By Erich Wagner (Photo/Erich Wagner)
Mayor Bill Euille said he thought he was immune to surprises from his colleagues in City Hall. But last week’s send-off at the start of a city council meeting proved him wrong.
“It was top secret. I usually know everything going on in City Hall, but I heard no whispers and no rumors,” he said. “But when I entered council chambers, I saw a cord running across, past the clerk’s chair and said, ‘What is this for?’ and then saw the little piano/organ, but I thought it was just a youth choir here to sing Christmas carols.
“Then I saw my secretary in the audience and I thought, ‘She never comes to these meetings.’ And when [City Councilor] Del Pepper asked for a moment of personal privilege, I knew something was up.”
After 12 years as mayor and having served on city council since 1994, Euille is in the midst of packing up his office. Plaques lean against a couch; books and other items sit in boxes. His shelves are still full with piles upon piles of binders full of reports and other documents.
Euille narrowly lost the Democratic nomination for mayor to Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg in June, and he was defeated again in November after he waged a write-in campaign for re-election.
Despite a hard-fought and often contentious campaign, Euille said he was overwhelmed by the outpouring of well-wishes over the last month, from supporters and critics alike. At last week’s city council meeting, he choked up after the Alexandria City Employees Choir performed a rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
“It was all very heartfelt,” Euille said. “But it was the music that got to me, because I love the city employees choir. I thought back to their trip to our sister city of Caen, France. That was a touching moment for me, to have them over there performing, representing our city as ambassadors.”
Looking back on his tenure in City Hall, Euille remained pensive.
“For me, my legacy will be the fact that I was the first African-American to have served this city, elected in 2003 when the city was already 254 years old, to be the first person of color to serve as mayor,” he said. “That in and of itself is a legacy. I’d like folks to think that I tried to do everything for everyone to make a difference, but in the end, the public will make the determination for what my legacy will be.”
Euille said he hopes in the years to come, the city will appreciate projects — some controversial now — that were put in motion when he was at the helm, from the waterfront redevelopment plan to Potomac Yard and the relocation of the National Science Foundation.
“I think my advocacy for affordable housing is something that we are now seeing some positive outcomes from,” he said. “We were able to get 64 affordable apartment units above a fire station at Potomac Yard, and we have the new contribution from the Gateway [at King and Beauregard].”
Two major regrets linger in Euille’s mind, he said: that the Landmark Mall redevelopment has not come to fruition and that city council didn’t have a seat at the negotiating table in the design and construction of the BRAC 133 building on the West End.
“We had no say with BRAC 133 and it was done outside the normal process because it was driven by the federal government,” he said. “It was especially frustrating because they chose a property that lacked a transportation hub and transit opportunities, and frankly, we had a better site in Alexandria in the Victory Center.
“We had to bear the angst and frustration of neighbors over the project.”
But the mayor said he stood by the original decision to increase density in the neighborhood.
“We wanted it to be an attraction for private investment or a government entity, but the expectation was that [the density increase] would be phased in,” Euille said. “The way they did it was in one fell swoop, in a way that did not provide, incorporate or address the infrastructure needs.”
Euille said Silberberg and the rest of city council will need to continue work to diversify and grow the city’s revenue base, but do so in a way that promotes housing affordability among all income brackets.
“We need to protect our diversity and inclusiveness as we move forward, and that comes down to the lack of housing affordability,” Euille said. “If we continue to build expensive housing, we’ll lose out on that. All income levels will lose diversity, and that would be a shame.
“[That’s] where the community as a whole has to come into play. We have to have a conversation about what kind of city we want to be and who we want to live here, and then it becomes about extracting and getting benefits from developers and builders.”
At city council’s ceremony to honor Euille, City Councilor John Chapman held back tears as he explained the mayor’s influence on him growing up.
“St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes has a tradition where they have the pre-K kids connect on their first few days with a senior who is about to graduate, and they do this because they want a preschooler to see what their future can be like,” Chapman said. “I think any African-American male, any person of color in this city is honored to see someone of your stature, of your status and of what you’ve accomplished represent us.”
And at council’s public hearings since the election, even longtime critics have taken time to give their appreciation for Euille’s service to the city.
“It would be hard to imagine someone who has handled the ceremonial and official functions of the office of mayor with such aplomb and grace as [Euille],” said Dino Drudi last month. “I think even persons like myself, who may criticize policy and strategy and that sort of thing, recognize and appreciate the way the mayor has presented the city to the citizens and to the outside world.”
Looking forward, Euille said he is still examining his opportunities. He said he may enter the nonprofit sector or return to his business that helps companies apply for federal government contracts, among other ideas. But he wants to remain a staunch advocate in the city for issues facing local teens and young adults, as well as affordable housing.
“And I want to find time to write a book somewhere in there,” he said with a laugh.