By Bill Rossello
Mayor Justin Wilson and a few other elected officials are responding to a flood of constituent letters from longtime residents opposing Zoning for Housing with the trite and dismissive statement, “We should not delay for the sake of delay.”
It reflects a specious argument for moving full speed ahead to the scheduled November 28 City Council vote without any semblance of community consensus.
For many longtime residents, it seems like the city is rushing for the sake of rushing. But this difference in perspective reveals something else: an apparent contempt for longtime residents.
Witness the comments made at the recent Planning Commission public hearing. Of the speakers favoring the proposals, nine represented special interests and a number of others are young adult newcomers to the city. None spoke of their long experience in the city, but rather to their activist causes, or selfishly to what they want from the city. As if the rest of us owe them something.
Their comments were high on rhetoric and low on local insight, including these directed at longtime residents: “change is inevitable,” “we should welcome new neighbors,” “we need to do our part for the region,” “we need to address past racism that still exists” and even “love thy neighbor.”
Yet no one has seen more societal change in their lifetimes than our more tenured residents.
They have welcomed new neighbors for decades with open arms. With their support, Alexandria has done more for the region’s lower income residents than any other Northern Virginia jurisdiction continuously since the 1970s.
They have supported increased diversity in all of our neighborhoods and our public schools. And they have been the stalwarts of city boards and local charities that do the most for lower income residents.
Seemingly discounted in both Council responses and the Planning Commission hearing is the voice of the longtime resident. Years ago, I noticed that most public hearing speakers introduced themselves with their name and the number of years they had lived here. It seemed like an odd custom, but it mattered to city officials.
Officials then – and really up to about five years ago – knew that longtime residents were truly committed to this city. When they stated their “number,” they were essentially saying, “I’ve lived here a long time, so I’m all in. I care deeply, and I’m not going anywhere.”
Officials knew what they would hear next: a perspective on the issue that few if any newcomers could offer.
Still today, the longtime resident can be counted on to bring that wisdom and insight. Contrast the comments of the cause-driven advocates to what most of the longtime residents had to say. A veteran of city housing boards for many years spoke to changes in things like setbacks and floor area ratios and called out city officials for saying their “modest” changes are actually “sweeping.” She would know.
A 22-year veteran of the Planning Commission and former chairman pointed out what should be obvious, that one of the most drastic changes in the proposals is really about “eliminating single family neighborhoods” and that the whole package of proposals “would do nothing to address affordability.” He would know.
Those comments came from a place of experience and true insight. Yet, they fell mostly on deaf ears as the commission voted overwhelmingly to recommend the package to City Council.
Contempt for the longtime resident seems endemic among our officials and some younger newcomers who don’t consistently live the saying “love thy neighbor.”
So as city officials work to justify largely ill-advised giveaways to developers and commit to overpopulating this already very dense city, the longtime resident is left to wonder how we got here. How did disrespect of those most committed to Alexandria replace valuing their wisdom and insight?
Perhaps the newcomers who spoke at the planning commission hearing can enlighten us all on that.
The writer is a civic advocate, management consultant and longtime Alexandria resident.