By Erich Wagner (Photo/Chris Teale)
If election season were a boxing match, the first two debates between Alexandria’s Democratic candidates for mayor could be seen as the first couple of rounds, where fighters act cautiously and feel out their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses.
Monday night, the campaign entered the middle rounds, as candidates traded blows on the waterfront, open space and the pace of planning the Potomac Yard Metro station — although nobody landed a knockout punch.
On June 9, voters will select the Democratic nominee for mayor from three options: incumbent Mayor Bill Euille, Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg and former Mayor Kerry Donley.
The first moment of friction came after Donley pivoted from a question about whether he “shoulders some blame” for the city’s off-kilter residential-commercial tax base ratio since he presided over the approval of large residential developments during his tenure in office.
Donley rebuffed that notion and returned to a common refrain: his belief that the Potomac Yard Metro station should have been approved more quickly.
“If you look at my record, you’ll see I brought in significant commercial developments,” he said. “[We] spent way too much time looking at if we could move the CSX tracks and as a result, none of the Potomac Yard properties were able to bid on [the new] TSA [headquarters]. That was a missed opportunity.”
Euille was quick to counter that argument and defend the planning process for the project.
“Mr. Donley realizes that I appointed him to the [planning work group for Potomac Yard] because of his background and experience with other bodies like the WMATA board,” Euille said. “It wasn’t that the city supported moving the CSX tracks. It was a requirement and a request from the [Federal Transportation Administration] to look at that alternative.
“The fact is that it was a request from them, and there was nothing we could do to move this any faster.”
The debate, hosted by the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce at George Washington Middle School, was lively in part thanks to a “moderator’s discretion” format, where the lack of firm time limits — outside of opening and closing statements — allowed for a more conversational and in-depth approach to issues.
Development along the waterfront also remained a major point of contention. Moderator Drew Hansen, a digital producer at the Washington Business Journal and a former Patch editor, asked Silberberg to give an example of “thoughtful, appropriate development” — a mantra of hers this campaign — since she was first elected in 2012.
“Well, Parkfairfax,” Silberberg said, referring to her own neighborhood, which was designed in the 1940s.
“In the last three years?” Hansen persisted.
“Well, the National Science Foundation,” Silberberg said, before criticizing the recently passed Robinson Terminal South project. “That was a missed opportunity. It looks sleek, modern and contemporary. A lot of people praised 2 Duke Street, which maintained the character of the neighborhood, but the entire lot could have fit in just like 2 Duke Street, and that’s a real shame.
“Look at Morrison House. That fits into the Old and Historic District.”
Morrison House was built in 1985.
Silberberg’s criticism of city councilors’ decision to do away with a budget set-aside for open space in 2013 — the city had reached its 100-acre goal, and the extra money was just being used to pay off debt service — and arguments that the city should have set a new goal and that Potomac Yard should have been planned with a large lawn in the center of it opened her up to more criticism from her opponents.
“I’d like to remind the vice mayor that if she wanted more open space, the waterfront plan — which passed 6-1 — had a 40 percent increase in open space [in that area] and was the result of a more than 40-year community engagement process,” Euille said. “You had an opportunity to support that.”
“With all due respect, I fully support open space,” Silberberg shot back. “I proposed the Alexandria Parks Foundation, and although you tried to stifle it every step of the way, we did vote on that.”
“I did not stifle your idea to have an open space foundation,” Euille said. “You raised it, but there was no second to the motion, and maybe not even a first to the motion. The reality is … the city set a goal to acquire 100 acres of open space, and we more than exceeded that requirement. We have a lot more today than the 100 [acres] needed, and that’s why we did away with the funds.
“[You] need to use teamwork and build consensus around issues. You can’t just throw ideas out during meetings and expect it to just happen.”
“One of the most important aspects of the waterfront plan was the unfettered access along the waterfront,” Donley chimed in. “It’s supposed to be for everyone.”
The candidates will meet again June 2 for one final debate, hosted by the Alexandria Democratic Committee. The forum, which also will feature a debate among the Democratic candidates for the House of Delegates 45th District seat, will start at 7 p.m. and will be held at George Washington Middle School.