Your Views: Finding a balance

Your Views: Finding a balance
James Lewis (Courtesy photo)

To the editor:

Collectively, we hold our breath as Simone Biles prepares for her final tumbling pass down the 16-plus foot plank of wood, just four inches wide. She flips and spins through the air, returning to the thin beam over and over – maintaining her balance.

When it comes to development in Alexandria, we need to channel Biles’ balance and aggression to ensure everyone benefits.

On the positive side, new development brings new opportunities. We can build things we have always wanted. We can modernize outdated and unsafe infrastructure. Community benefit agreements or “development deals” can bring new amenities, schools, Project Labor Agreements and public safety infrastructure.

But there are always costs: displacement of existing communities, more congestion, gentrification, reduced housing affordability, increased amounts of impermeable surface and new buildings that simply do not fit.

It is the task of City Council – with the guidance of the Planning Commission, the community and staff – to balance all the elements and make the necessary tradeoffs to move our city forward.

Like Biles, Alexandria has numerous strengths. Everyone wants to be here. We still have locations, including large sites like Landmark and the power plant, primed for redevelopment. We are within the Beltway and have clear economic benefits when compared to Maryland and Washington D.C.

It seems, at times, we forget our advantages in a rush for renewal. Perhaps, in the past, we have been a bit too excited to say “yes.”

But again, balance is required. Density is not a swear word, it’s a tool for building the future we want. A tool that should be wielded with care, caution and public engagement. Many communities have embraced their small area plans and coordinated development district processes to plot a future with clear priorities, informed by neighbors’ ideas and concerns.

We know that development and redevelopment, when done properly and with extensive community input, can move us toward our goals. Plans moving forward across the city, from North Old Town to the West End, have communities excited about the future of their neighborhoods.

To maximize community benefits, we need to be clear about our priorities. We cannot rush in with a three-mile-long wish list. Clarity and specificity are required.

Working with residents provides priorities, based on lived experience and realities. Using the existing small area plan templates, built around community engagement, we can narrow the ‘give-me’ list to ensure maximum benefit and clarity.

Finally, we cannot have these plans exist in isolation. We need to weave them together with an overarching, forward-looking vision: a true master plan for Alexandria.

If we are going to get specific, we need our current and future needs in their entirety at a single glance. Knitting together small area plans does not address the need for interconnectivity, infrastructure, corridors of common interest and tourist opportunities.

We need to stand over the city and decide what goes where: schools, public safety assets, housing types and how best to move people, stormwater and traffic. A master plan is not stacking small area plans together; it’s the thread that binds them into a vision.

To do this right, we need to engage all Alexandrians and be receptive to feedback. We need to have a holistic conversation about all the issues, solutions and the realities of implementation.

While our city might not have Biles’ balance or poise, we must better listen to the lived experience of residents to balance developers’ desires and neighbors’ dreams.

-James Lewis, Alexandria