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Six months ago, Odyssey Cruises embarked on a quest to ply the Potomac in search of profits. The company designed a humongous $6-million, 240-foot party boat—the Odyssey III—that could duck under the Potomac’s low bridges and carry 600 passengers. But so far, the vessel has been unable to find a harbor. It wanders from port to port looking for a home, like an upscale version of New Jersey’s infamous garbage barge.
The cruise line originally planned to launch from the Gangplank Marina at Southwest D.C.’s waterfront. But a few months ago, after deciding that parking spaces at the Waterfront were too costly, Odyssey dumped the Gangplank plan and instead proposed to set sail from Oronoco Bay in Old Town Alexandria.
The company might have expected a friendly reception for its short-term, upscale tours. After all, tourists willing to pay $100 a plate for a dinner cruise might tarry near the Odyssey III’s dock, spending money while waiting for their ship to come in. The cruise line estimates that the boat will create 230 new jobs.
But Alexandria has had enough economic development, thank you. Old Town residents, who feared the boat would aggravate the area’s chronic congestion and parking shortages, opposed the project. Odyssey Cruises was at sea again, forced to reconsider a D.C. port of call.
Odyssey Cruises turned back to the District, once again hoping to run its lunch, brunch, dinner, and midnight cruises out of the Gangplank Marina. But though Southwest Washington is far hungrier for economic development than Alexandria, there’s been no welcoming party at the dock. Opponents fear that the boat will exacerbate the waterfront’s parking shortage, and that drunken diners who disembark at 2 a.m. will annoy residents.
Le Eckles, a Ward 2 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, heads local opposition to the Odyssey III. “Have you seen it?” she asks. “It’s huge! It’s the equivalent of taking a 600-person occupancy building and dropping it by helicopter, with no hearings, no zoning debates. And no one has ever presumed to bring a 600-person building with no additional parking.”
Odyssey Cruises’ management defends its plan. Gangplank Marina proposes to set aside 60 of its own parkingspaces for Odyssey III passengers, and the cruise line will purchase another 140 contract spaces from surrounding businesses. Passengers can also get to the boat via taxi, tour bus, or Metro.
“It’s in our own best interest to make sure our customers have enough parking,” says Odyssey General Manager Steve Glass. “They’re paying $100 a person. If they miss the boat because they can’t find a space, you know they’re going to call me.”
But Eckles is unappeased. She doubts that Gangplank can assign or sell spaces required for its own business licenses to another company. She also cites fire-safety concerns about the companies’ proposal to pack cars tightly in front of the marina.
Besides parking, Eckles worries about the Odyssey III‘s potential to bring riverboat gambling to her neighborhood. Once the city permits one luxury liner to lease space along the waterfront, others might follow in the hopes of one day converting their crafts into floating casinos. Though Glass says Odyssey Cruises has offered to sign a statement swearing that its boat would never be used for noncharity gaming, Eckles believes the agreement wouldn’t be binding if riverboat gambling was approved in a city referendum.
Odyssey Cruises has circumnavigated both public scrutiny and municipal regulations, says Eckles. According to D.C. law, boats anchoring in the District to do business are supposed to get permission from the mayor. “That sounds good,” she says, “but you know Marion. He’ll write permission on the back of a cocktail napkin.” Fortunately, she says, the mayor can only give permission after Advisory Neighborhood Commission-sponsored public hearings.
“If the people are in favor of the project, I have no problem. I’m democratically elected, I live by the majority vote,” says Eckles.
Usually, parking dilemmas and other such intricacies of new developments are hashed out in zoning hearings long before construction begins. But the Odyssey III is built. Once it passes ongoing Coast Guard sea trials, it will sail from Louisiana, around the Florida peninsula, navigating the Intracoastal Waterway until it arrives in D.C. sometime in early June.
“It’s coming,” says Glass.
“It’s not coming,” says Eckles. At least, she adds, not without public hearings.