Development issues dominate mayoral debate

Development issues dominate mayoral debate

By Erich Wagner (Photo/Erich Wagner)

Alexandria’s three Democratic candidates for mayor sparred Tuesday night in a debate that revolved around how best to develop various neighborhoods across the Port City, from the waterfront to Landmark and North Old Town.

Incumbent Mayor Bill Euille will square off against Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg and former Mayor Kerry Donley in the June 9 primary, which is open to all voters, not just registered Democrats. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Euille leads in fundraising with nearly $96,000 raised as of the end of March, compared with Donley’s $40,000 and Silberberg’s $21,000.

The Alexandria Democratic Committee hosted the event in the Francis Hammond Middle School auditorium.

The theme of development started with candidates’ opening statements, as Silberberg echoed her refrain that projects should be “thoughtful and appropriate” with respect to their surrounding neighborhoods. Donley and Euille both referred to the need for infrastructure spending in their openers, references to projects like the Potomac Yard Metro station.

Euille cited his ushering of the controversial waterfront redevelopment plan through to approval and the upcoming city council vote on the Potomac Yard Metro proposal as proven leadership to attract new tenants and rebalance the city’s tax base.

“We’ve suffered through a tough recession from 2005 until 2010, along with a housing downturn and a banking crisis, but we’ve still seen development occur,” he said. “I’m always meeting with developers and property owners, so I know there are challenges. The region has an 18 percent office vacancy rate, and those are buildings that are already built, open and empty.

“It’s going to take two or three years to work off that backlog before we really see much new office, but with the Potomac Yard Metro we’ll generate 26,000 jobs and see $2 to 3 billion in economic opportunities in Alexandria and across the region.”

Donley said he would put more focus on development of the Eisenhower Valley and to leverage major tenants already in place in that sector of the city.

“Eisenhower West is under a small area plan review, and it’s a good plan, but it has a projected 20- to 30-year build out, and we just can’t wait that long,” he said. “We need something in the interim, like big box retail. We’ve got the [U.S.] Patent and Trademark Office and we’ll have the National Science Foundation, so we need to use those assets and make Alexandria a home to science and innovation.”

Silberberg said the recently approved Robinson Terminal South project would have been better located at the site of Landmark Mall, not the waterfront. She said projects in Old Town must fit seamlessly with the Old and Historic District.

“We don’t want to ruin the goose that laid the golden egg,” she said. “Quality of life is why we all moved here and continue to live here, and that means developments need to reflect their surroundings. With Robinson Terminal South, something needs to be developed there, but what was proposed there was very modern. … We have a ‘look’ in Old Town and projects need to reflect that.”

Euille and Donley traded barbs over Donley’s comments that Potomac Yard should have been evaluated and approved faster.

“We need to get Potomac Yard going, and its lynchpin — Metro — is two and a half years behind schedule,” Donley said.

“I’d like to remind Mr. Donley that the Potomac Yard planning process actually started in 1975, when planners said a Metro stop should go there,” Euille said. “You’re on the Potomac Yard [work group], and you know we’ve been negotiating with two federal agencies, so you know how long it takes to get there.

“It’s not for lack of wanting to do it. It just takes time.”

Silberberg did not lay out a position on the Potomac Yard Metro station project, but suggested the neighborhood would benefit from a “large green lawn” like that on the campus of the University of Virginia.

“We need a vision for development, not just development for development’s sake,” she said.

All three candidates took each other for task related to the BRAC building on the West End.

“BRAC was done in executive session, and now it’s off the tax rolls to the tune of $60 million,” Silberberg said.

“We agreed to the increase in density, but it was supposed to be a campus setting, not the monolith we got,” Donley said later. “And it was supposed to stay on the tax rolls. BRAC would not have happened on my watch [as mayor].”

“I agree with everything that’s been said about the BRAC center, but we are not in the business of telling businesses what they can and can’t do with their property,” Euille said. “The site was under consideration [for a federal tenant]. We couldn’t change the fact that it got selected, but we tried to minimize the impacts to the neighborhood when it was.”

Pressed further by Silberberg, Donley seemed to undercut some of his criticism of Euille over the BRAC building, now known as Mark Center.

“I know you’re still new to council,” Donley told Silberberg in a remark that evoked boos from some audience members. “But when you rezone something, there are requirements. We put requirements in place, but when the feds took ownership of the properties, that removed all local control. … All the controls we had built into the deal were taken away.”

The candidates will meet again for an Alexandria Chamber of Commerce-sponsored debate May 18 at George Washington Middle School. The local Democratic Party will host the final mayoral and House of Delegates 45th District debate on June 2 at the same venue.