By Bill Rossello
At a recent city meeting, a fellow civic advocate was approached by a long-time city employee. It was an unusual conversation between someone charged with enacting city
policies and someone who often is working on the other side on behalf of uninformed residents. The employee admitted that city staff were exhausted from both the volume of initiatives and the City Council’s schedule for enacting them. While a remarkably candid statement, it is not all that surprising given all the new transformational initiatives under way.
Perhaps most prominent among them is City Council’s “Zoning for Housing” initiative. There is no successful precedent anywhere in the United States for what the mayor has called “the most ambitious housing reform in our history.”
Few in the city seem to like the idea except local developers and a few activists. Yet, it’s full speed ahead on overhauling the entire city zoning code. That will include raising the limitations on building height across the city and allowing for construction of apartment buildings in single-family neighborhoods. Council plans to vote on the code changes by December, right around the holidays.
Then there is “Duke Street in Motion,” a cute name for the initiative that will fundamentally transform the city’s major east-west corridor. Staff have been distracted for the past year on this seemingly unneeded $87-million project. It aims to reduce peak-hour bus travel time by several minutes for some 1,500 regular riders.
The city’s preferred design calls for bus lanes down the center of Duke Street, reducing left-hand turn options and increasing travel time for tens of thousands of drivers. It’s a huge project that will disrupt the corridor seemingly to accommodate much denser development. The vote is scheduled for the week of July 4.
Just behind that will come the transformation of the Duke Street small area plans. The city intends to allow developers to build much taller apartment buildings to replace older commercial and residential properties. Meanwhile, the city is driving changes to the Beauregard small area plan, promising a similar transformation to that corridor.
There’s even more.
The city’s mortgage banking and real estate company – er, housing department – is driving a number of new projects, including the 474- unit affordable housing complex at West Glebe Road and Mt. Vernon Avenue. And then there’s the massive Landmark redevelopment project, the Virginia Tech campus and several major Old Town development projects. Also in Old Town, there’s the city-supported effort to reprise the Business Improvement District concept that was soundly rejected by the community just a few years ago.
All of this is happening during yet another busy budget season. No wonder city staff are feeling stressed. While empathy for them may be in order, the question is this: If they can’t keep up with council’s transformation of the city, how can civic leaders, much less residents? It’s a lot to digest all at once and it doesn’t help that City Council schedules votes on some of the most controversial issues around holiday weeks.
So, what’s the rush?
Burning out staff while driving an ever-increasing credibility gap with residents does not seem to be a recipe for success. We know there’s an election next year, but major policy initiatives have a greater potential for success when residents have sufficient time to digest them and participate meaningfully in the process. Reflecting the growing city-wide unease with the accelerated pace of change, the Del Ray Civic Association voted last week to ask City Council to delay its Zoning for Housing decisions.
Hey, city hall: For everyone’s sake, slow down!
The writer is a civic advocate, management consultant and longtime Alexandria resident.