“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and
probably themselves will not be realized.”–Daniel Burnham
On my annual migration from Florida to Colorado this past June, I stopped in to see old friends in Fredericksburg where I lived in the mid-1980s. It’s a wonderful small city that can make a valid claim to being America’s most historic—George Washington’s mother and sister lived there, James Monroe maintained a law office there and served on the city council, and Civil War cannonballs still protrude from landmark buildings. What I saw did my heart good–my hat’s off to the community—you are looking great, a real tribute to years of smart, determined city planning and a lot of citizen initiative.
Fredericksburg will always have a special place in my heart and mind. My son Ben was born there, and we renovated an old historic house just down the street from Mary Washington’s home and grave.
At the same time,I was fortunate to serve on the city council for a couple of terms under the steady leadership of community and civil rights icon, the Rev. Lawrence Davies.
I was only 35 at the time and had lofty goals of implementing all the good land-use law and planning ideas I had soaked in since my law school graduation from savvy mentors like Richard Babcock (Mr. Zoning), Fred Bosselman (author of the ground-breaking book “The Taking Issue,” and Bill Reilly (my boss at the time at the World Wildlife Fund and later head of the U.S. EPA under H.W. Bush). Indeed, some of the old experienced hands on city council called me “White Horse,” and I am sure looking back I could be a pain in the arse. But they put up with me, and I learned a lot of about politics and how things really work in local government from these gentlemen.
Today it is heartening to see that the seeds we helped plant back then have sprouted and flourished thanks to successive enlightened city councils and hard work by hundreds of citizens. Several things stand out. First was the successful campaign to protect the scenic Rappahannock River that flows through the town and was my home water for canoeing and smallmouth bass fishing.
The City of Fredericksburg owned all the land on either side of the river for miles upstream, having obtained it from the Virginia Electric Power Company when its proposal for the massive Salem Church dam (which would have flooded all the property) was defeated. The land was pristine and undeveloped, but we discovered some unscrupulous developers were chopping down trees along the river so they could sell lots with “river views!” We put a stop to that on city council, and later the city dedicated an easement ensuring miles of city-owned shoreline–over 4,000 acres–will be preserved in perpetuity. At the same time, local whitewater/canoe guru Bill Micks, Virginia House of Delegate member Bob Ackerman (a dedicated conservation advocate), and I formed a new group we called Friends of the Rappahannock (FOR) to act as the river’s advocate and protector.
I was absolutely delighted to find that from these humble beginnings at a meeting at the Fredericksburg City Library attended by maybe 15 people, it has grown into one of the premier river protection groups in the United States with a dedicated, hard-working staff with an office right on the river.
They have not only saved the river from development, but have made it fun and accessible to the public with great events and support for a wonderful trail system along the water.
That’s the second big achievement that boggled my mind. When I was on council the city had a small trail system with scattered sections along the river and city water supply canal. I started doing some exploring with my young toddler son Ben along some of the creeks that ran into the river and sections of the river itself with no easy public access. The vision of a comprehensive city-side trail system was embraced in the city’s new comprehensive plan, but frankly it was little more than a pipe dream. Fast forward thirty years and thanks to incredible work by the community, the results are nothing short of spectacular.
My jaw dropped when I saw the hundreds of people of all ages using the extensive trail system on a weekday. My friends told me they considered it to be one of the best, if not the best, community amenity in town.
That trail system has helped link the historic downtown to the rest of the community, and that downtown is so vibrant and lively today compared to the early 1980s when a new outlying shopping mall was sucking life out of the central business district. At that time, the city had a weak preservation ordinance that did not protect any structure built after 1870 and then only with delay periods when someone wanted to demolish an historic landmark. Several had already fallen to the wrecking ball, replaced by ugly modern buildings or parking lots. Having served on the Frank Lloyd Wright preservation commission in Oak Park, Illinois, while a young lawyer, I ran on a platform to strengthen the local preservation law and protect all buildings eligible for the National Register of Historic Places (then pre-1935). There was vocal opposition from the local downtown business association, but after the election and with stalwart support of the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, we passed the new regulations. Soon progressive local business people embraced the downtown’s unique character as its economic ace-in-the-hole, and the rest is, as they say, history. Today the handsome historic downtown is booming thanks to their advocacy over the years since.
Another feature of the downtown that brought a smile to my face was the old train station. Unused and crumbling back in the 1980s, it was given new life when city council successfully pushed, along with then-governor Gerry Baliles, for commuter rail from Fredericksburg to Washington, D.C., and regular train service from Richmond through Fredericksburg to the nation’s Capitol.
The commute I used to do several days a week to Washington, D.C., on the interstate was an absolute nightmare back then. Today city residents have the luxury of train service thanks to successive city councils staying the course and backing it with tax dollars.
The other piece of good news played out on the outskirts west town across from the old Spotsylvania Mall, which as noted above had drained life from the downtown and sales tax dollars from city coffers like outlying shopping centers had done in many other communities across the country. To counter this, in the early 1980s, the city had annexed a large area of undeveloped property across from the mall, but had no comprehensive plan for this large tract. Already there were proposals for helter-skelter strip commercial centers, some massive projects along the river, and poorly designed housing. But starting in 1984 the city council sprang into action, appropriated funds for a major planning effort to ensure the newly annexed area would be developed in a well-designed manner, and then over the years worked closely with the major property owner, the Silver family. The result today is a booming, handsome well-landscaped business park with over 250 firms in well-designed buildings linked by sidewalks and parkways and some housing mixed in.
And I’ll have to admit a bit of devilish delight that the Central Park area, as it is now called, has far eclipsed the old, tattered mall in the county just across Route 3. It stands in stark contrast to the ugly mess that continues to creep out into the county and as a reminder of the value of good community planning.
I came away so proud of the citizens of Fredericksburg, and what they have accomplished working for over three decades with city officials. All of these major areas of progress are monuments to thoughtful city planning and community involvement. I hope they keep up the good work there in Fredericksburg. It’s inspiring.