Two city council candidates responded to my invitation to answer important questions about the future of our city that I posed in my previous post. Here are their responses in the order in which they were received. I will post any other responses received before the June 8 Democratic primary.
As federal moratoriums/forbearances on rent evictions and mortgage/loan foreclosures begin to lift, families here in Alexandria will begin to lose their apartments and homes yet some want us to think that one of the most pressing issues in this city is spending $700K+ and returning a small stretch of road back to four lanes! Really?! The basic goal of our Complete Streets strategy is simply to maximize the utilization of our roads for all modes of travel, walking, biking, automobiles and mass transit. Why should anyone be against this goal? Seems simply that some folks are saying “yes, I support our goals but don’t do it where I live!” And specifically, regarding Seminary Road, what truly are the major negative impacts? I think the issue of safety and emergency ingress/egress is a red herring. Alexandria has lots of much narrower streets and emergency vehicles can basically still traverse any and all areas necessary on Seminary. Oh, I forgot, folks will no longer be able to “safely exceed the speed limit” or pass folks who decide that they do want to abide by it!
And when folks emphasize this “time for a change” theme, that is mostly purely political. Change to WHAT?! Change back to WHEN?! Candidates freely claim how much they value diversity and then call for moratoriums on development and they are not being called out on this. Folks first need to acknowledge that Alexandria cannot maintain diversity without maintaining affordable housing options. And how do we maintain affordable options without bartering using what we have in an effort to get what we want? Our city had public housing built in the fifties and sixties and nearly all of it is overdue for renovating. With the federal government basically pushing most of the housing business down to local municipalities, how does Alexandria now pay to do the required renovations? We either raise taxes on citizens, raise taxes on businesses, raise taxes on tourist or barter. And I believe the right answer is to constantly look at an “all of the above” approach when it comes to housing. Finally, with regards to development, I have yet to hear anyone mention development and the rights of owners. In many ways, corporations, like private citizens, have current laws and “rights” to develop their properties to the extent currently allowable by law. In some cases, this means that they may only be able to build a fifty-story complex as opposed to a seventy-story structure. But they are able to build that fifty-story structure “by right” and then nothing would compel them in any way to be concerned about affordable units. Capitalism doesn’t demand compassion. Given, supposedly, our city’s overwhelming desire to value and maintain our diversity, it is hopefully the majority of our citizens, along with our elected leaders, who are constantly attempting to inject this compassion into capitalism. And the best way to do this is to not take any options off of the table as it relates to our attempts to provide affordable housing options.
And given Alexandria’s average median family income of over $100K and median home value of $573K, we also need to continue to ensure that our compensation for essential workers meets or exceeds surrounding jurisdictions. It should come as no surprise to anyone that many of our essential workers live in Prince Georges, southern Fairfax or Prince William counties. Here is another area where we have to first acknowledge the facts of capitalism and the difficulties of trying to reach our goals/desires of increasing the number of essential workers who live in the city. Basically, the only two ways that our municipality and elected officials can improve these numbers is by increasing employee compensation and doing all that we can to incentivize the development of affordable housing (yes, we have a modest first-time housing program but likely only effects twenty or so families a year).
Now to the issue of Covid and federal funding. In my early years on the school board, I pressed council and the city manager hard to pull capacity and infrastructure projects forward. “Why don’t we simply borrow more money and get stuff done?!” is what I would ask. I spent lots of time with Rashard Young and then Mark Jinks as they explained city bond ratings, abilities to borrow, etc. But through these interactions, the schools and city council formed much stronger and harmonious bonds around our budgets. We likewise formed a joint city/schools infrastructure group and developed a joint capital improvements budget that significantly increased the planned ten-year spending for infrastructure. Upon securing federal CARES and ARP funding, it certainly is an ideal opportunity to pull forward some of the projects that were already planned in the CIP. These should include BOTH flood mitigation and school projects.
Most of the current council candidates don’t even know that Alexandria doesn’t have a regulation size pool and therefore can’t conduct official swim meets. It would seem to me that as we do look at the funding streams, it perhaps is an opportune time to relook at our plans for our high school expansion and our pool/recreation needs. Is it now a better time to explore a joint schools/recreation center complex? Will we ever have a better time to do so? As I think about our high school needs with Chinquapin and Minnie Howard grounds, our middle school needs with Hammond and the lands below it and GW and its many fields, I can’t help but think that our city could significantly benefit by pulling together a taskforce and doing some in-depth explorations related to our future needs and the re-development of these areas.
I feel like I can’t close without talking about stream projects and ethics (what, you didn’t know that they are causally related?!) With regards to the city’s stream projects, it seems to me that folks need to first take a step back and ask the question “Do we all agree that we all want to do what’s best?!” I’m convinced that the answer is a resounding “YES”! To hear some folks, you’d think that some of our council members are so devious and unethical that they want all of our stream projects to fail. And we have some citizens who are convinced that any “failures” of previous stream improvement attempts falls solely at the feet of council! And still others seem to want to argue that they know with no degree of uncertainty that certain types of stream restoration projects simply will never work in Alexandria. I’ve been married for thirty-seven years and Ruby and I probably agree maybe seventy-five percent of the time. Our citizens need to be realistic and realize that simply because there may be disagreement between you and a council vote or even you and an individual council member, that doesn’t automatically translate to a council member being unethical or untrustworthy. Nor should citizens take council votes personally given that all votes are being done so in an attempt to help as many Alexandrians as possible, to reach previously identified goals and also usually, to meet federal and/or state mandates. I’ll be pollyannish and say that I doubt that council has ever taken a vote and decided on an issue solely because of its potential negative personal impact on any individual or small group.
I’ll finish up by saying that what I do think council, city staff, the school board and school staffs do need to do is to continue to work on outreach and improving communications. I saw somewhere recently where our city has planted more trees in the past three years than in our city’s history! Yet it seems like every story that we read in the newspaper or online about trees has to do with cutting down a tree! We need to work hard attempting to over communicate facts, truths, goals, failures and accomplishments. Elected officials don’t govern from the dais but rather they get input from strategic plans, small area plans, numerous boards and commissions, experts, staff members and citizens. Sometimes these inputs require weeks, months or years to be sifted through and discussed prior to a vote. Council needs to do a better job of ensuring diversity on these various committees especially as we continue to update plans and policies. And then council needs to consistently and constantly work to over communicate using every tool available. I’ve learned from being on the school board that better engaging folks is easily said and extremely difficult to accomplish but we have to have the will and experience to know that in the absence of adequate communications, hyperbole and rhetoric can take over and some folks will believe anything, such as the most recent presidential election was stolen, and certain council members want to bulldoze Chinquapin Park!
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)
Every questionnaire I filled out, every forum I participated in, any meet and greet that I attended I have always brought up the pandemic and how we are to recover from it. I am proud of the leadership role I played on Council in making sure that information and resources related to the pandemic were available to all Alexandrians. The number one issue of my re-election campaign has been ensuring an equitable recovery for all residents and businesses, and it will be a focus of my second term on Council if I am re-elected. If I could go back and change one thing about how we responded at the onset of the pandemic, it would have been to speed up the timeline of which we were able to put out multilingual, multimedia information and resources, as well as increase staff capacity to conduct more robust outreach to businesses for our Back to Business grants.
How would you deploy federal funds to address our infrastructure needs? Which unmet need among our parks and recreation centers would you address first?
I’ve been talking about infrastructure and how we are going to pay for all our needs since my first election. In reference to revenue, I have proposed a revenue master plan as BFAAC has suggested and looked to the state legislature for more flexibility in our taxing ability. That being said, we have what is potentially a once in a generation opportunity to use ARP funds to address many of our infrastructure needs, while keeping in mind the restrictions placed on utilization of these funds, feedback from community and staff, and the importance of using the funds equitably. Sewers, parks, broadband, buildings are all possibilities for use of ARP funding. Transportation infrastructure funding will hopefully come to fruition if the President’s plan can get a fair shake in Congress.
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?
One project I took issue with was the Potomac Yard redevelopment. While overall it was a good project, it lacked larger concessions for both affordable housing and space for our schools. When it comes to the green space trade off, I support accessible, community green space that is not separated by a fence or located on a roof where only a select few may have access to it. Council approved the Environmental Action Plan 2040 which includes recommendations for open space. In 2019, Council reinstated the Open Space Steering Committee to assist in the development of an Open Space policy plan. Part of the policy will address trade-offs between development and green space because ultimately one of the ways that we get additional green space is through development. This group is still active if anyone wants to check it out, but I am looking forward to seeing the recommendations that they will bring forward. One final note, to date, we have maintained a ratio of 7.3 acres of publicly accessible open space per 1,000 residents.
How do you propose to improve the ability of our essential workers to live and work in our city?
I think that question is spot on. I agree that the co-location issue has been blown far out of proportion. What we need to be concentrating on is how we create more housing opportunities across the spectrum. Prior to my election, I supported increasing the meals tax which has provided millions for affordable housing in the city. I continue to be in favor of restoring the affordable housing penny set aside (which is currently at 0.6) to a full penny. I support developer contributions to the affordable housing fund trust and the infrastructure improvement requirement for any new development. I’ve also supported the expansion of local tax authority to explore a possible income tax so we are not solely placing the burden on our residents and their real estate taxes.
In my first term, I have voted in support of accessory dwelling units and new development that provides a variety of housing opportunities for Alexandria residents to maintain a diverse workforce and help sustain economic growth. I support using all possible tools in the toolbox from density bonuses to land trusts and co-ops. Another thing I would like us to explore more is the City purchasing land but the issue is there isn’t much land to purchase in the first place. Lastly, we need to take a much harder look at affordable homeownership opportunities. This has been very difficult, but is very critical. Housing touches all of us, whether you are returning from college, starting a family, or aging in place. We need housing opportunities for all income levels and ages.
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?
I don’t oppose this Plan and furthermore support the new updates being made through the Alexandria Mobility Plan, especially the emphasis on equity for all riders and the way the City has shifted how it conducts outreach to make sure we are getting diverse voices to participate and provide their insight on these issues. The key is access, adaptability to technology, and, very importantly, clear goals and metrics to use to measure impact and success.
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