Mayoral candidates face off during virtual debate

Mayoral candidates face off during virtual debate
Former Mayor Allison Silberberg and Mayor Justin Wilson go head-to-head during the ADC's first virtual mayoral debate.

By Olivia Anderson |

With less than one month to go until the June 8 Democratic primary, Mayor Justin Wilson and former Mayor Allison Silberberg sparred on Saturday during a virtual debate hosted by the Alexandria Democratic Committee.

The debate, which was moderated by Washington Post regional correspondent Robert McCartney, consisted of two-minute opening and closing statements from each candidate along with audience questions that were chosen from more than 125 questions submitted. The candidates tackled issues ranging from housing co-location to flooding in an hourlong, rapid-fire question and answer format.

The debate highlighted the candidates’ widely known differences in their approach to leadership, but it also shed light on several stances the two share.

When McCartney asked Wilson, who generally favors development, if growth would run the risk of ending the town’s “small-town feel,” Wilson pointed to the fact that throughout his decade on council he’s built coalitions that have increased the money going to school facilities. He also said that the current growth is located near transit infrastructure.

“It is matching our transportation infrastructure with our growth and matching our infrastructure investment with that development – that’s been my focus,” Wilson said.

Silberberg, on the other hand, has historically been more measured in her approach to development. In response to McCartney’s question about the importance of ensuring adequate development to support affordable housing, Silberberg said she supports “smart growth.”

“What that means, really, is that you don’t have unabashed, out-of-scale overbuilding on every square inch; that you do keep some open space which helps with flooding; you do make sure infrastructure is in place,” Silberberg said, adding that the recently approved Heritage development is not in fact located near transit.

Specifically, Silberberg stated she stood in opposition to the Newport Village development on the West End, while Wilson said he supports it, citing the need to preserve market rate affordability.

Silberberg and Wilson agreed, however, on actively taking steps to prevent displacement in Chirilagua and Arlandria to ensure both neighborhoods, which have historically been home to strong Hispanic communities, have a future in Alexandria.

They also agreed on their opposition to the co-location of housing on school property, pointing to issues such as capacity.

On the topic of accessory dwelling units, Silberberg said she opposed the policy, while Wilson voted in support of council’s ordinance earlier this year.

The amendment, which council approved on Jan. 23, defined ADUs, units and spaces already located on residential properties that are repurposed as living quarters, in code. Under the new policy, internal units, such as basements, or exterior units, such as sheds, with a bathroom, kitchen and sleeping area can be rented out by the property owner. The property owner is required to occupy the property on which the ADU is being built at the time of construction.

According to Wilson, who voted in favor of the policy, the purpose of this change was to expand housing affordability as well as assist seniors and people with disabilities to safely age or live in place by creating living spaces near their caregivers or relatives.

“It was a way to balance that soft density in our neighborhoods,” Wilson said. “… It’s a great opportunity to help accommodate folks in their community [for] aging in place.”

“It’s going to increase density in neighborhoods that are already pretty densely populated,” Silberberg countered. “I don’t think this will move the needle on affordable housing.”

As with the virtual City Council candidate debate that took place on May 4, the hot-button Seminary Road decision reared its head during the mayoral debate. Silberberg, who has been vocal about her opposition to council’s decision to reduce a 0.9-mile stretch of roadway from four to two through lanes with a center turning lane, while adding bicycle lanes, said she would use city funds to restore the road to four lanes. Silberberg contended that the root issue is that Seminary Road is the main arterial road that leads to the city’s only hospital.

“Thirteen civic associations from all across the city … came together to say to the mayor and city council and city staff, ‘Don’t do this.’ It was not widely supported; it was widely condemned,” Silberberg said. “ … [Wilson] didn’t listen. He was very dismissive.”

Wilson, who voted in favor of the road diet, said that his primary focus on Seminary Road was improving the road’s lack of a sidewalk on the westbound side.

“A lot of our residents not having a sidewalk is crazy,” Wilson said. “To spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to pull out sidewalks and pedestrian crossings that have made that street safer – that’s a reckless expenditure of money.”

As a rebuttal, Silberberg claimed that adding side walks “wasn’t the thrust” of narrowing Seminary Road.

Both Silberberg and Wilson agreed that council must immediately press the gas pedal to pursue flood mitigation, with Wilson noting that he voted in 2016 to create the stormwater utility fee and a few weeks ago to double that fee to help the city fund significant infrastructure projects over the next 10 years.

Silberberg pointed out that three major flooding events occurred before council created a task force to target the issue.

“That’s not very proactive, frankly,” Silberberg said.

As for the divisive proposed stream restoration at Taylor Run, which was recently paused by council, Silberberg said she’s for saving the existing forest and therefore opposes the plan.

“I stand with the environmentalists and the scientists. I listen to the residents and the civic associations – I am firmly against the plan. There are alternatives,” Silberberg said.

The former mayor added that, contrary to the city’s chosen method of pursuing state grants that are dependent on water quality and pollutant assessments, Taylor Run contains negligible amounts of phosphorous.

Wilson said he’s willing to consider alternatives with the city’s Environmental Policy Commission. He also said the city will take local pollution measurements, going “farther” than what federal and state law requires.

“[We’ll] look at the alternatives that are available and determine if there are environmentally conscious alternatives that are affordable and that ultimately won’t affect some of our flooding projects that are funded out of the same revenue stream,” Wilson said.

When it came to the topic of relieving school crowding, Silberberg emphasized that during her mayoral term council approved and built Patrick Henry and Ferdinand T. Day elementary schools.

“We need all our land of our schools to help educate our kids … but the idea of housing on school land is not what I would do. As far as density goes, we have to plan. We can’t just say we’re going to pass every development deal and then not put forward a plan with regard to schools and infrastructure,” Silberberg said.

This time, Wilson called out Silberberg for having voted against the city’s past capital investment plan.

“Unfortunately, while the former mayor talked about the schools that were approved during the previous council, she did not mention that she actually voted against the largest ever capital investment in our schools and opposed that effort,” Wilson said. “The fact that we’re having a conversation about [Douglas] MacArthur [and] George Mason is because the council prevailed over, unfortunately, former Mayor Silberberg’s vote ‘no.’”

Silberberg countered that her lone dissenting vote was directed against “the largest tax hike in the history of our city,” of which she was referring to the 5.7-cent property tax increase that passed in 2017 as part of council’s approval of a $728 million general fund budget.

The two candidates also briefly discussed improving the city’s broadband services, the budget deficit, the city’s pandemic response and collective bargaining.

In their closing statements, Silberberg emphasized ethics while contrasting her mayoral record with that of her opponent, while Wilson opted to direct attention toward his accomplishments.

“While my opponent and I both served as mayor, our records and our ethics speak for themselves,” Silberberg said. “You have a choice to make. I’m the mayor you can trust. I’m not going to say one thing and do another.”

“As we come out of this pandemic, my focus is trying to address some of these inequities, be that educational attainment, wealth attainment, public health and really make sure Alexandria is a more equitable, prosperous community,” Wilson said in his closing statement.

The full mayoral debate can be found at alexdems. org/elections.