City leaders discuss public-private partnerships at Chamber panel

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Mark Jinks (Courtesy photo)
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By Alexa Epitropoulos | aepitropoulos@alextimes.com

The Alexandria Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday morning hosted a panel discussion at Holiday Inn Carlyle to discuss the importance of public-private partnerships in the city’s present and future.

The panel, which included City Manager Mark Jinks, Alexandria City Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Mignon Anthony and Skanska Investment Director Farhad Soltanieh had
a conversation about how public-private partnerships, also called P3s, can work to the benefit of both sectors.

Jinks, who became city manager in April 2015, said public-private partnerships are a pivotal tool for the city. He said the city is in the process of hiring a P3 manager, who would be tasked with shepherding projects through a long and often laborious zoning and permitting process.

Jinks brought up a number of successful partnerships in the city, including the city’s reimagination of Potomac Yard’s one-story fire station. The city worked with Pulte Corp. to convert the fire station into a multi-use – and multi-level – building with a residential component.

“We were looking at this one-level fire station and thinking, ‘That’s a real waste of that airspace in Potomac Yard, where we’re just about to start building a Metro station,’” Jinks recalled during the discussion.

Jinks said, while it’s not clear which city official first suggested the idea of adding affordable housing into the mix, it was an idea that staff immediately began exploring. He said there wasn’t a model like it anywhere in the country at the time.

“When we did the research, we discovered nobody in the U.S. had done this. We thought, ‘Well, can we make this work?’” he said.

The city discussed the potential project with Pulte, which had already agreed to donate the land for the fire station. The city partnered with Pulte and, later, the Alexandria Housing Development Corp. to build and manage what became The Station at Potomac Yard. Jinks said combining a fire station with housing and other uses has now been copied in several other jurisdictions nationally, including in D.C.

“It’s been replicated now in four or five places in the U.S., including in the District.
There’s a fire station in the west end of the District that has a squash club, library, I think it has residential. … Then the District has a high-end hotel on top of the fire station,” Jinks said. “Both of those came from the Alexandria thought that we have to use the vertical density and that means bringing in some other use and some other partner to make it all work using very complicated deals.”

Anthony, who was appointed COO of ACPS in late 2017, has years of experience with public-private partnerships. She previously worked as executive director of Baltimore City Public Schools’ 21st Century Schools program, where she was tasked with finding solutions to the city’s aging school facilities, and, before that, played an active role in helping organizations like the National Science Foundation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms find new home facilities.

Mignon Anthony (Courtesy Photo)

Anthony said she is working to find solutions for ACPS’ facility quandaries, including the school district’s ever-growing enrollment and aging school buildings. Chief among those projects is expanding T.C. Williams High School or adding a new high school, both of which would require creative thinking and compromises.

“We are continuing to experience a lot of the effects of deferred maintenance that’s going to require us, as a city, to look at how the schools are going to be dealt with over a short period of time,” Anthony said. “We’re looking for opportunities to use our existing
infrastructure here in the city, to examine and explore developments with private partners for potential options for working with the city manager on potential financing.”

Anthony said that, though Baltimore’s 21st Century Schools program didn’t involve private partners, the private sector was involved throughout the process. The program, a partnership between the city, the schools, the Maryland Stadium Authority and the state, involved renovating 28 schools and closing 26 schools over a six-year period.

“[The private sector] was the engine to make sure the rest of the development around the schools was going to actually happen,” Anthony said.

Soltanieh said the key to making public-private partnerships successful was properly allocating risks and rewards. He used Skanska’s major renovation of LaGuardia Airport’s B Terminal and a completed tunnel project in Virginia as examples.

“P3s mean different things to different people. When [the] public and private sectors come

Farhad Soltanieh (Courtesy photo)

together, there are different shades of gray, different ways to allocate responsibilities, share risks and rewards in the public and private sector,” Soltanieh said.

Each panelist touched on the difficulties of structuring partnerships. Jinks and Anthony said the challenge in the public sector tends to be bureaucracy and having the right leadership in place, as well as getting the public to buy into a vision.

“Really developing trust in the public sector’s ability to move through the process is one of the most difficult things,” Anthony said. “… Because of our bureaucracy and because of our accountability and compliance requirements, sometimes the private sector is extremely concerned about the commitment they’re making and the risk they’re taking.”

From the private sector perspective, Soltanieh said the difficulties are in the details.

“The documentation is crazy with projects because you’re trying to make a longterm project work,” he said. “It took us years to come to an agreement and it was a process with RFPs and bidding to come to a deal that worked for us.” 

Looking ahead, the panelists said what the public sector needs most is ideas.

“I think we need the private sector’s ideas – the opportunities that people see as they’re driving through the city that aren’t articulated, that we haven’t thought about. To call the school division or call the city manager’s office is absolutely something we want
to engage in,” Anthony said.

Soltanieh said the private sector welcomes ideas from the public as well.

“Any idea that fosters innovation is of value and let’s have a collaborative dialogue around it. It should start with a dialogue,” he said. “Not every idea may work, or be the right solution for a circumstance, but let’s make sure to take advantage of good ideas.”

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