To the editor:
I would like to respond to the letter by Carter Flemming in the Feb. 20 Alexandria Times, “Stop degrading our civic associations,” with my thoughts on the need for high-quality public outreach to inform public decision making. Two topics discussed at the Feb. 4 Alexandria Planning Commission meeting highlight the importance of diverse and inclusive public engagement.
The first involves practical updates to the city’s business zoning, which the planning commission and city council will consider in April. Draft proposals include greater use of administrative approvals for some types of businesses, including restaurants, and by-right permission for some uses to operate in select commercial zones.
This month, staff presented comments collected from participants at several public meetings, summarized by “residents” and “businesses.” Staff stated that while the views of businesses reflected 70 participants at meetings of five separate organizations, resident participation was much sparser. Despite invitations to approximately 90 civic, condominium and homeowner associations, two public meetings had about seven participants, and a meeting with the Federation of Civic Associations hosted about 20.
While the views on this issue provide helpful input, we need to consider whether the comments of so few people are truly reflective of a resident viewpoint. Similarly, on the other side of the issue, the views of a single business association would not be representative of the business community as a whole. Every organization brings its own biases to the table, which we need to recognize. That’s why, as a city, we need to base our plans and policies on broad public input, from all sides.
Another topic discussed at the February Planning Commission meeting was public engagement for the upcoming Arlandria and Del Ray small area plan updates. Outreach for this effort has included multiple community meetings, open houses and pop-up events conducted in Spanish and English. Meetings included childcare, to facilitate attendance by parents with young children, and tested new communications channels to inform the public, such as text messaging and Spanish-language news articles.
The city conducted a survey of residents in both languages, revealing that the priorities of Spanish-speaking survey respondents differ in many respects from those of the English speakers. The Del Ray Citizens Association also conducted a survey of its members and reported the detailed comments offered by each survey respondent, augmenting the outreach conducted by city staff.
Too often, the voices heard at city hall are older, less racially diverse, more affluent, more likely to be homeowners and less likely to have young children than the typical resident. As the successful Arlandria and Del Ray engagement demonstrates, the city has several tools that can broaden our reach. This level of public engagement isn’t possible with every planning effort, but demonstrates that we do have a template for doing it well.
Moving forward, I hope that civic associations, business groups and other community organizations will broaden their own reach to be as inclusive of the communities they represent as possible and continue to weigh in on issues of concern. City staff should continue to engage these groups, while also seeking feedback from groups and individuals heard less often.
We must actively work to solicit comments representative of our diverse community, and respectfully consider the viewpoints of all to make certain we’re making the best decisions for our community as a whole.
-Nathan Macek, chair Alexandria Planning Commission