Political support for preserving Virginia's historic Fort Monroe within the National Park System has reached a critical mass, and the recent deactivation of the military installation has removed one of the campaign's last remaining obstacles. While this progress is to be applauded, a serious issue remains unresolved and underpublicized. If too little of the former military installation is preserved, bayfront land near the historic fort itself will surely be developed in ways very harmful to the historic site's viewscape and sense of place.
Speaking at the September 15 deactivation ceremonies for Fort Monroe, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar highlighted strong local and state support for historic preservation and affirmed that the National Park Service is "quickly" studying the site's potential for inclusion in the National Park System. “We have heard loud and clear from the local community, Commonwealth and federal officials, and stakeholders everywhere that Fort Monroe is a place of unique historical and cultural significance that merits protection – and we agree,” said Salazar. “Fort Monroe helps tell the compelling story of our nation’s arc from the Civil War to Civil Rights. With such a rich history, it’s no wonder that so many feel passionately about ensuring the site is preserved for future generations."
Support for preservation and national park status for the National Historic Landmark property in Hampton, Virginia, has been building ever since the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission recommended the deactivation of Fort Monroe. Public meetings in Virginia have confirmed that the idea has strong grassroots backing. The proposal has also been endorsed by many key elected officials and community leaders, including Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, Senators Jim Webb and Mark Warner, Congressmen Scott Rigell, Bobby Scott, Rob Wittman, J. Randy Forbes and Gerry Connolly, and Hampton Mayor Molly Ward.
With the necessary local, state, and Congressional support in place, and with the fort no longer on the active military installation rolls, momentum for national park status now seems unstoppable. However, as the push for national park status is fast-tracked into its final stages, some proponents of national park status for Fort Monroe caution that a golden opportunity will be lost if only the old fort itself is preserved and almost 90% of the 546-acre former military installation is left exposed to development that can severely degrade the historic site's viewscape and sense of place.
The threat is very real. As soon as the Army completes its responsibilities under the base realignment and closure process, the ownership and control of the great majority of the land in the former military installation -- all but the part on which the moated fort and some related historic structures are situated -- will revert to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Since this Chesapeake Bay waterfront property is immensely valuable, the pressure to make it available for development, presumably pricey condos, is tremendous. Virginia's leading media outlets have editorialized that this is virtually inevitable.
Science writer Steven T. Corneliussen is perhaps the most vocal of the historic preservation advocates who believe it would be an absolute travesty to allow the old moated citadel to become immersed in an overdeveloped, condo-dominated landscape. In a recent (August, 11, 2011) op-ed article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch , Corneliussen highlighted the long-term economic benefits of preserving the Fort Monroe property in its entirety and likened condo development there to building a Walmart next to the hallowed ground of a battlefield or constructing a residential subdivision cheek-by-jowl with Monticello.
In a comment posted here in the Traveler, Corneliussen added that "Fort Monroe needs to become a revenue-generating, taxpayer-minimally-burdening Grand Public Place built on a substantial national park -- a national park embracing the former Army post’s entire sense-of-place-defining bayfront shoreline."
Whether this viewpoint can prevail in the face of a veritable hurricane-force headwind remains to be seen, but the odds seem very long. The economic downturn, deep distrust of the federal government, the machinations of campaign politics, and various other factors have bolstered pro-development arguments and eroded public support for preservation. If it's true that building all those condos on the Fort Monroe property would irreparably harm a treasured historic site, it's also true that it would quickly deliver jobs and tax revenues, not to mention votes.
It speaks volumes that Preservation Virginia and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, two influential organizations that pick their fights carefully, have decided to stay out of this one. Nor do we see powerful state and federal leaders willing to spend political capital arguing that development should be pushed away from this attractive waterfront land in order to protect historic Fort Monroe's "entire sense-of-place-defining bayfront shoreline."
Although most land in the former military installation seems destined for development, it's not yet a done deal. The national park-in-the-making at Fort Monroe still might include all or most of the land in the former military installation, not just the old moated fort. But given the present circumstances, we wouldn't bet the farm on a last-minute reprieve. Sometimes you just have to take what you can get.