Alexandria plans for future civic engagement

Alexandria plans for future civic engagement

By Melissa Quinn

City officials have extended the olive branch with a new initiative designed to foster community involvement in big decisions, but whether residents will accept it remains uncertain.

Known as What’s Next Alexandria, the effort kicked off in September with a month-and-a-half poll gauging residents’ level of engagement with the city. The initiative ramped up with a community meeting and brainstorming session earlier this month.

About 1,600 of Alexandria’s estimated 140,000 residents participated in the online survey, and about 160 attended the meeting. But Deputy City Manager Tom Gates said looking at the numbers misses the initiative’s point.

“We intend to have this ongoing conversation,” he said. “Big numbers wasn’t the objective, but rather opening dialogue was.”

Unsurprisingly, planning and development emerged as the leading issues that residents wanted more involvement in going forward. Gates said What’s Next Alexandria arose from the vocal dissatisfaction with land use and planning matters. City staff — and Alexandria’s elected officials — endured the brunt of resident criticism during the contentious waterfront and Beauregard corridor redevelopment debates.

“We’re trying to ask the community for what a more constructive process would be,” Gates said.

But residents remain skeptical of the initiative’s potential for success. Jack Sullivan, who lives in the shadow of Washington Headquarters Services, said residents are not inclined to get involved unless the issue involves a personal stake, regardless of the city’s efforts.

“About 95 percent of the people in Alexandria are very busy people. They have important jobs, many of them having children growing up and have a million things on their mind, so they’re not going to be involved in civic activities generally unless it affects them in particular — their property, their child, their street,” Sullivan said. “Then, when it affects them, they get aroused and active. Otherwise they’re not going to be pounding on the door of City Hall.”

Bert Ely, a vocal opponent of the waterfront plan who attended this month’s meeting, took a harder line against the initiative. He and others accused city staff of keeping residents in the dark during the planning process for the Potomac shoreline, despite the bevy of public meetings during the course of several years.

Ely, who doubts the initiative will improve resident involvement, described What’s Next Alexandria as a smokescreen.

“I think the whole process is a farce,” Ely said. “I just feel the city is going through the motions of trying to come across as if it’s listening to folks and responding to their concerns about city issues — and especially development issues.”

But Sullivan isn’t so sure the bulk of Alexandria’s residents feel alienated by City Hall. Looking at the latest election results, in which Democrats secured every council seat — including candidates who voted in favor of the waterfront redevelopment plan — it’s clear to him that most residents have tacitly embraced the city’s recent decisions.

“There is a lot of concern [in the community],” Sullivan said. “But the discontent is not so strong that it changed the election results for council. The so-called ‘BRAC Five’ got re-elected.”

As city staff sifts through the poll responses and minutes of the last meeting, officials hope to create a framework for encouraging civic engagement, bringing residents into discussions that often never leave the confines of City Hall.

“We’ll continue on with the conversation with the community and listen to them and see if we can develop a process that we can all feel comfortable with as we move forward,” Gates said.

The meeting’s participants established a timeline to increase dialogue in the city, though Gates said the back-and-forth with residents would be a continuous effort. The city can always improve its efforts, he said.

“We never get to a point where we say it’s working and it’s perfect,” he said. “It’s our responsibility collectively to continue to ask the questions — if the government is being responsive — [and] addressing issues they find compelling.”

The next meeting for What’s Next Alexandria will take place in January and will build on the poll results and previous meeting’s findings.