By Frank Putzu, Alexandria
To the editor:
On December 14, the Alexandria City Council rejected the planning commission’s recommendation and permitted stadium lighting at proposed tennis courts at T.C. Williams. In doing so, it knowingly breached written requirements that the city and Alexandria City Public Schools approved jointly with hundreds of residents in 2007.
In the process, the What’s Next Alexandria effort was exposed as empty rhetoric.
The agreement prohibiting lighting has its roots in the 1960s and ’70s. When the city sought to build T.C. Williams High School — and under the guise of urban renewal — the city conducted a campaign smearing the families, whom officials had earlier ejected from their homes at Fort Ward, to generate public support for taking their property.
As part of the land’s seizure, the families were again relocated behind the school, and the city committed to not light the athletic fields.
In 2004, residents (including these same families) who were engaged in the negotiations for the proposed new T.C. Williams facilities suggested that it be designed to keep athletic fields away from those properties to avoid future concerns about lighting. The city and school district declined to do so.
However, city and school officials insisted that they would never seek lighting at the athletic fields, inserted a lighting prohibition and consultation requirement with the families, and reduced it to written and binding requirements. The new school opened in 2007.
Thus, what the mayor and city council casually dismissed as an obsolete relic was actually a six-year-old written agreement formally proposed, evaluated and approved by all parties, including the mayor. It was the culmination of years of negotiations involving many residents and public officials, dozens of issues, and 50-plus years of checkered history. The process of engagement leading to the agreement met the principles of What’s Next Alexandria and served as a model for how to do it right.
Yet the city discarded it with nary a thought of the consequences.
When city and school officials announced that they planned to breach the agreement, we were hopeful that What’s Next Alexandria would have stimulated improved dialogue and an open process. After all, the What’s Next Alexandria handbook states in bold italics that “the community is a partner and shares responsibility, as they know best the issues affecting their neighborhoods. … The primary goal of the What’s Next Alexandria initiative is to improve the quality of Alexandria’s public participation process so that members of the community are actively, constructively and meaningfully involved in the public decisions that affect their lives.”
Surely, we thought, it would require something urgent and compelling to breach a successful agreement, and the community’s views and concerns would receive a respectful audience.
One would be wrong.
At the December 14 hearing, residents who asked the city to honor its signed agreement and address well-grounded concerns were called bullies; a school official implied homeowners are terrorists because they “hold us hostage”; and others injected race. One city councilor dismissively sneered, “If you don’t like it, just pull your drapes.”
At a December 5 school board meeting, officials proposed that it conceal what it was doing and play games with appropriated funds to get it done. There were also disparaging remarks directed at the families at that meeting. The mayor and city councilors sat in support of the demagogues. What’s Next Alexandria was not even mentioned.
In the end, nothing really changed. Alexandria City Public Schools never explained — and the mayor and city council showed no interest in — where the district was getting the $600,000 beyond what was appropriated to pay for the courts and lights (we know what happened the last time the school system moved money around when no one was looking); what changed since 2007 causing the city to glibly breach our agreement; what effects this will have on the surrounding community; or whether the project can meet city code.
We still do not know any of this. We have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.
I — and others — suggested at the hearing that the city approve the tennis courts but defer the lights for now. Instead, we argued, it should direct the school system and city staff to engage the community to address the deficiencies (a site condition requirement) and resolve the issues consistent with What’s Next Alexandria.
Had the school district and the city met their own requirements, including consultation, the problems with lighting the courts could have been mitigated and the hearing uneventful. But the mayor, city council and school officials were not interested in civic engagement, sound policy or fiscal prudence. They were interested in gaming the system and victory.
This decision required ignoring history, blithely blowing off carefully negotiated agreements before the ink was dry and undermining What’s Next Alexandria. But it was more important to the city and school system to win.
“Pull your drapes,” not the soothing rhetoric of What’s Next Alexandria, captures the city government’s culture of arrogance.