Mayoral candidates open old wounds at second debate

Mayoral candidates open old wounds at second debate
Vice Mayor Justin Wilson and Mayor Allison Silberberg at the Chamber of Commerce's mayoral debate (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)

By Alexa Epitropoulos |

Mayor Allison Silberberg and Vice Mayor Justin Wilson met for their second official debate, this one hosted by the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, on Monday.

The hour-long debate, held in the T.C. Williams High School auditorium, focused on a number of business-related topics, including the impending three-and-a-half month closure of all four Alexandria Metro stations in summer 2019, recently announced changes to the Potomac Yard Metro station, the possible implementation of a revenue master plan, last year’s proposed Old Town Business Improvement District and the promotion of
small business in the city.

The first question posed by moderator Dave Millard, 2018 chair of the Chamber’s government relations committee, centered around WMATA. Wilson said Metro’s upcoming closure is an example of why the city needs to focus on improving its infrastructure.

“If ever there was an example of the challenge of deferring infrastructure, it’s the challenges facing WMATA right now,” Wilson said. “This is a major emergency we’re going to be facing next summer. The good news is we’ve had some practice during [Metro’s] SafeTrack. We employed a whole variety of alternatives. Now we need to triple and double it. This is going to have a big impact during the summer of 2019.”

Silberberg said all city leadership supported infrastructure improvements for Metro.

“This is very important, as transit, Metro, is the economic backbone of our region,” Silberberg said. “We have a shared goal in terms of transportation – it’s certainly shared all across the council, through many decades. In terms of closing for three months, those platforms do need to be fixed – it’s extremely challenging. SafeTrack was certainly very challenging, but this is going to take it to a whole new level.”

Silberberg indicated that the city would seek more funding for the Potomac Yard Metro and said she remains committed to adding the southern entrance to the station, which City Manager Mark Jinks announced two weeks ago wouldn’t be part of the plan anymore.
The opponents clashed when Millard asked about balancing civic engagement and leadership. Silberberg touted monthly coffees and her support for an unrestrained open mic period before the public hearing.

“Civic engagement is crucial,” Silberberg said. “I strongly support the open mic held at public hearings once a month. It was a 40-year tradition to have as many speakers as would come to the meeting, whether it was a few or 10 or 20. … I feel strongly about this and would like to revert back.”

Wilson criticized the mayor’s vote against the FY2018 budget, which included a 5.7cent tax increase, and the mayor’s vote against a small business zoning package.

“What I’ve been able to do on council is build coalitions. I’m proud of the work we’ve done to invest in our infrastructure. We have advanced significant packages and those have been passed. The mayor opposed those efforts,” Wilson said. “With growing student enrollment – we have the fourth fastest growing enrollment in the commonwealth – I felt the city should proactively lead that challenge, so we did.”

Silberberg said, though she supported the city manager’s budget, which called for a 2.7-cent tax increase, most issues facing council are passed unanimously.

“Most of our votes are 7-0 and when they’re not, I’m proud of my vote,” Silberberg said.

Wilson continued to push the mayor on her dissenting vote. 

“[Had the budget failed], the result of the mayor’s vote would be you that you would have no resources for Matthew Maury, for Cora Kelly. Had the mayor gotten her way, it would not address the capacity challenges. I’m proud of what we were able to do,” Wilson said.

The two disagreed on budgeting philosophy when Millard asked whether or not the candidates supported implementing a revenue master plan. Wilson said he supported multi-year operating budgets, while Silberberg opposed the concept.

“This gets to the root of our challenges, which is we have had a structural imbalance for a long period of time. … Getting to a multiple-year plan gets to what the budget committee has been advising – to make sure we figure out where the money is going to come from,” Wilson said. “It allows us to plan out future operating budgets, so every year we’re not trying to cure a gap.”

“As far as multi-year budgeting, as the vice mayor just mentioned, I can not agree with that. A) Things keep changing rapidly, but B) that’s what the Soviet Union did and it didn’t work,” Silberberg said. “I’m certainly happy to take a look at the revenue master plan.”

Silberberg also brought up the recent vote to change parking standards, which she said hurt small businesses.

“A lot of people feel that they don’t have enough parking, so I voted against changing the parking standards. That was a 6-1 vote,” Silberberg said. “Many parts of the city don’t have enough parking and we just told businesses they didn’t have to, so that’s going to create a crunch.”

Wilson said the updated standards would help businesses.

“The new parking standards actually help small businesses. Most of our small businesses have to go through an SUP to receive a parking reduction, which, quite honestly, are approved unanimously over and over again,” Wilson said.

Both candidates agreed Potomac Yard Metro was a key to increasing Alexandria’s ailing commercial tax base.

“That’s one way to add commercial interest to our city. We must do it in a way that preserves our sense of community. It’s an area that’s really prime for development,” Silberberg said.

“It’s absolutely true that Arlington County generates 50 percent of their tax revenue from 10 percent of their property. They made really smart choices to concentrate development around Metro stations,” Wilson said. “… It’s incumbent on us to make that investment worth it – making sure we improve land uses that are going to drive return to our taxpayers.”

When Millard asked about last year’s proposed Old Town business improvement district, the two rehashed their old rivalry.

“It was an effort championed by my opponent,” Silberberg said. “While I appreciate his enthusiasm, I had concerns from the very beginning. I sought input from the business community and the majority of Old Town business said ‘We don’t want this. It’s not good for us.’ There was no vote, but it was moving forward in many ways.”

Wilson denied leading the initiative.

“Councilman Chapman was the one who originally proposed the money to explore the Old Town BID. It was originally proposed by the waterfront steering committee,” Wilson said. “Actually, there was a vote – it was a unanimous vote – and the vote was to explore changes to the BID as proposed and have a vote of the businesses in order to explore if it was a good idea,” Wilson said. “ … The fact is that a BID, by its nature, needs to have the support of the businesses. … The idea of collective investment is a good one – it’s used all around the community. I think this is an idea that will probably come back.”

Silberberg argued that Wilson did, in fact, tout the idea.

“With all due respect, you were the champion of it on the dais. It’s on tape – I don’t think we need to dispute that,” Silberberg said.

Wilson countered that the mayor had supported it and then revoked her support.

“The facts are the facts – the bottom line is what areas would a BID make sense and I’ve always said if there are business leaders who are in support of it, then the city’s job is to facilitate that process,” he said.

Millard also asked Silberberg and Wilson about their thoughts on redeveloping Landmark Mall and solving high school capacity issues.

“In ten years, Landmark should look nothing like it does today. The good news is we are now getting closer to a place where we have consolidated ownership,” Wilson said. “… This is about galvanizing the entire council to make sure development occurs. It’s a fiscal black hole. The amount of revenue lost every year by the diminished state of Landmark Mall is paid by the taxpayer.”

“It’s definitely a top priority – we’ve done everything we can to grease those wheels. It’s definitely in need of help, but we can only do what we can do,” Silberberg said.

Neither candidate had a definitive answer on whether Alexandria City Public Schools should pursue a second high school or expand the high school’s existing campus.

“I’ve talked to [ACPS Interim Superintendent] Dr. [Lois] Berlin about this at length and I agree with her as she explains that their focus is to look at a whole host of issues – looking at new academies or a second high school or enlarge Minnie Howard,” Silberberg said.

“We’re pushing for a collaborative effort to plan the future of high school capacity. Through tough decisions made by city council, we have a path to examine high school needs. It would be a challenge to find a second high school site. Finding resources would be very challenging. The model runs through Minnie Howard or existing capacity in this [the T.C. Williams] site,” Wilson said.

The debate concluded with Millard asking what politically unpopular action they would pursue, if given the opportunity.

“The job of leaders is to take on politically unpopular things that better their community.
That’s the way I’ve approached city council. Alexandria had, going into last year’s budget, half a billion in deferred capital maintenance. [The FY2018 budget] lowers taxes in the future and helps us better use resources,” Wilson said. “… We need tradeoffs associated with how we improve safety. We’ve done a few – lowering speed limits, narrowing lanes.”

Silberberg said she would reinstate the open space fund.

“We should reinstate dedicated funding for our open space fund, which was eliminated in 2013 after making a big difference,” Silberberg said. “We should set a goal and make it our top priority to reinstate it. My opponent championed eliminating dedicated funding for it after 10 great years.”

Silberberg and Wilson will join a dozen Democratic council candidates at a mayoral and council candidate forum hosted by Tenants & Workers United and the NAACP on Friday night between 6 and 7:30 p.m. at Cora Kelly Elementary School.