By Melissa Quinn
More than 200 residents and onlookers packed the auditorium at George Washington Middle School on Tuesday to hear 12 city council candidates debate a wide range of topics, including taxes, GenOn and transportation infrastructure.
Why haven’t Alexandria and Arlington worked together for one system of rapid transit down the Route 1 corridor? How can it happen if Arlington intends to build a [streetcar] line, while Alexandria has decided to use bus rapid transit? Why don’t we have a more regional view toward transit options?
Bob Wood (R): It’s an absence of leadership, it’s an absence of vision and frankly it’s the inability to communicate our priorities and our needs across the region in a way that’s integrated and incorporated with an overall development plan. I think we’re acting too … independently and thinking too narrowly, and quite frankly, I think it’s a pattern we’ve seen from the past city [councilors] who claim to be transportation specialists.
What do you intend to do in practical terms to increase open space in the city?
Justin Wilson (D): We need to expand the number of open space opportunities we have in the city, and the key factor in doing that is through our redevelopment activity. The fact is [with the] Beauregard plan we have 40-plus acres of new open space, one of the largest … developments and contributions to new open space in the city’s history. We’re going to have the waterfront plan, [with] five-and-a-half acres of new open space coming out of that. We have the Braddock Road plan — new open space. Redevelopment absolutely gives us that opportunity to create new open space without having to spend city tax dollars. The city, in the past, had the open space fund and that was a great way to provide seed money from the city for open space, but we need to think [bigger].
With our rising student population, our aging city infrastructure and a weak economy, the city’s squeezed. What are your priorities, and how will you pay for it?
Jermaine Mincey (L): In terms of our infrastructure, it’s important to notice that our schools and our city buildings are continuing to age. And the question you have to ask is how is that going to affect spending? Who’s going to pay for them? I believe [it is] important for [city councilors] to not make the decisions on the podium but to come out to the people and have a frank and honest discussion on what things we will pay for, how much we’re willing to pay and what we can do to achieve these goals … Only as a community can we come together to fix our problems.
Timothy Lovain (D): I think that the infrastructure investment is critical to Alexandria’s future. And first transportation, especially our high- capacity transit … Second, the schools … And third, I think of the sewers. [It’s] very unglamorous, but especially trying to [fix] that combined sewer overflow, which is causing pollution in the Potomac River. It’s a long-term proposition, but it’s something we need to keep working at.
When a development project is challenged in the courts, do you believe that project should be postponed until the courts make a decision?
Robert Kraus (l): We need to re-evaluate the waterfront [plan] now. We need to halt everything and put it on hold. Too much happens in closed meetings, in these secret sessions just like with the BRAC problems [at] Mark Center. If you trust the current city council or the former city council, the five — the BRAC five if you’ll call them — then go ahead and vote for them. And they’ll have more secret meetings, and they won’t listen to you. I want to listen to the voters. I don’t want to listen to the developers. The developers don’t live here — I live here.
What is your vision for the future of Arlandria?
Frank Fannon (R): Arlandria is a wonderful area … We have The Birchmere there, but we need new commercial developments to help revitalize that area. We can’t do it all as a city. We have that lot there at the corner of Mount Vernon Avenue and Glebe Road, we’d love to see that get redeveloped. It’s really the gateway to the city … We’ve also had some serious overcrowding issues in that area and … we need to make sure that our police department and city officials are [enforcing] the rules of the city, and that’s what we’ve done recently and that’s something we need to address to make sure we have a safe and not too over-crowded of an area in Arlandria.
Do you think considerations — such as traffic management, environmental impact and emergency services availability-related to [Washington Headquarters Services] were passed over with too little consideration?
Glenda Davis (I): I’m sure that city council had all good intentions and considered the citizens in the area, but sometimes I think maybe council tends to put growth before people … First you have the concerns of the citizens and had [those been taken into account] then I don’t think that we would have drafted the Beauregard corridor small area plan because we would have already planned for [those issues] in the beginning … I’m sure that the citizens would have brought that up, and [those issues] could have been avoided or at least planned for in advance.
Our property assessments are going up this year after a couple years of little or no assessment growth because house prices are rising again. Shouldn’t the property tax rate be lowered to balance this out?
Alicia Hughes (R): Yes, the tax rate should have gone down in order to keep the flat tax filled. We [have] overtaxed in Alexandria in my three years of being on the city council … Every year we’ve had a budget surplus in excess of $10 million … and if your surplus is greater than 1 or 2 pennies or the amount by which you increase the tax rate, that means you are overtaxing the public and that is something that we need to stop. We need to control spending in this city. You deserve that from us, and we need to look from within before looking to you for additional dollars.
Allison Silberberg (D): I’m the chair of the city’s economic opportunities commission and I’ve been on the commission, for eight years serving as an advocate for the most vulnerable and one of the things that the city does is it gives $48,000 a year to Meals on Wheels, which serves our seniors. And so when we talk about a $600 million annual budget, one of the things that I always bring to the table is bringing it down to a human level and talking about what are we spending the money on and how do we get an eagle eye look while being very transparent and working with the community and getting the community involved at all levels. But we also have to be very careful and be fiscally responsible to maintain that triple-A bond rating.
Do you think Alexandria has enough open space and outdoor recreational space for its residents?
Del Pepper (D): We did have this question once before but let me just add a little something new if I can: We have every opportunity when there is a new development [project], particularly if it is a large [project] that is coming on down the pipe. We really need to negotiate with our developers to ensure that we get every last blade of grass possible out of them. And as I mentioned, we [got] over 40 acres, new acres, of open space in the Beauregard small area plan and we look forward to having that developed. But Witter Field, just off of Duke Street, [is] going to be coming online very soon and that’s going to add to our amount of open space that will be used. And [it] will not just be open space but will be created as something the community can use.
What should the ideal working relationship be between council and the school board if both will have a number of new members. And what should the city be doing to close the achievement gap for our city?
John Taylor Chapman (D): [As] one of the only people on this stage that was part of the school’s strategic planning process, it’s city council’s job to ensure that the schools stay on task and on track with that strategic planning process. It’s a great strategic plan but it only works if it’s enforced and executed, so that’s the job of city council. Next is to increase communications not only between the two bodies but also with different students, the students’ parents and the community. Also, looking at our programs, it’s necessary that we not only look at pre-K and increase capacity there, but we also need to ensure that our older kids have quality after-school programs and our even older kids have quality connections to getting ready for the work life so they have internships and job shadowing programs.
What is your vision for the GenOn site, and what should be the process to determine its future?
Paul Smedberg (D): I think that, yes, it’s great that we’re going to open up this process for the GenOn site, but I used to live in that part of the city and I’m very mindful of the fact that we have numerous opportunities beyond GenOn in north Old Town … We have other sites that are underdeveloped or will be redeveloped, and so we have to take a much more comprehensive approach. The GenOn site is obviously very exciting and provides many great opportunities for us, but we have to look at it in the context of the north Old Town region.