Our View: The optics of ethics

Our View: The optics of ethics
A rendering of North Potomac Yard's Innovation District. (Image/City of Alexandria)

In Alexandria there’s a growing perception that our local government prioritizes the interests of developers above all else. Loss of green space and degradation of the environment, worsened traffic and less parking, increased flooding and overcrowding of schools are all consequences of over-development.

Our city’s planners increasingly seem to want Alexandria to have an intensely urban feel, with large housing projects where few own cars and most people ride scooters and the Metro. It’s a policy geared toward younger millennials and members of Gen Z.

Just as cities benefit from ethnic, gender, religious, political and socio-economic diversity, every community needs a mix of age groups. But a city’s youngest adults are also its most transient. They generally earn less, aren’t homeowners and have more tenuous ties to the cities in which they live. Younger adults are a valuable component of any community, but planning Alexandria around their perceived wishes is short sighted.

Alexandria’s policy vision appears to be fixated on approving high-rise residential projects intended for young adults. These projects are generally concentrated in areas near Metro stations where it is thought young people will live and commute to work.

The poster child for this developer/young adult-centric vision is the rebuild of the Heritage at Old Town apartments. Alexandria’s Planning Commission unanimously approved this wholly inappropriate project of more than 750 units that rests partly inside our city’s Old and Historic District in the wee hours of Feb. 3.

It’s also worth noting that two Planning Commission members – Nathan Macek and Melinda Lyle – were just reappointed to four-year terms by City Council on Tuesday night. These reappointments, both by 6-1 votes with all seven members of council voting for one or both, came despite the fact that both Macek and Lyle work for companies that receive large contracts from the city.

Macek’s employer, WSP USA, is an architecture and engineering com-pany that, according to its website, did extensive financial analysis for the city on the Potomac Yard Metro Station. Lyle works for Alpha Corporation, a construction consulting firm where she is director of business development. Alpha Corporation, ac-cording to its website, provided project and construction management at both the Alexandria Police Department headquarters building and the Charles Houston Rec Center rebuild.

Perhaps the reappointments of Macek and Lyle would have been justified if they were the only qualified applicants for the slots. That was not the case Tuesday, as 10 people total applied for the two slots, and five of the additional applicants were extremely qualified. All five have lived in the city for at least 10 years and are not employed by for-profit companies that do business in the city. The applicants included:

• One person who is retiring after serving as head of planning in Arlington County for eight years.

• One person with expertise in transportation and environmental services who is a lawyer for a federal agency.

• One retired person whose job was in facilities design and technology, and who possesses many years of experience in city civic groups and commissions.

• One person who is a scientist, works for a nonprofit and has done extensive work on LEED green building projects.

• One person with experience on city committees and boards who does human capital analysis within federal agencies for a consulting firm.

To be clear, both Macek and Lyle appear to be upstanding people who donate considerable time to this volunteer board. To our knowledge they have not personally voted on projects that their companies are directly involved with.

But we believe anyone whose employer benefits from contracts with the City of Alexandria should not be allowed to serve on the most important commission in the city. Their reappointments just don’t pass the optics test. Further ethics reform is clearly needed that will prohibit people whose companies benefit from city contracts from serving on key Alexandria boards and commissions.