Donley wants faster progress on development progress, schools funding

Donley wants faster progress on development progress, schools funding
Vice Mayor Kerry Donley

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

Former Mayor Kerry Donley may seem like all business on the campaign trail, throwing around statistics and proposals for future development in Alexandria, but he stressed some of the best parts of being mayor are simply interacting with residents.

“That’s the beauty of local government,” he said. “[Going] out and doing those things, I actually enjoy that because it gives me the opportunity to have a direct relationship with our citizens. The Giant [Food] on Duke Street used to be a Hechinger, and I went to buy a box of nails one and I got stopped by four people came up to me complaining about the difficulty there was to try to turn left into the Hechinger.

“I went back and talked to transportation and environmental services, and they said, ‘You’re exactly right. There needs to be a dedicated turn lane here.’ And two months later, there was one.”

Donley, who served as mayor from 1996 until 2003, again is vying for Alexandria’s top elected position in a three-way Democratic primary on June 9. He will square off against incumbent Mayor Bill Euille and Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg.

Speaking of his top priorities, Donley said he wants to solve the city’s structural deficit — expenditures annually outpacing revenue growth — by bolstering its commercial tax base, followed by increasing the percentage of city dollars that goes to Alexandria City Public Schools.

“What’s the solution? Potomac Yard Metro, getting back on schedule and staying on schedule,” he said. “And in the Carlyle area, it’s the home to the [U.S. Patent and Trademark Office] and soon the [National Science Foundation]. That area of the city could be internationally recognized as a center for science, innovation and creativity.”

Donley criticized Euille and city council for, in his eyes, not moving quickly enough on plans for the proposed Potomac Yard Metro station, and he stressed the city must move quickly on development elsewhere in the city.

“In West Eisenhower, we’re in the midst of a re-planning effort, which is good but calls for a 20- to 30-year build-out,” he said. “I don’t believe we should wait that long. The infrastructure is in place and we should have an interim plan for development.

“The big box retailers in Potomac Yard will eventually go away [as the rest of the area redevelops with the Metro station], so we should set up an overlay zone in Eisenhower West that relieves retailers from the special use permit hurdle. We can say, ‘Here’s where we want you, and we’ll make it easier for you to get there.’”

Donley noted that encouraging the retailers in Potomac Yard to move to the Eisenhower Valley also could have the added benefit of keeping the traffic those businesses generate on the Capital Beltway and in the southwest corner of the city.

On education, Donley said he wants to increase funding from its current level — 30.6 percent of the operating budget — to around 32 or 33 percent. And to deal with capacity issues, he would recommend looking at the possibility of making more schools into K-8 institutions.

“We’ve got Jefferson-Houston and we’re looking at that for Patrick Henry, but from an education policy standpoint, K-8 schools might afford the opportunity for more neighborhood schools, rather than having all middle school students go to one place,” he said. “But the big challenge, if enrollment is sustained, is that we’ve got one high school [in T.C. Williams]. We’ll have to get creative there and maybe even lease space off-site for some programs.”

Donley was pragmatic about the drop in availability of affordable housing in the city over the past decade.

“There’s not much we can do on the financial side; local government is primarily responsible for education, public health and public safety, and it’s just not equipped to have a serious impact on this issue,” he said. “We can’t devote the dollars necessary to offset that loss of affordable units.”

The place where city officials can improve the situation is through the zoning and development processes, as well as working with local nonprofit organizations.

“We have to go to the zoning code,” he said. “When we rezoned [the] Beauregard [neighborhood], we secured the largest single set aside for affordable housing in the city’s history, with 850 units. So we have to use zoning tools with new developments.

“And we have to develop partnerships with nonprofits to help them buy or redevelop affordable housing. With current units, we have to both preserve affordability and provide better upgraded housing [than what was originally built].”

Donley said, if elected, he would secure success in these areas by more effective priority setting in his agenda.

“You have to identify and limit your priorities,” he said. “I always say: If you wind up with 16 priorities, you have no priorities, because then everything is a priority.”

And he stressed he relishes the fact that as mayor, one is always on the job.

“When I was mayor, I think I got more done on the soccer field, watching my kids play, than at City Hall,” Donley said.