Alexandria is fortunate to have so many candidates who are seeking public office in this election cycle. Healthy competition usually leads to an informed and fulsome exploration of different views that helps voters make the best choices. Except for this year. It’s unfortunate that so much of the current campaigns for Alexandria’s mayoral and city council races has focused on the wrong issues, and that too much of the debate has focused on the wrong questions. Here are the questions that I would pose to the candidates, ranked from most to least important. (Don’t worry, I’ll get to the road diet.)
- The most existential issue that our city has confronted during the past three years has hardly been mentioned: COVID-19. This crisis touched us all. Some grieved the loss of family members or livelihoods. Some families were stressed to the breaking point balancing remote work and school. All of us were fearful and anxious. The past 15 months have proven that the competence of local government leaders can be a life-or-death matter. Even though Alexandria had roughly the same number of Covid cases per thousand residents as the state overall, we had only two-thirds as many deaths (136). Alexandria has fully vaccinated 49% of its residents as of June 7, compared to 46.5% statewide (though Alexandria is slightly behind the state in the number of partially vaccinated residents). Our hospital was never pushed to its maximum capacity. City council responded quickly and effectively with special accommodations to help restaurants and other small businesses. Daily email and social media updates from the city have been timely and informative.
The important unasked question is: If you were mayor (or on the city council), how would you have handled the pandemic differently? (keeping in mind that the school board is the elected body that makes school division policy decisions)
- The most consequential long-term issue facing Alexandria is our city’s ability to generate enough tax revenue to pay for our numerous infrastructure projects. A 2016 city evaluation of the structural stability of 36 of the city’s 123 facilities gave failing grades to eight of them, including City Hall. Promoting a productive and hospitable environment for business formation and a welcoming landscape for new residents is essential to meeting our infrastructure challenges without burdening homeowners with rising property tax rates. An infusion of funding from the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan will help in the near term. And yet most of what we’re hearing from candidates is backward-looking, blaming the failures of previous elected officials, not forward-looking.
My question is: How would you deploy federal funds to address our infrastructure needs? Which unmet need among our parks and recreation centers would you address first?
- Development is an important issue to be sure, and directly related to the item above, but the question posed to candidates often boils down to “Are you pro-density or anti-density?” What voters really want is to understand the vision that our prospective elected leaders have for our city. Should Alexandria strive to offer the amenities that will attract residents and businesses seeking a vibrant and diverse urban community in which to live, work, play, learn and invest? Or should Alexandria bar the door to development in an effort to recreate a quaint Mayberry-on-the-Potomac to which some residents seemingly would like to return?
Candidates who oppose development should talk less in generalities and more in specifics. The better question is: Which new projects that were approved during the past five years would you have opposed and why? (i.e. the waterfront redevelopment? the Silverado Memory Care center? The Venue, formerly the Crowne Plaza Holiday Inn, which will include a new home for MetroStage? The Bloom at Braddock built alongside the new Carpenter’s Shelter? the 52 apartments at the Lineage that replaced the 15 dilapidated Ramsey units? something else?) And a follow-up question: How can we best manage the trade-off between development and green space?
- Next is the non-issue about “adult housing on school grounds” (as opposed to youth housing on school grounds?). After an over-eager consultant hired by Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) mistakenly included a not-ready-for-prime-time plan on a slide in a draft version of a presentation regarding the George Mason Elementary school renovation, the draft found its way into the public domain, and all hell broke loose. There was never a serious vetted proposal to include workforce housing in an ACPS building, but the rookie error was amplified into “the biggest game of telephone ever,” according to someone familiar with the situation. Never mind that as with most school matters, this wouldn’t fall under the city council’s purview. It has become a central campaign topic nonetheless. Some candidates have even pledged to never allow school property to be used for housing. Never, really? What if we were to build a new elementary school at Potomac Yard or the planned redevelopment of Landmark, or an Alexandria City High School (formerly T.C. Williams High School) extension on the new Virginia Tech campus? Could you imagine a multi-story building with students on the bottom levels and housing on the upper levels with a separate entrance, a configuration that’s being adopted in D.C. and other urban areas? We already have two churches that have created housing units on church property and a firehouse that shares its building with 64 apartments. A new recreation center would be an ideal location for workforce housing.
Instead of “Do you support co-location of housing in schools?” the better question is: How do you propose to improve the ability of our essential workers to live and work in our city?
- At last there is the oft-asked question to candidates about whether they would support spending a half million dollars or more to return a 0.9-mile portion of Seminary Road to four lanes of traffic. For those of you who were in quarantine even before Covid, this issue concerns the “road diet” that coincided with the scheduled repaving of Seminary Road between Quaker Lane and St. Stephen’s Road. First, some background and context. In 2008, the city council approved a Transportation Master Plan that was built around the principles of “Complete Streets”—streets that are designed to ensure safe use and to support mobility for all types of users including motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transportation riders—and later updated to include the concept of “Vision Zero,” which aims to reduce traffic and pedestrian deaths to zero. We can see examples of these principles being applied throughout our city, such as the much-improved configuration of traffic lanes and pedestrian crosswalks around Alexandria City High School and sidewalk curb cuts with tactile paving for the visually impaired.
The city’s transportation plan directs city staff to look at each street project and recommend changes that will make it safer for all users. Four lanes of traffic naturally result in cars speeding which naturally results in less safe conditions for all users. After many meetings and neighborhood listserv arguments and civic association pronouncements, the street’s traffic lanes were reduced from four to three, bike lanes and sidewalks were added, and pedestrian crossings were created. Pre-pandemic traffic studies showed that travel times for cars were one minute or less slower for a 15- to 30-minute period during the morning and evening rush hours.
The current debate pits motorists against bicyclists and pedestrians and ignores the underlying principles that govern the way we design our transportation infrastructure. Instead of “Would you return Seminary Road to four lanes?” the better question to ask candidates is: What aspects of the 2008 Transportation Plan do you oppose and what changes do you propose for the Alexandria Mobility Plan that is currently under development?
Less than two weeks remain before the June 8 primary. Candidates, send me your answers to the questions in bold type above to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll publish them. Voters, please vote on or before June 8.