By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
As she looks back on her time as mayor, Allison Silberberg’s reflections are built from stories of the events she’s attended and the residents she’s met over the past three years.
It’s not unusual for her sentences to begin with “So-and-so was telling me the other day …” or “When I visited one of the elementary schools last month …” or “I was at a funeral this morning for …” or countless combinations of people and places.
Silberberg infused herself into the community with each ribbon cutting, tree planting and block party she attended, and her constant presence at meetings and events throughout the city demonstrates that her leadership style has been community-centric.
“To me it’s personal, serving [as mayor],” she said. “It’s personal because I just care really deeply about how people are doing and how our city is doing.”
Before being elected mayor in 2015, Silberberg served as vice mayor for three years – her first term in public office. After losing her bid for reelection to Vice Mayor Justin Wilson in this year’s June Democratic primary, the end of 2018 will bring with it the conclusion of her six-year stint on council.
In her three years at the city’s helm, Silberberg has maneuvered Alexandria through a sea of highs and lows, from the shooting at Simpson Field in June 2017 to Amazon’s announcement last month that HQ2 is coming to Northern Virginia.
“As mayor, I’ve been there with people during their happiest moments, and I’ve been there when it’s unthinkable, and I’m humble about that. It’s been a great honor,” Silberberg said.
Silberberg said her term has been full of “game changers,” the biggest being the Amazon announcement.
“That one matter took up probably 14 months of my term, half of my three-year term, and we worked hard as a team, a lot of coordination and discussion and meetings,” she said. “It’s a total game changer.”
Other major city triumphs that occurred during Silberberg’s term include increasing funding for schools, tripling the amount of money dedicated for the affordable housing fund, tripling the number of trees planted per year across the city and opening three new schools – Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School, the Early Childhood Center and the Patrick Henry pre-K through eighth grade school, which is slated to open in January.
Silberberg also helped move along projects that have been years in the works, including the Potomac Yard Metro Station and combined sewer outfalls.
Jack Sullivan, a resident and member of the CSO project stakeholder group, applauded Silberberg’s leadership. He said he especially commended her for advocating for all four outfalls to be addressed immediately, rather than just the three that were planned.
“It’s the biggest public works project conceived or executed in the City of Alexandria and it’s something expensive, but it had to be done,” Sullivan said. “I would think that maybe when people look back at what she did while she was mayor, that may stand out as one of her principal achievements.”
Silberberg said that during her time, she chose to champion the causes that protected Alexandria’s neighborhoods and quality of life. It was with that preservationist attitude that historic conservation became one of her chief priorities.
Anyone who’s attended a city council meeting or seen Silberberg speak at an event has probably heard her catch phrase: “We are all the temporary stewards of this national treasure called Alexandria.”
Danny Smith, a resident involved in historic preservation, said Silberberg’s time as mayor has been momentous for preservation in Alexandria. He said one of her greatest achievements in preservation was acquiring the Murray-Dick-Fawcett house.
“She has been such a solid ally in what we’re trying to do to preserve the heritage of our great city,” Smith said. “She recognizes how valuable what remains is to the city and how important it is to try and preserve that for future generations.”
In addition to historic preservation, some of Silberberg’s key initiatives during her term include drafting council’s statement on inclusiveness, advocating for ethics reform, establishing a senior advocacy round table and forming a clergy council with members from many houses of worship.
Ethics reform was part of Silberberg’s campaign to make city hall more accountable and accessible, even though she called the final pledge and code of conduct that council adopted “watered down.” Like the ethics reform, certain votes and initiatives made it clear Silberberg was the head of a council that didn’t always agree with her.
She was the council member most frequently in the minority when 6-1 votes occurred, and her dissenting votes were often on topics that had drawn resident opposition.
“My votes reflect our need to protect our neighborhoods and quality of life,” Silberberg said. “The vast majority of the votes were 7-0, so when I voted at times and it ended up being a 6-1 vote, I’m proud of my votes. I’m elected for my judgement. I listen to the arguments on all sides based upon the concerns of the community, as well as what I think is appropriate and thoughtful and will protect the quality of life as well as move our city forward.”
Council voted 6-1 to approve Karig Estates, a proposed development behind Beth El Hebrew Congregation, despite environmentalists’ arguments that the project would harm the swale in the area. Council voted 6-1 for new parking standards, despite resident protests against their reductions. And council voted 6-1 to light the T.C. Williams football field, despite a promise neighbors say was made to their relatives more than 50 years ago. In each case, Silberberg cast the lone dissenting vote.
“One of the things about Allison that I think so many people really did love about her, when it came to voting on issues that really affected the lives of people, she stood up for us,” Carol Johnson, one of the residents involved in the T.C. lights debate, said. “And there were occasions on council meeting votes when she stood alone, but she stood her ground that this is the right thing for the community, this is the right thing for the citizens.”
Despite sometimes being at odds with her council, Silberberg said she worked hard to improve collaboration during her time, especially with groups like Alexandria City Public Schools and the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
“There was a lot of tension historically between the city and the school system and between the city and the housing authority but I’m really proud that I made it a priority to break down those barriers and work more collaboratively and get a lot done on behalf of those serving,” she said.
She also worked to improve communication with the community. Johnson said Silberberg’s dissenting votes were evidence of the time she spent in the community listening to residents’ concerns.
“She really takes the time to get to know people and know what their needs are,” Johnson said. “She’s a concerned person about the citizens, what we’re looking for and how she can help us and the citizens of Alexandria. When you take those kinds of deep understanding and take that to city council, when they vote on issues … she has a much better, broader perspective of things and what it means to the community.”
In order to encourage more community engagement, Silberberg hosted monthly coffees called “Mayor on Your Corner” where she invited residents to voice their concerns about what was going on in the city.
“City hall is the people,” Silberberg said. “We should never be separate from the people and we’re here to listen carefully. That’s why I have a monthly coffee. I had it as the vice mayor and I have it now as mayor and I don’t think I’ve ever cancelled it. Those coffees have provided me with great ideas.”
Silberberg said it’s the time she’s spent out in the community interacting with residents that’s been her favorite part of the job.
“I’ve really enjoyed going to all the schools and talking to all the students and encouraging them to study hard,” she said. “And I’ve enjoyed all aspects of the job really. I’ve really enjoyed listening to the concerns of the community and seeing if there’s a way to strike a compromise.”
When asked what’s next for her, Silberberg said she’s going to keep working hard up until the very end of her term. When asked if she plans to run for public office again, she said, “Stay tuned.”
“I want to finish strongly and we’re still pushing strongly ahead on a whole host of things,” she said. “My whole life’s been about public service, and it will remain so, and I’m looking forward to the next chapter of my life.”