Our View: BRAC to the future

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An image generated by WMATA that shows the revised Potomac Yard Metro plan with a northwest entrance and planned southwest access point. The original plan called for three entrances. (Image courtesy WMATA)
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“… Nearby residents shouted in anger that they weren’t consulted during the … decision process, while officials from all parties involved passed the buck. No one admitted wrongdoing. What a mess.”

A quote from the coverage of the May 9 meeting between Potomac Yard residents and city officials about the new Metro station? No, but it could have been.

That passage is from a September 2010 Alexandria Times editorial about the process that led to the Base Realignment and Closure Act relocation of more than 6,000 Department of Defense employees to Mark Center in the city’s West End.

The best public policy decisions result in win-win outcomes for residents and the city.
The BRAC debacle, sadly, was a lose-lose-lose situation:

– The city lost major revenue that could have been generated had a tax-paying private sector project been built on the site,

– Nearby residents have had to endure a massive influx of vehicles into their throughways and

– Putting an enormous project nowhere near a Metro stop was phenomenally
short-sighted and environmentally harmful. 

Fast-forward eight years, and Alexandria’s residential/commercial tax revenue equation has become increasingly skewed toward residential, which now provides around 70 percent of our city’s local tax dollars.

And there lies the crux: Older, largely developed cities like Alexandria have few opportunities to build projects that will generate significant commercial tax revenue in the present and into perpetuity.

The BRAC site represented one important opportunity for substantial commercial development in Alexandria. The Potomac Yard Metro represents another. We appear to be on the verge of messing this one up in a similar fashion through a poorly mixed cocktail of secrecy, obfuscation and mismanagement.

Let’s examine those claims one at a time.

The process this past year has been the very definition of “shrouded in secrecy.” It’s been about as transparent as the Potomac River after a month of rainfall. The reason given for not keeping the public informed is a non-disclosure agreement, the language of which makes clear its intent was to prevent corruption by public officials, not to provide a safe space for them to avoid facing the citizenry.

As for obfuscation, deciphering the who-knew-what-when aspect of this project is
like trying to unmask the culprit in Clue. To wit:

– City Manager Mark Jinks claims council members and Mayor Allison Silberberg were told in July 2017 that major changes in cost and design on the Potomac Yard Metro were forthcoming. His response when told some remembered otherwise: “We called council members. … What they remembered or didn’t remember or claimed, I can’t speak to that.”

– Silberberg said she was told, along with the rest of council, at a March 2018 executive city council session of the cost increase and deletion of the south entrance.

– The Washington Business Journal ran a rendering on April 11 sourced to WMATA that showed the project with the south entrance deleted.

– City councilor Paul Smedberg, council’s representative since 2016 on the WMATA board, which governed this project, continued to tell residents in April 2018 in emails obtained by the Alexandria Times that the southern access had not changed. These emails took place weeks after the purported executive session and after the publication of the Business Journal article.

As to mismanagement, how can the city find itself left holding the bag – and price tag – for decisions made by another, non-accountable quasi-governmental entity? How
did our city manager and elected officials let themselves wind up in this position? Why was there no mechanism for public input this past year on such a monumental decision?
And how can no one be responsible?

The Potomac Yard Metro station has been in the works for many years. It has been touted by elected officials and leaders from Alexandria’s business community as the major
driver of our city’s economic development in the coming years. Eliminating the southern entrance to this station, the side with close access for residents and those much-hoped-for businesses, will greatly hinder the station’s ability to be that economic engine.

So why, after waiting all these years, are we now in a rush to do this the wrong way?
Why would we not step back and figure out how to keep the south entrance, even if it delays the project another three or six months or even a year?

A city gets few chances to hit an economic home run. Let’s make sure that in our eagerness we don’t whiff.

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