By Evan Berkowitz | [email protected]
The Alexandria City Council voted unanimously at a public hearing on Saturday to allot further time at Tuesday’s legislative meeting to discuss and vote on the proposed Old Town business improvement district.
After hours of public comment and council debate, Councilman Willie Bailey Sr. moved to defer voting on the BID until fall, which prompted Councilwoman Del Pepper to request docketing time Tuesday so the council could more specifically determine what BID architects would discuss over the summer.
Mayor Allison Silberberg advocated for the council to wait to vote on any action, including deferral to the fall, until after Tuesday’s discussion, leading Bailey to amend his motion to reflect only the newly docketed discussion time.
Vice Mayor Justin Wilson voiced procedural concerns in arguing for a Tuesday vote, but did not seem supportive of a fall deferral.
The ordnance would formally create the tax district and calls for formation of a BID board elected by businesses within its boundaries. That board would decide the BID’s budget and goals, which would then be approved or rejected by council.
Property owners within the district would have paid a to-be-determined tax, also subject to council approval, of no more than 10 cents per $100 of property value to support the district.
The exploratory committee’s plan also included new 11th-hour changes that would mandate an all-district referendum on the BID board’s first submission to council, require the board to include three business owners who are also Old Town residents, make historic preservation a stated goal of the district and emphasize democratic engagement during the initial planning and budget process.
Pro-BID community members argued the district would enable Old Town to compete with D.C.’s southwest waterfront and improve aspects of the neighborhood they say have stagnated.
They pointed to nearby BIDs in places like Crystal City as evidence that such a plan could help Old Town Alexandria become a more vibrant neighborhood.
Anti-BID activists argued the project would disproportionately grant voting power to larger businesses and hurt small businesses’ bottom lines. They claimed the district was engineered to gain money from disparate areas whose interests might not be well-balanced in the board’s actions.
Joe Corey, owner of Faccia Luna pizzeria and Myron Mixon’s Pitmaster Barbeque, emphatically voiced his opposition to the BID’s potential tax burdens.
He called the benefits of the proposed BID “illusionary,” but said the costs are not.
“This is a bad idea gone viral,” he said.
Carol Supplee, owner of Imagine ArtWear, said she recognized opponents’ concerns but argued a ‘yes’ vote would empower further exploration without agreeing to any action.
“No dollars would be committed by a vote today. You are not agreeing to any particular project, you are not taxing any resident,” she told council. “I see very little risk and many possible as-yet unimagined rewards coming from taking this step.”
Silberberg said Saturday she did not support the BID ordnance, citing perceived opposition from businesses.
“We need to listen to the business community, and it seems to me that the business community doesn’t want this,” she said. “I think that this could end up hurting the small businesses that make us so special.”
Councilmen John Chapman and Paul Smedberg, as well as Bailey and Pepper, said they had initially supported the BID project and supported the idea in general, but had reservations about the specific proposal before council.
“I want to see a BID, but I want to see one that works for Old Town,” Chapman said. “There has to be significant buy-in. While we’re up here debating this, … this needs to be the business community’s project for Old Town. They have to feel like this is something that benefits them.”
Wilson said he was wary of deferral in general, saying he recognized opponents’ issues with the BID proposal but called further study “a fool’s errand” without defined parameters.
Throughout the meeting, about 40 residents spoke for and against the BID, with a narrow majority of speakers saying they were against it. Silberberg said the council had received hundreds of emails, the vast majority which were against the ordnance, though Councilman Tim Lovain expressed reservations about her assessment.
Kathy Dalby, CEO of Pacers Running, said the BID was necessary to innovate Old Town.
“The growth of our business is our responsibility, but as a business born in sport, we are natural competitors and prefer to play on offense,” she said. “It is time to play on offense, ladies and gentlemen.”
Robert Ray IV, owner of Cavalier Antiques, disagreed, saying the BID would “erode representative government in Alexandria” by skewing some votes based on property value and not allowing non-business owner residents to elect or sit on the BID board, calling the committee’s latest changes insufficient.
“An ad hoc modification of the bylaws … does not give the BID representative governance,” he said. “Dukes naming peasants as advisors is not the same as citizens voting for who will be duke.”
Smedberg bemoaned the political ire the process has drawn on both sides.
“Everything is about a win,” he said. “Whatever side of the line you’re on, it’s all about just winning.”
Instead, Smedberg argued, Alexandria needs compromise, which he called a win for the city.
“I did think in concept this was a really good idea, and hopefully I thought we’d be celebrating something here,” he said.
He said the all-or-nothing attitude “is just not productive.”
“To me, it’s [about] a lot more than just the BID,” he said. “It’s about, really, our future.”