My View: Development decisions ensnare the local economy


Whats the impact of all the recent grim financial news on Alexandrias economy?

The good news is that Alexandria will retain its AAA credit rating for the present, despite S&Ps downgrade of the United States sovereign debt. The bad news is that Moodys said it was putting Alexandria and several other local jurisdictions on their credit watch list because our
is so closely tied to federal spending.
This outcome clearly didnt sit well with local elected officials, especially Mayor Bill Euille, who essentially argued that our economy and spending policies are strong in spite of any relationship that we have with the federal government.

I think this a risky conclusion. It would seem far better to me to treat this news as a signal that we should examine all our economic policies, and most importantly our spending habits and development goals.

The City has relied on big development projects and a strong residential tax to fund an expensive new high school, a police station (to replace one built not so many years ago on land that was sinking), a fire station on Eisenhower Avenue and a new recreation center in North Old Town.

Transportation projects are costly and not always economical. The council approved a new $500 million dollar metro station for Potomac Yard, in part to spur more development. It will take decades to pay off and may not be the most cost effective way to reduce traffic congestion along Route 1.

City officials now say the new defense headquarters building, known as BRAC 133 at Mark Center, was given a green light because of the potential spinoff revenue. So far, the only thing that it has produced is a massive community migraine, large infrastructure bills, and pressure to add more density and spend enormous sums to build a light rail system, rather than, say, a much cheaper rapid bus system. Citizens are worried that all this growth will have a negative impact on their communities.

Then there is the citys highly publicized plan to reinvigorate the Alexandria riverfront with three 150-room boutique hotels. There is plenty of data showing, that a hotel is not the only (or best) way to entice tourists to visit local museums, the Torpedo Factory Art Center, eat at local restaurants or take a cruise on the Potomac.

Business leaders have countered by forming a new group called Waterfront for All, ostensibly to offer the real facts about the plan. The all of this group includes members of the Chamber of Commerce, with the strong support from the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association, which is funded by a hotel room tax.

The group also includes a developer and part owner of a restaurant that opened recently along the waterfront. The city council is now engaged in a legal battle to acquire private land that would benefit the owners of this new restaurant.

Alexandria may have escaped this credit crisis with its bond rating intact (for now), but if we are to strengthen our economy we need look more critically at how we arrive all sorts of major development decisions, and who gets to make those decisions.

The writer is former vice mayor of Alexandria.