Alexandria Confederate statues. Affordable housing redevelopment. The Business Improvement District. The Alexandria City Council has a busy year ahead. Before the council goes back into session on Sept, 12, council members shared their thoughts on the upcoming priorities and biggest political issues.
For Mayor Allison Silberberg and several members of the City Council, one of the biggest items on the council’s agenda will be looking at the how to help push forward on Alexandria’s commercial property projects.
There are two troubled sites in particular that Silberberg said need a particular focus: Landmark Mall and the Victory Center. Landmark Mall has faced a long, slow decline. Before the final few stores were pushed out of the main hallways earlier this year, all that was left was a handful of local stores bookended by a Macy’s and Sears. The Howard Hughes corporation, which owned the middle section of the mall, acquired the Macy’s property after it was announced that store would be closing. The acquisition broke a gridlock that had stalled redevelopment of the site into an open-air, mixed-use community approved by the City Council in 2013.
The Victory Center has undergone its own troubled saga in 2017. After a decade sitting empty, it looked like the Victory Center in the Eisenhower Valley might finally be filled. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced that the location had been selected as the new headquarters. But after a controversy surrounding issues with the contract, on Aug. 25 it was announced the TSA would be moving to a location in Springfield instead. According to Silberberg, other options remain available for the Victory Center and the City Council is beginning to look at them.
But even as the Victory Center looks for new tenants, Vice Mayor Justin Wilson said Alexandria is going to have to face the fact that huge federal spending and a general reliance on federal offices as a primary economic driver is a thing of the past.
“We are managing a transition in the economy,” said Wilson. “We have to, as a region and as a city, break ourselves from our dependence on regular federal spending increases. Even before Jan. 20 that has been a necessity. That is now more dire with more cuts to federal spending. That’s a mortal threat to this region. How we deal with that is pretty important.”
For nearly every member of the council, there were different issues related to commercial property development, from the broader scope of city-wide management to helping small businesses transition into the city.
For Councilwoman Redella “Del” Pepper and Councilman John Chapman, the biggest story on commercial development in the fall will be the return of the Business Improvement District (BID). The BID was a plan put forward by some local business leaders to form a cohesive organization for businesses and property owners in Old Town, which in exchange for 10 cents of every $100 of assessed value would provide services, promote regional advertising, and bring new activities to Old Town. But the plan faced opposition from other business owners, many of them saying the BID would only add a new cost to an already overtaxed community. After years of planning and public discussion, the BID proposal was sent back to the drawing board by City Council on June 27. Sometime in the fall, a revised BID proposal will be presented to the affected business community. If the new BID can be approved by 55 percent of the businesses in a local election, the plans will move forward.
“I’m very interested in the BID conversation,” said Chapman. “I’ll want to see where that ends up.”
“The BID is coming back in a revised form, at least that was the request,” said Pepper. “That is going to occupy a good bit of our time and energy.”
For Councilman Willie Bailey, the Fall 2017 City Council session will be about finding ways to make it easier for businesses, large and small, to open in Alexandria.
“Before I was on the council, I didn’t think about it a lot,” said Bailey. “But I’ve been hearing complaints from businesses about red tape; that it’s taking longer to open up business or pound the first nail compared to other jurisdictions .… There’s been a lot of conversations going on amongst colleagues about what we can do to cut the red tape and make sure businesses can open quicker and make their deadline.”
For Bailey, addressing any other issues first requires making sure the city expands its commercial tax base, even in the face of pushback from local residents.
“Every time new business comes up, we get pushback from residents in locations they’re moving into,” said Bailey. “We can’t win for losing. No one wants their taxes raised, but no one wants new businesses brought into city. It upsets me any time we have to vote on that, people that come out during public hearing and want to shoot it down, but don’t want their taxes raised either. Those taxes go back to good schools; goes back to affordable housing.”
Several council members also pointed to the continual battle to maintain Alexandria’s affordable housing as one of the biggest issues in 2017.
“We’ve lost thousands in affordable housing,” said Bailey. “Where are these people going? Our nurses, police officers, teachers; where do they live? We need to find somewhere for them to live so they aren’t traveling far away.”
“We’re going to have to deal with housing affordability,” said Wilson. “We have to make sure Alexandria is accessible to rent and buy and raise families here.”
Some on the council expressed concerns about plans for the upcoming redevelopment of the Andrew Adkins. In the fall, Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA) will present plans to the council for the redevelopment of the Andrew Adkins neighborhood. The site currently has 90 units of affordable housing. Plans presented in January proposed replacing that housing with 60 low income public housing units, 18 moderate-income workforce units, and 387 higher-income market rate units. Twelve other low-income ARHA units lost from Adkins in this development would be replaced off site. For several members of the council, this deal is unacceptable.
“The most critical thing is returning more of the units to the site at Andrew Adkins,” said Pepper. “There’s 30 units that were not coming back.”
“There have been some stumbling blocks,” said Silberberg. “We’re focused on doing all we can to move that forward and moving that back into development.”
Pepper and Chapman said the council is beginning to look at modernizing Resolution 830, originally enacted in 1982, which stipulates that every public housing unit that is displaced must be replaced.
“Right now, ARHA takes that as meaning they must replace the same amount of units,” said Chapman, but he noted that it doesn’t take into account things like the size of the unit being replaced. Under the current wording, a three-bedroom apartment could be replaced with a studio and still meet the letter of the law for Resolution 830. “We’re looking to clarify that.”
Along with affordable housing, several members of the council cited schools as a major issue going into the fall.
“We’re going to be looking to see if there’s more we can be doing to help our students receive an education,” said Silberberg.
After years of arguments back and forth between the City Council and School Board about long-term funding and timelines for projects, in early 2017 the council established an Ad Hoc Joint City-Schools Facility Investment Task Force to examine the needs of Alexandria public schools and how to prioritize funding for projects. According to Councilman Paul Smedberg, part of the upcoming discussions on the council will involve how to implement the recommended plans put together by the task force.
With a new joint task force between the cities and schools to address long-term needs for the schools, council members expressed optimism about working with the schools on addressing the school’s overpopulation crisis.
“The population is growing,” said Bailey. “More kids are coming into the school system. We’re going to have to find a way to make sure there’s enough seats to put all these butts in and make sure they are educated well. We believe task force will come up with some good ideas for us.”
After a series of violent clashes related to a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville resulted in the death of a young woman in an attack by a white supremacist, there’s been a nationwide discussion on the role of Confederate symbols in public spaces. The City Council’s attention again turns towards the Appomattox statue. The statue is at the intersection of Prince and Washington streets and for years has been the subject of local debate. According to Pepper and Councilman Tim Lovain, the City Council will be revisiting the issue again in 2017.
Throughout 2016, an advisory group met to discuss Confederate names and symbols in the city and form recommendations. The group discussed flag policy, potential street name changes, and the Appomattox statue. The statue is owned by the Daughters of the Confederacy and any removal or relocation of the statue would require approval from the state legislature.The council voted to petition the state legislation to allow the city to move the statue, but none of Alexandria’s state legislators would carry the bill. However, state Sen. Adam Ebbin announced that he would carry forward a bill this year to ask for permission to relocate the statue.
“[Confederate symbols] are going to be a big discussion,” said Lovain. “There are a lot of folks scouring that statute to see see how firm that is. The Appomattox statue is owned by Daughters of Confederacy, but what about the land underneath it?”
Meanwhile, one of the other changes accepted by the council’s from last year’s advisory group was the renaming of Jefferson Davis Highway. The survey for new names is ongoing until Sept. 15, after which the council will begin discussions about selecting a new name.
The less glamorous side of city politics, like sewer maintenance and road work, is finding a new spotlight from some members of the City Council.
“We’re dealing with issues of deferred infrastructure needs and investments that we’re required to address,” said Wilson. “That means capacity, roads, municipal facilities, sewers … infrastructure in general is a big issue in this city, as it is for the country.”
For Lovain, one of the focuses of the infrastructure discussion is the ongoing Metro crisis. A year after Metro’s “Safe Track” plan required long stretches of Metro closures to do repairs to the rail lines, questions remain about how to fund ongoing maintenance and repairs for the beleaguered transit system.
“The future of the Metro is more than just Alexandria, but it’s something we’re going to have a hand in,” said Lovain. “Now, the big issue is funding for the long-term financial stability. That’s going to require new sources of dedicated revenue. That may require action by the legislature throughout Virginia jurisdictions to tax ourselves. That could require federal help, but will require collaboration throughout the area.”