City Hall extends an olive branch

City Hall extends an olive branch

By Derrick Perkins (File photo)

Rocked by seemingly endless controversy — as well as accusations that officials knowingly keep residents in the dark on major issues — in recent years, city councilors took a step toward bridging the divide last month.

But critics remain skeptical of Alexandria’s newly adopted civic engagement handbook, pointing to a wave of recent imbroglios involving everything from bike lanes to lighted athletic fields at T.C. Williams High School.

One major controversy even overshadowed the document’s adoption by the city council at a January 25 meeting: Carr City Center’s plans for a waterfront hotel in the 200 block of S. Union St. After a lengthy public hearing and exchange with the legal representative for the Washington-based developer, city councilors gave the contentious project permission to move ahead.

“I’d like to suggest that our primary concern should be the tenor of how we interact and respect — or don’t respect — one another. … Our challenges are attitudinal, not mechanical,” said Cameron Station Civic Association President Don Buch, who referenced the earlier debate over Carr’s project as an example. “To the extent that we do have civic engagement, it is far too frequently not very civil engagement. People go away feeling annoyed and irritated and as though their views are not respected or honestly considered, if heard at all.”

More than a year in the making, the roughly 100-page document stemming from the What’s Next Alexandria initiative outlines strategies for involving residents earlier in city affairs. That includes getting potential stakeholders engaged before proposals are fleshed out.

The handbook also emphasizes educating residents on City Hall’s procedures and making the process for any proposal clear-cut from the beginning. Most major projects — like Carr’s planned hotel, for example — go before various boards and commissions before ending up on city council’s docket.

Accused of ignoring resident concerns during many recent controversies — the contentious battle over the waterfront redevelopment plan being the best such example — officials have argued that listening does not mean conceding to any particular objection. But several city councilors recognized the growing divide at last month’s hearing.

“We need to do a lot better job communicating — very clearly — up front what the issue is, what the policy issue is, and what we’re trying to achieve or what we have to address,” said City Councilor Paul Smedberg. “And then the pros and the cons, simple bullet points, and just clearly state that up front.”

Though Buch was among a handful of residents to critique the final version of the handbook, the document enjoyed just as many supporters, including resident Patrice Linehan, who helped craft the city guide. While she touted the process of putting it together as a success, the key is in its implementation.

“What’s going to really matter — from the council side — is that you support and encourage through the divisions, through your leadership, to really see it through to implementation,” Linehan said. “I often say in Alexandria that we do a really good job at admiring the problem and coming up with a whole strategic plan … but we really fall down on implementation.”

Thomas Soapes, president of the North Old Town Independent Citizens’ Association, is keeping a close eye on how the handbook is applied. Only then will he know whether officials legitimately want closer ties with the community, he said.

“The question, though, is how substantive the opportunities are for input,” Soapes said. “I think that’s the question a lot of people raise: Have decisions already been made and is the input just a procedure, just there for window dressing? Or is it really an opportunity for substantive change that the people can initiate?”

With officials poised to overhaul plans for the future of their neighborhood, association members sent City Hall a statement highlighting their aspirations for the area. Soapes sees the proactive move as a potential bellwether. The ad hoc committee created to oversee the redevelopment of the north Old Town bus barn is another, he said.

“We’re going on the assumption that there is an opportunity for input, but that has to be early, early in the process,” he said.

But Tom Walczykowski, president of the Clover College Park Civic Association, has taken a dimmer view of the handbook. There have been too many recent examples of city officials overriding resident objections to give him much confidence in the effort, he said.

“[The Carr hotel] has turned out to be a bad deal. And then you got the deal with the lights at T.C. Williams with the tennis courts, and people are upset about that. Then you have the bike lanes [on King Street]; these bike lanes are a total fiasco — nothing except for image,” said Walczykowski. “I don’t know if there is any decent discourse going on, and I don’t know if a handbook is going to change it.”