Dealing out public property comes with high risks

Dealing out public property comes with high risks

To the editor:

A man dedicated to public service and parks, Bill Dickinson — formerly the head of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority — almost singlehandedly saved Hensley Park from privatization. However, this could happen again, and there might not be a legal clause to prevent it. Let me explain how this could come about.

During this year’s budget process, which was notable for cutting public services, City Hall did three things that set the stage for an unsolicited bid to build a long-term, privately operated complex on parkland.

First, the city announced our open space land acquisition goals had been met, meaning the minimum required acreage of parkland and other kinds of open space has been reached. The city made this declaration independently and without community comment on a public good vital to residents’ well-being.

Second, the city eliminated the open space fund set-aside mechanism, even though this had operated effectively as a way to acquire land and as a source of emergency funding. Third, parkland was devalued 38 percent compared to the prior year, effectively making Alexandria a highly attractive place for cheap land and at a time when interest rates remain at historic lows. Without asking residents, the city eliminated open space, and parks were suddenly on the market.

In the exploratory stages of any development project of magnitude and complexity, the managing partners and their potential big investors test the waters. This is what The St. James Group, by its admission, did. The organization examined the vast source of available land in the region while putting out feelers to city officials.

In a deal of this type, potential investors need assurance of success. One might believe that city officials, in some way, provided reassurance.

However, any investment manager knows that public property — especially highly valued parkland in a densely built city — operates under a different set of rules for disposition than privately held land. The fact is that the 2009 real estate disposition rule, the policy that the city was — and is — operating under, precludes even considering selling publicly owned land that is not surplus.

The city has set the stage. Investors and entrepreneurs could give it a go during the early exploratory phase and then insert the bid into the city governance process, while seeming to proceed cautiously and with the appearance of fair play.

This meant the 2009 policy the city was operating under had to be removed from any deal-making involving parks. In the case of The St. James Group’s proposal, it was replaced by a one-page document.

The key difference between the two was that the 2009 policy made it clear that only surplus city land was up for unsolicited bids. The city confirmed that parks are not surplus land. So the one-page guide for unsolicited bids was tailored to The St. James Group’s bid, though it contradicts the standing 2009 policy, which can be found very easily on the web page for the city’s general services department.

The 2009 real estate disposition policy is well considered and clearly written. A majority of our sitting elected officials requested it and are familiar with it. They should favor it.

While we shouldn’t turn aside good opportunities, the city needs to bring offers to residents at the earliest stages of conversation. Otherwise, bids appear aided and abetted by Alexandria’s elected officials — and more like a hostile takeover than a good option.

Public parks are for all people. Residents need to decide their purpose before the stage is set and the players play.
– Kathryn Papp

(Photo/File photo)