobacco warehouses already at those locations were magnets for customers.
Both port cities were given the same set of street names, but the merchants ultimately chose one city over the other. Dumfries faded as a commercial center, in part because its harbor silted in and ocean-going ships found it difficult to reach the Dumfries wharves for loading/unloading cargo. In contrast, the capacity to load ships at Alexandria was improved by filling in the shallow harbor and extending the wharves into deeper water. Two blocks of land have been added to the waterfront, extending today from the back of the Carlyle House to the boardwalk in front of the Torpedo Factory Art Gallery
The relationship between Alexandria and the rest of Virginia has been complex at times. Alexandria was once part of Lord Fairfax's "proprietary" land grant. Theoretically, after the initial grant to King Charles II's friends, the area was outside the control of colonial officials to issue land grants.
Alexandria was transferred to the District of Columbia when the national capital moved from Philadelphia to the Potomac River in 1800. George Washington had maneuvered to have the developed portion of the Potomac waterfront in Virginia included within the boundaries of the new national capital, under the terms of the Residence Act. The southern tip of the District boundary was defined by a stone placed at Jones Point.
Jones Point, southern tip of DC (before land upstream was filled in for Virginia Shipbuilding yard in WWI)
Source: Library of Congress, Plan of the town of Alexandria in the District of Columbia, 1798 / engrav'd by T. Clarke, New York.
Jones Point, 1878
Source: Library of Congress, Atlas of fifteen miles around Washington, including the counties of Fairfax and Alexandria, Virginia / compiled and published from actual surveys by G.M. Hopkins
Washington may have expected Alexandria to benefit from an expected economic boom, as people moved to the new capital. However, public buildings such as the Capitol and White House were located north of the Potomac River. Alexandria County suffered, because neither Virginia nor DC would use public funds to develop the area.
In 1856, after the retrocession of the Virginia portion of the District of Columbia, the Federal government built a lighthouse at Jones Point. The lighthouse keepers cabin was located adjacent to the stone marking the southern tip of the District, and both structures are still there today.
One economic activity in Alexandria was the slave trade, including the Franklin & Armfield business located at 1315 Duke Street. In the Compromise of 1850, the US Congress banned slavery in the District of Columbia, which was under Federal control. Alexandria and Virginia officials recognized the handwriting on the wall. They agitated in the 1840's to return or "retrocede" the Virginia portion of the District (south of the Potomac River) to Virginia. After a vote on the issue in Alexandria, the territory was returned back to Virginia in 1847.
Had the retrocession not occurred prior to the banning of slavery in DC in 1850, the Federal Distict could have become a flash point for Virginia slaves trying to escape into the "free" North. Retrocession placed a psychological and physical barrier, the Potomac River, between free vs. slave territory.
Few Virginians realize that Alexandria was the state capital between 1863-65, at least according to the Federal government based in Washington, DC. When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, Richmond became the capital of the Confederate Virginia - but the northern states remaining in the Union did not recognize the new Confederate government.
Instead, a competing "Restored Government of Virginia" was created by the Union sympathizers in Virginia in 1861. Since the old location in Richmond was occupied by Confederate sympathizers, the Union side established the state capital of its version of Virginia in Wheeling, on the Ohio River. That location was far from the slave-owning Tidewater counties, safe from Confederate attack, and easily accessible from the northern states.
There was just one problem: West Virginia became a separate state in 1863, and Wheeling became the capital of the new state. Forty-eight counties now belonged to West Virginia, not Virginia. The governor of the Union version of Virginia, Francis Pierpont, had to leave Wheeling and move back to what remained of Virginia.
After the creation of West Virginia in 1863, there were few locations available within the now-altered boundaries of Virginia for Union sympathizers to locate a capital of the Restored Government of Virginia. The Civil War was still being hotly contested, and it was not clear which side would win.
Not all of the remaining territory of Virginia was controlled by Confederates, however. The Emancipation Proclamation listed the areas under Federal control, and thus "safe" for locating the Union version of Virginia state government until the Federal army captured Richmond.
In Virginia, those Federally-controlled areas included the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, plus the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth. The Eastern Shore was too far away for any government center. Hampton Roads was under military control of the Army, and the control of the military leaders would have limited the authority of any civilian state officials in the Norfolk area.
So Governor Pierpont chose to locate the Restored Government in Alexandria, in the shadow of his political sponsors in Washington and in a community protected by a ring of Federal Army forts. Alexandria served as the state capital, with Pierpont operating out of his office at 415 Prince Street as the state governor, until the Union Army finally captured Richmond in April, 1865. At that point, the state government moved south again to the traditional capital, with the capitol building and the Governor's Mansion.
415 Prince Street, site of Governor's Pierpont's office (when Alexandria was the capital of "Restored" Virginia in 1863-65)
Alexandria finally boomed again after World War I. As the Federal government expanded during the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, demand for housing increased. The Alexandria Water Company built Lake Barcroft to supply drinking water to the city in 1915, then switched to the new and larger Occoquan Reservoir in 1950.
Gentrification finally converted most low-cost housing into expensive townhomes/condos between 1970 and 2000. That affected the character of the city, displacing minorities as different neighborhoods were redeveloped. The high costs to buy or rent in the Old Town area limit socio-economic diversity, and redevelopment plans extend all the way to Alexandria's western border.
The Beauregard area, near the Mark Center on I-395, is an inside-the-Beltway suburb of 3-story apartments and townhomes offering 5,000 units of "workforce housing" with relatively low rents. Alexandria has approved a suburban renewal plan permitting development of seven new mixed-use neighborhoods. Half of the existing housing units will be remved, replaced by more-dense development that will generate greater income for the property owners and higher taxes for the city. To mitigate gentrification concerns, the developers have committed to provide 800 affordable housing units. As noted by one land use specialist who also served on the city's planning commission:2
redevelopment of Alexandria's Beauregard neighborhood (shown here before completion of the Mark Center) has triggered debate over the pattern of displacing poor and minorities (gentrification)
Source: City of Alexandria, Beauregard Small Area Plan Boundary Map
As real estate agents constantly repeat, value of property is determined by three things - location, location, and location. What makes Alexandria so attractive? It's not a center of manufacturing. It's not a high-tech community like Silicon Valley. It's a small city... but it's adjacent to Washington DC. Alexandria is ranked 4th in the nation (behind Washington, DC, New York, and Chicago) as the headquarters location for trade associations.2
Alexandria offers a convenient commute to the Federal agencies via the George Washington Memorial Parkway or the Metro (both constructed primarily by funding from the Federal government). The taxpayers and business leaders in Alexandria required a national commitment to build the I-495 interstate highway, a state commitment (with Federal contribution) to build the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, and a regional commitment in order to build the Metrorail system - but the leaders of Alexandria have always made sure that the city had excellent transportation facilities.
The benefits of a thriving city, linked to the rest of Virginia and in the shadow of the national capital, are reflected in Alexandria's sky-high property values. For example, the historic townhouse at 115 Prince Street is located on a tree-lined stretch of a road laid out in 1749. Today, the pavement on that block ("Captains Row" between Lee and Union streets) is still historic cobblestones rather than asphalt.
The townhome at 115 Prince Street has a basement, which is possible because the edge of the Potomac River has been moved two blocks away as the land on the waterfront was expanded. What today is Union Street used to be part of the Potomac River.
To move into Alexandria today, you have to be prepared to pay dearly for property. The 2013 real estate taxes for that 3,200 square feet townhome on "Captains Row" were $23,000, based on Alexandria's property tax rate and the city's appraisal of property values:3
|Appraised Land Value:||$615,794|
|Appraised Building Value:||$1,612,901|
|Total Appraised Value:||$2,228,695|
115 Prince Street, located at the former edge of the Potomac River
Alexandria's plans to redevelop along the waterfront have been as controversial as the Beauregard Small Area Plan. The waterfront was an industrial zone until the 1950's, but today is a mix of parks, cultural sites, restaurants/retail, and high-cost housing. The most obvious example of the transformation is the Torpedo Factory at the foot of King Street, where artists exibit paintings, sculpture, weavings, etc. in a structure once used to manufacture torpedoes for US Navy submarines.In 2012, after 150 public meetings during three years, the Alexandria City Council approved rezoning the waterfront to permit replacing two warehouses with hotels. Opponents preferred more museums and parkland rather than commercialization of the waterfront. The hotels will replace the Robinson Terminal warehouses, which formerly stored newsprint for the Washington Post.4
Increasing public access to the river is a key part of the waterfront plan, but plans to develop a public pier and marina where King Street meets the edge of the Potomac River were altered after the Old Dominion Boat Club won a lawsuit regarding ownership of the land there. The lawsuit, filed in 1973 when Richard Nixon was president, was settled in 2011. The boat club blocked the Federal government from asserting ownership over the waterfront land between the current shoreline and the river's edge back in 1791, when the District of Columbia was created. As of 2013, Alexandria was still negotiating with Old Dominion Boat Club to create a trail for public use along the river's edge, and to replace the club's waterfront parking lot (surrounded by a chain link fence) with a public plaza.5
Governor's Pierpont's wartime office in Alexandria (1863-65) is marked by a small plaque
1. "Alexandria’s Beauregard area faces housing, development decisions," Washington Post, May 5, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/alexandrias-beauregard-area-faces-housing-development-decisions/2012/05/05/gIQAAsFz3T_story.html; "Redevelopment looms in west Alexandria," Washington Post, April 12, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/redevelopment-looms-in-west-alexandria/2013/04/12/dba457e8-a0b0-11e2-9c03-6952ff305f35_story.html (last checked October 6, 2013)
2. "Alexandria, VA Business Overview," Livability, January 15, 2013, http://livability.com/alexandria/va/business/alexandria-va-business-overview (last checked October 6, 2013)
3. "Detailed Property Description - 115 Prince Street," City of Alexandria, http://realestate.alexandriava.gov/detail.php?accountno=12653500 (last checked October 6, 2013)
4. "Alexandria Council approves waterfront plan; number of hotels reduced," Washington Post, January 21, 2012, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-01-21/local/35439066_1_waterfront-plan-waterfront-parks-new-parks (last checked October 6, 2013)
5. "After Old Dominion boat club holds firm, changes made to Alexandria waterfront plan," Washington Post, April 22, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/virginia-politics/post/boat-club-holds-firm-changes-made-to-alexandria-waterfront-plan/2011/04/22/AF5ZL7QE_blog.html; "Historic Boat Club Triumphs over Feds, Ending Decades in Court," Local Kicks, January 19,2011, http://www.localkicks.com/community/news/historic-boat-club-triumphs-over-feds-ending-decades-in-court (last checked October 6, 2013)