Transportation, redevelopment top city councilors’ priorities this session

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Transportation, redevelopment top city councilors’ priorities this session
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By Erich Wagner (File photo)

As city councilors return to City Hall this week for the first council sessions of the new legislative year, one word is on everybody’s lips: transportation.

That is not without good reason. City leaders recently celebrated the opening of the region’s first Metroway — a rapid transit bus program along U.S. Route 1. And councilors will devote a significant portion of the fall debating where to construct the planned Potomac Yard Metro station.

“No. 1 for me is going to be making progress on the Potomac Yard Metro and getting it to the conclusion of the environmental impact statement process,” said City Councilor Justin Wilson. “Selecting a site and moving ahead with that project is critical to the economic success of the city, as well as its livability.”

City Councilor Paul Smedberg said council must act deliberately in choosing the site, given the amount of development that is both already underway and planned for the neighborhood.

“The two sites that are effectively in consideration right now are somewhat close, but they’re pretty far apart in a sense,” Smedberg said. “Option ‘B’ is much closer to areas where we probably envision a more commercial-type development as opposed to residential. I don’t think anyone envisioned Potomac Yard being essentially residential development.

“It would be a shame if that were to take place.”

Smedberg fears developers who committed to building at Potomac Yard could back out if their property is far from the new station.

Although Potomac Yard represents the most pressing transportation issue for City Hall, councilors want to bolster public transportation across Alexandria. City Councilor Tim Lovain advocated increasing the city’s stock of bus stops accessible to people with disabilities.

“If you look at the MetroAccess [program], its budget is just increasing dramatically in recent years,” Lovain said. “A lot of people feel like if we could expand the option [of using standard buses], it would serve the dual purpose of offering people more mobility and easing budget pressures on MetroAccess, which is expensive for people and the customers who use it.”

And City Councilor John Chapman said he wants to see efforts to make the West End more walkable. Initiatives could come in the form of a complete streets-style overhaul, or it could be as simple as making crosswalks appear more prominently.

“It’s improving sidewalks and improving crosswalks,” he said. “We have a lack of real crosswalks that give definition to the intersection; we just have the basic two lines.

“Some areas in the city have the really big, boldly striped crosswalks. As a driver it’s just a lot easier to see people and see them.”

Encouraging commercial economic development also remains a big priority for councilors. For years, the city has seen tax revenue decline, as well as the ratio between commercial and residential property tax revenues skew toward homeowners.

Wilson hopes to implement suggestions made in a recent report on how to reform the city’s business tax code.

“Last year, we got a report from a business tax reform group and it had some good recommendations on how to promote economic growth in the city,” he said. “The question is, how do we implement those over the next couple of years.”

And Chapman is looking at ways to restructure funding to the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership to ensure that it remains effective at attracting businesses and frees city dollars for other development efforts.

“I’m looking at how it’s set up, the structure, the funding and what other initiatives the city can do to support not only them but overall economic development,” he said. “I want to sit down and chat with some more folks within Alexandria about how to incorporate some ideas from Arlington, D.C. and Prince George’s County.”

Bolstering the city’s waning affordable housing stock also remains a hot topic. Chapman said he has refined an idea he floated a year ago: giving local nonprofits the first shot at buying surplus city property to develop affordable housing, this time through a public bidding process.

“We have a couple of places on the books that might be sold in the near future, and I want to put a [request for proposal] out to nonprofits to build some affordable housing,” Chapman said. “[As] we unload city property, we don’t need to sell all of it. That’s just a one-time gain that we get, as opposed to the opportunity to have a continued positive effect on the city.”

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