The third of five forums held last week in anticipation of the May City Council election was intended to flesh out issues facing the business community in the city, under duress because of the economic recession.
And it did. The 10 Democratic, Independent and Republican candidates discussed a range of issues from enhancing businesss sustainability in the city and enhancing Alexandria as a desirable location for new businesses to the citys immigration policies and their effects on the business community.
But the economic moment seemed to command a broader discussion as well at the forum, easily the most heavily attended thus far. A substantial portion of the debate revolved around development namely high-density development around Metro stations and whether is is necessary to support and stimulate area businesses, whose property tax dollars make up a large portion of the city governments revenue.
The debate came on the heels of projects and initiatives already in the works: The Eisenhower East plan is the most palpable example of smart growth around transit centers, having been realized around the Eisenhower Metro Station in the form of the dense development surrounding the expansive Patent and Trade Office, a federal courthouse and numerous apartment high rises, hotels and businesses. Redeveloping the Braddock Road Metro Station area is imminent and a Potomac Yard and another West End Metro station have been discussed for years.
Vice Mayor Del Pepper (D) called high-density development around Metro stations the wave of the future, pointing to her role on Council in supporting the Eisenhower East plan.
I believe that we should encourage the denser mixed-use developments around our Metro stations, just as we did in the Eisenhower East plan, Pepper said. The considerable development that will occur near a Metro stop will allow us to make the best possible use of our station. Its smart growth.
Pepper added that the city could benefit from similar development around the Van Dorn station, though the area is near an industrial zone.
Republican Frank Fannon championed development around Metro stations as a magnet for Alexandria, attracting businesses and residents because of the enhanced quality of life public transportation and short commutes provide, especially as the population swells.
People want to keep coming here and we want to develop smart growth around the Metro stations to keep the people coming, Fannon said. If you work eight hours a day [and] you sleep eight hours a day, you have eight other hours a day to live your life. And if you have to spend two hours commuting each way, youve shrunk your life to four hours.
Not every candidate agreed with at least the immediate necessity of high-density development around Metro stations, especially on the East End. Rich Williamson (I) said that other infrastructure concerns, like education-related development, should trump immediate East End development, and that the transportation-challenged West End deserves and needs light rail for its residents and business owners.
This is not Celebration, Florida, Williamson said. Were a city of 140,000 people, two-thirds of which [are] a 20-minute bus ride from a Metro station. Its not very convenient.
Williamson proposed building a light rail connection between Seminary Road (scheduled to receive about 6,400 Army workers after a new federal campus is built), Shirlington and the Pentagon. The new Army site is expected to have a transit center.
Councilman Justin Wilson (D) said, The reality is this region is going to continue to grow with or without economic challenges. The question is, where do we want to develop?
Wilson cited his role in helping to better integrate the area around the Braddock Road Metro and helping to kick-start the dream of a Potomac Yard Metro around an area he called the largest underdeveloped land tract inside the beltway.
Transit is intrinsic to attracting businesses and maintaining customers by providing easy mobility for them. Independent Alicia Hughes said she knows first-hand that the citys bus system, DASH, is not as efficient as it could be, because she toured the city on the system, surveying its routes.
I would like to work with the DASH board of directors to make sure routes are most efficient and effective for getting people around on the bus system, Hughes said. I also would like to expand the dedicated paths and maximize smart growth around the Metro systems. We should be able to pay for these things by looking at the current assets that the city has and using those to fund capital needs.
Like other incumbents who have promoted smart growth around Metro stations during recent terms, Councilman Paul Smedberg echoed his colleagues but focused on the importance of regional collaboration to affect commercial and residential growth around public transit.
I think the key to this question is having integrated plans whether they be in small area plans or for the city at large, Smedberg said. Given our size, we cant really do that much with roads per se. We need to make better use of our Metro stations and the developments of Potomac Yard. We have to work with our regional partners to coordinate a regional solution to this issue.
Phil Cefaratti (R) departed from the majority, worried that considering new Metro stations in the current business and economic environment would be irresponsible.
I think in this time of economic [recession] considering new Metro stations is jumping the gun a little bit, Cefaratti said. Serving a future development right now or planning to serve a future development right now is not money well spent.
Like Williamson, Cefaratti said the focus should be connecting the West End with transit options.
Democrat Councilman Rob Krupicka pointed to his work with Wilson on recommendations they made for the citys transportation master plan and focused on Arlington and Fairfax growing by leaps and bounds and Alexandrias responsibility to keep up with its neighbors while handling their pedestrian and non-pedestrian traffic.
Its important to look at these places as community hubs, Krupicka said. Metro will not only revitalize and encourage the right kind of growth at Potomac Yard, it will also alleviate traffic coming from Arlington. We fully expect theres going to be a quid pro quo with money from developers [to help finance transit infrastructure.]
Former mayor Kerry Donley (D), who presided over Council when the city attracted the Patent and Trade Office to the area around the Eisenhower Metro Station, said, The key to our success is having a philosophy thats going to drive the decisions. And that philosophy has got to be concentrating the density at Metro stations.
Lets examine what it really means: The five PTO buildings account for over $8 million in tax revenue. That doesnt include the economic activity around it. It gives people options to live and work close to each other.
Councilman Tim Lovains (D) professional background is in transportation and he is not shy about his affinity for public transit and its social and economic effects. A streetcar initiative is a baby project of his that he said would feed Metro stations along with bus rapid transit, bus systems with their own lanes.
I definitely would support additional Metro stations in Alexandria, Lovain said. I served along with the mayor on the Potomac Yard feasibility task force. I think it will really help to induce the kind of Potomac Yard development we really want.
The fourth forum, covering West End issues, is Thursday, April 16, at Francis C. Hammond Middle School.